NEW YORK — As Baylor’s elder statesman, senior guard A.J. Walton has played on two Elite Eight teams and has been part of 97 wins.
But he has never won a championship ring.
Walton and his teammates can change that Thursday by beating Iowa in the NIT championship game at 8 p.m. at Madison Square Garden.
“Two Elite Eights, and we haven’t been able to bring any hardware or cut down any nets,” Walton said. “So if we get to win this and finally get something in our trophy case, it will say a lot about us and about our journey.”
The Bears understand this is a rare shot for a championship since they’ve never won a NIT or NCAA title. In 2009, the Bears reached the NIT championship game where they dropped a 69-63 decision to Penn State. In 1948, Baylor lost to Kentucky in the NCAA tournament title game.
While Kansas won the 2008 NCAA tournament, the Big 12 has never had a NIT champion.
“This is crazy impor
tant,” Baylor freshman center Isaiah Austin said. “These are memories that my brothers and I are never going to forget for the rest of our lives. We share this together, so we want to win this. The Big 12 has never had anybody win (the NIT), so we’re going to try to win it.”
After four NIT wins, the Bears (22-14) will ride into the championship game with a ton of confidence. With Pierre Jackson collecting 24 points and 10 assists, the Bears held off a late BYU charge to pull of a 76-70 win in Tuesday night’s semifinals.
Jackson is playing his best basketball of the season with 70 points and 39 assists in Baylor’s last three wins over Arizona State, Providence and BYU. For the season, he’s averaging 19.9 points and seven assists.
“You don’t see those kind of staggering numbers,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “He’s got a 3-point shooting ability and a pull-up game. I think the thing that impresses me the most is how quickly he gets rid of the ball when he’s in transition. Pierre is as good as any guard we’ve seen all year, and they’ve obviously got a lot of other weapons as well.”
Jackson has had plenty of help from his teammates, especially Cory Jefferson, who is averaging 20.7 points while shooting 71.7 percent from the field in NIT play. Austin delivered 14 points and 10 rebounds against BYU, while Walton scored 10 points and displayed fiery leadership.
The Bears will likely need to be on top of their game against an Iowa team that has won 11 of its last 14 and has won all four NIT games by double digits. The Hawkeyes (25-12) reached the championship game with an impressive 71-60 win over Maryland in Tuesday night’s semifinals.
The Hawkeyes’ calling card has been a lockdown defense that has held opponents to a 38.9 shooting percentage and a 29.5 3-point percentage. With 7-1 freshman center Adam Woodbury patroling the middle, Iowa has won the battle of the boards by nearly five per game.
“The defense has been the key to our team this year without question,” McCaffery said. “I think one of the things that’s helped is we’re substantially deeper, so I’m able to rotate guys and have fresher bodies out there. It has been a committed effort across the board in the post, on the perimeter and at the point of attack.”
Much like Jackson for the Bears, guard Roy Devyn Marble has been a tremendous leader for the Hawkeyes. In the four NIT wins, he’s averaged 24.3 points and 4.7 assists and guided Iowa to the win over Maryland with 21 points and nine rebounds.
Marble is averaging 15.2 points and three assists for the season while forward Aaron White is averaging 12.9 points and 6.2 rebounds. Nobody else is scoring in double figures, but they all play physical basketball with a defensive mindset.
“Defensively they’re as good as anyone we’ve played, and we’ve played some great ones,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “They’re very physical and contest shots and make sure teams don’t get easy buckets.”
To beat Iowa, Baylor will likely need another lights-out performance from Jackson in the final game of his college career.
“He’s definitely the straw that stirs our drink,” Drew said. “He’s been phenomenal especially at the end of the season when point guard play is so important. When you’re talking about the best point guards in the country, he has to be in that mix.”
BAYLOR vs. IOWA
Event: NIT championship game
Tipoff: 8 p.m. Central, Madison Square Garden in New York
Radio: 1660 AM
Records: BU 22-14, Iowa 25-12
Series: Iowa leads 1-0
Last meeting: Iowa 67-44, Dec. 2, 1983 in Iowa City