Tradition-rich Iowa State is never easy to beat at any venue, but Baylor has managed to string together five straight wins in the series.
Two of those wins have come at Hilton Coliseum, a particularly tough place to play with one of the most passionate fan bases in the Big 12.The No. 9 Bears hope to keep their streak alive against the Cyclones at 3 p.m. Saturday when they play in Ames.
“We’ve been blessed, we’ve made some plays down the stretch,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “We’d love to make it six in a row but we know every Big 12 game usually comes down to a couple possessions. We’ve got to control everything we can control and try to limit their shooters, limit their transition, and do a great job of getting the ball inside and getting to the free throw line.”
While Kansas has clinched a share of its 13th straight Big 12 title with three regular season games remaining, Baylor, Iowa State and West Virginia are tied for second in the league with 10-5 records. They all know a strong finish in the Big 12 will translate into a better seed in the NCAA tournament.
“It’s very important, just because the higher the seed, the easier the route you’ve got going to the Sweet 16, Elite Eight and Final Four and things like that,” said Baylor forward Johnathan Motley. “Those are our goals, so we’re going to try to finish out this season as strong as possible so we can get as high a seed as possible and then make some things happen from there.”
The Bears (23-5) have already beaten the Cyclones (18-9) once this season when Manu Lecomte nailed a runner with 8.5 seconds remaining for a 65-63 win on Jan. 4 at the Ferrell Center.
But Iowa State is playing its best basketball of the season coming into Saturday’s game with five wins in the last six games, beginning with a 92-89 thriller over Kansas on Feb. 4 in Lawrence.
The Cyclones are one of the most explosive teams in the Big 12, and they’ve been particularly good down the stretch. The Bears understand they’re going to have to be much more productive offensively after shooting just 38.2 percent in Tuesday’s 60-54 win over Oklahoma at the Ferrell Center.
“You can’t score 50 or 60 and probably beat them,” Drew said. “Hopefully we can make some shots. We’ve got to make sure we take care of the ball and get shots up. Rebounding-wise we’ve got to be really good. The teams that have beaten them have done a good job on the glass against them.”
Rebounding was a key to the Bears’ first win over the Cyclones as they dominated the boards, 47-28. Motley pulled down 12 rebounds while Terry Maston snagged nine and Jo Lual-Acuil grabbed eight.
The Bears’ defense has been the best in the Big 12 all season, and the Cyclones saw why as they shot just 39.3 percent in the first game. Monte Morris, Iowa State’s superb point guard, hit just four of 18 shots. But Drew knows Morris doesn’t struggle very often as he’s averaging a team-high 16.3 points and leads the nation with 5.8 assist-to-one turnover ratio.
“His assist-to-turnover ratio is amazing, truly record setting,” Drew said. “Anybody who’s able to do what he’s done with the ball in his hands so much is really impressive. I’m looking forward to watching him in the NBA and not the Big 12.”
The Cyclones feature three other double-figure scorers, including Naz Mitrou-Long with a 15.9 average, Deonte Burton with a 13.9 average and Matt Thomas with an 11.9 average. They’re all big-time 3-point shooting threats, so the Bears have to pay a great deal of attention to the perimeter.
“First and foremost we’ve got to do a great job in transition defense,” Drew said. “They had close to 40 of their points in the first 10 seconds when we played in Waco. A lot of those transition baskets are 3’s, so you’ve got to find the shooters. It’s tough when they’re running to the 3-point line instead of running inside. Halfcourt you’ve got to stop their shooters as well.”
After facing the Cyclones, the Bears turn around quickly and host West Virginia at 6 p.m. Monday at the Ferrell Center. This is where the grind of the season kicks in, but Motley likes playing as many games as possible.
“I feel good, because playing games is the best part for me,” Motley said. “I look forward to it. As many games as we have, I love it. That’s just playing basketball, it’s fun. And if it’s not fun, then you usually don’t play as well.”