Baylor is a month away from the start of Big 12 play, but how it performs against the top nonconference opponents will go a long way in determining the direction of the season.
The No. 16 Bears will play their first true road game against No. 21 Xavier at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Cintas Center in Cincinnati. A win would boost Baylor’s RPI and pay dividends the rest of the year.
“The great thing about this is it prepares you for the Big 12 because they’ll have a great crowd and it will be a hostile environment,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “They’re a Top 25 team and they should have a great year the rest of the year as well. These games are huge for the end of the season from the standpoint that they could give you some quality wins.”
The Bears (5-0) already have a pair of big wins on their resume after beating Wisconsin and No. 25 Creighton last week in the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City. Though the games were played on a neutral court at the Sprint Center, the matchup against Creighton felt like a road game since a lot of the Omaha-based school’s fans made the trip.
Baylor junior guard Jake Lindsey believes the atmosphere in Kansas City helped prepare true freshman Tristan Clark and redshirt freshman Mark Vital for dealing with road crowds.
“For the young guys, Tristan and Mark, it helped playing in that kind of environment where it wasn’t counted as a road game but it was 95 percent Creighton fans,” Lindsey said. “It was good for us to go through a little adversity. Obviously, a true road game at a place like Xavier will show them like OK this is what it’s going to be like every night on the road.”
After winning its first five games, Xavier dropped a 102-86 decision to No. 20 Arizona State in the second game of the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational last Friday. Like Baylor, the Musketeers have beaten Wisconsin when they took an 80-70 decision on the road in Madison on Nov. 16.
The Musketeers feature a pair of premier senior guards in Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura. Bluiett is scoring a team-high 21.6 points per game while averaging 6.2 rebounds and shooting 51.6 percent from 3-point range. Macura is averaging 13.8 points and five rebounds while shooting 61.4 percent from the field.
Tyrique Jones, a 6-9 sophomore forward, is averaging 11 points and a team-high 6.8 rebounds while 6-8 junior forward Kaiser Gates is averaging 10 points and 4.5 rebounds.
In Baylor’s 76-61 win over Xavier last year at the Ferrell Center, Bluiett scored 23 points and the Musketeers held a 47-35 rebounding advantage. But Xavier couldn’t stop Baylor guard Manu Lecomte who hit six of nine 3-pointers and scored 24 points.
“Bluiett and Macura are two of the best players in the nation,” Drew said. “Both are extremely efficient and do it in a variety of way, and they set the tone. Inside they’re very physical. With 10 minutes to go (last season), we’re down one and we played a great last 10 minutes of the game. We need to do a better job on the glass and make sure we do a good job containing those guys.”
Lecomte leads the Bears with 19 points per game while shooting 43.2 percent from 3-point range. Center Jo Lual-Acuil is averaging 14 points and a team-high 11.2 rebounds while forward Terry Maston has come off the bench to average 11 points and 8.6 boards.
When Lecomte struggled against Creighton, King McClure scored a career-high 19 points to lead Baylor to a 65-59 win.
“We’re pretty resilient,” Lindsey said. “We’ve had a bad Manu game, a bad King game, a bad T.J. (Maston) game, a game where I go down with a leg (injury) or a game where I played bad,” Lindsey said. “We’re able just to find ways to win, and that’s a good quality to have. Obviously, you’d like to play well the whole game and win, but it’s nice to know guys are going to fight back when they’re not having their best night.”
This will be an important week since the Bears host No. 8 Wichita State on Saturday at the Ferrell Center. Since Baylor has just eight scholarship players available, its depth will be tested in each game.
“Typically, we’ve played with eight or nine guys since I’ve been here, so it’s not like you’re depleted,” Lindsey said. “You’ve just got to bring the energy when you’re out there. So it helps because you’re not maybe looking over your shoulder as much for some guys, but at the same time we have older guys who kind of know what they need to bring.”