LAWRENCE, Kan. — Following its third straight Big 12 loss, Baylor will likely tumble out of the Top 25 in next week’s polls.
That’s quite a fall for a team that was ranked No. 7 in the country a couple of weeks ago after going 12-1 in nonconference play.
But there was a different tone following the No. 24 Bears’ 78-68 loss to No. 8 Kansas on Monday night at Allen Fieldhouse.
Baylor coach Scott Drew and his players didn’t seem nearly as gloomy as in preceding losses to Texas Tech on the road and Oklahoma at the Ferrell Center. There was a sense of optimism because the Bears gave a great effort against the ultra-talented Jayhawks at one of the hardest places to win in the country.
“At the end of the day, losing is tough,” Drew said. “But I’m proud of our effort. We will work to keep getting better. It’s the No. 1-ranked conference in the country, so it’s a grind. We’re five games into it and we’re on the upward swing, so hopefully we can keep that going.”
Most coaches who are 1-4 in conference play wouldn’t say they’re on the upward swing. But after coming out playing poorly at Texas Tech and finishing badly against Oklahoma, Drew saw a lot of encouraging signs against the Big 12-leading Jayhawks.
With Kansas’ 16,300 frenetic fans hovering around the court, the Bears weren’t timid at all. They opened the game attacking the basket and played aggressive basketball. Though the Bears weren’t highly successful going to the rim against Kansas big men Joel Embiid and Perry Ellis, they made a statement that they weren’t backing down.
With a lot of the driving lanes shut down, the Bears started burning up the nets from the perimeter. The Bears buried eight of 10 3-pointers in the first half as Brady Heslip drained four and big men Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin drilled two apiece.
By halftime, the powerful Jayhawks were fortunate to hold a 37-35 lead. The game remained tightly contested throughout the early minutes of the second half until the Jayhawks went on a 14-2 run to open up a 60-46 lead with eight minutes remaining.
At a place like Allen Fieldhouse against a team as good as Kansas, those kind of runs are almost impossible to make up. The Bears had too many turnovers during that stretch and went cold from 3-point land.
Kansas guard Wayne Selden made the play of the night when he dived several rows into the stands to save a loose ball and somehow rifle it to Embiid for a basket. Though replays showed Selden stepped out of bounds while going for the save, the inspired play pushed the decibels at Allen Fieldhouse off the charts and kept Kansas’ momentum rolling.
“That was a great play for him, and he deserved it because he hustled,” Heslip said. “We had a couple of careless plays. and they’re so good in transition. Fans get into it and they got up by 10, and it was hard to come back.”
Heslip finished the night with six 3-pointers and 19 points while Jefferson and Austin scored 16 points apiece and helped the Bears stay competitive on the boards. Hitting 13 of 27 3-pointers, the Bears made more treys than 2-pointers as they hit just 10 shots inside the arc.
For the second straight game, Baylor was woeful from the free throw line as it hit just nine of 20. That kind of performance can kill you against an elite team when there is so little margin for error. Baylor’s 16 turnovers were also too many to overcome.
Now the Bears will play their next two games at home against Texas on Saturday and West Virginia next Tuesday. Winning both games is critical for the Bears’ NCAA tournament hopes because they’ll face another grueling stretch with road trips to Oklahoma State and Oklahoma and a home game against the Jayhawks.
With their three-game losing streak, the Bears have dug themselves into a hole. But the good thing about an 18-game double round-robin Big 12 schedule is there is time to make up for early losses.
A .500 Big 12 record wasn’t good enough for the Bears to make last year’s NCAA tournament. But since the Big 12 is the No. 1-ranked conference, Baylor would likely have a shot to make the NCAA tournament with a 9-9 Big 12 record since it won big nonconference games over teams like Kentucky and Colorado.
The Bears have certainly taken some shots to the gut to open Big 12 play. But if they keep playing with the effort they showed against Kansas, the wins will start coming and a NCAA tournament berth might come into sharper focus.