Baylor coach Scott Drew has always seen the Big 12/SEC Challenge as a unique opportunity to showcase the strength of his league and improve the Bears’ NCAA tournament resume.
With a No. 98 RPI, the Bears need to knock off some Top 25 teams the remainder of the season to have a shot to make their fifth straight NCAA tournament.
Beating No. 20 Florida at 11 a.m. Saturday in Gainesville would be a major first step.
The Bears hope to stay unbeaten in the Big 12/SEC Challenge after going 4-0 in the previous four years with wins over Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Georgia and Mississippi.
“I think the big thing is our guys in the past have known that we represent the conference,” Drew said. “And why we did well in the Pac 12/Big 12 Challenge before that is because it’s important to represent the conference and give everything we’ve got. So far, the conference has been able to count on us, and hopefully that continues through Saturday.”
Both the Bears and Gators made it to Madison Square Garden last year in the NCAA tournament where their seasons ended with losses to South Carolina. The Gamecocks romped to a 70-50 win over the Bears in the Sweet 16 before they took a 77-70 decision over the Gators in the Elite Eight.
While Baylor (12-8) is tied for last in the Big 12 with a 2-6 record, Florida (14-6) sits a half-game behind SEC-leading Auburn with a 6-2 record.
The Gators feature a guard-oriented offense that has averaged a prolific 80.7 points per game. Jalen Hudson is averaging a team-leading 16.5 points while hitting 50 3-pointers. Egor Koulechov is averaging 14.5 points and a team-high 7.2 rebounds while nailing 40 3-pointers. Chris Chiozza is averaging 12.2 points and a team-high 6.2 assists while KeVaughn Allen is averaging 11.5 points.
Koulechov, Chiozza and Allen are all shooting 90 percent or better at the free throw line, which has helped the Gators finish off wins.
“Florida is tremendous in transition,” Drew said. “They’ve got four guards that get out and they all shoot the 3. They’re the best 3-point shooting team in the SEC at 38 percent. So you’ve got to stop transition, stop those 3’s. They’re going to shoot it but hopefully we can contest them and they miss them. “
Baylor should have an edge inside with 7-0 center Jo Lual-Acuil and 6-9 forward Tristan Clark in the starting lineup and 6-8 forward Terry Maston coming off the bench.
Florida’s top players in the paint are 6-9 forward Kevarrius Hayes who is averaging 5.4 points and 5.5 rebounds and 6-8 forward Keith Stone who is averaging 8.1 points and 3.9 rebounds.
To have a shot to beat the Gators, the Bears can’t afford another lackluster effort like they had Monday against Kansas State at the Ferrell Center. The Wildcats roared to a 29-13 lead in the opening 12 minutes and the Bears never recovered as they dropped a 90-83 decision.
After the game, the Bears had a lengthy team meeting to clear the air, and responded with some inspired practices this week.
“We came together and everybody said they were bought in,” said Baylor guard King McClure. “We’re a team first and you’ve got to put away your selfish pride and come together and win some games. That’s the biggest thing. All the talking is good but we’ve got to do what we’re supposed to do.”
After playing strong defense through the first seven Big 12 games, the Bears allowed Kansas State to shoot 57 percent. It didn’t matter whether the Bears played man-to-man or zone defense, the Wildcats found ways to burn them.
“That was definitely the most frustrating thing about the whole game is we came out with a lack of energy,” McClure said. “Kansas State is a good team but for us to come out the way we did was unacceptable. We talked to the coaches and they told us, they were on us heavy after the game, we did a poor job of coming out and having energy. It wasn’t even like scheme or anything, it was just effort. We did a bad job with that, so we definitely have to change that.”
Even with their 83-point performance against the Wildcats, the Bears rank last in the Big 12 with 68.1 points per game and are ninth in the league with a 41.4 shooting percentage in conference play.
Much of the pressure has been on point guard Manu Lecomte, who is averaging 14.1 points in the Big 12 but is shooting just 33.3 percent. The Bears finally got some more balanced scoring against the Wildcats as they placed six players in double figures, and will likely need production from a lot of places against the high-scoring Gators.
The only time Baylor and Florida have played was in 1981 when the Bears took a 72-71 win at the Cabrillo Classic in San Diego. Stepping out of conference, the Bears hope their lack of familiarity with the Gators will work in their favor and result in another win in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
“I think the first thing that comes out is that it’s new,” Drew said. “And anything that’s new and different is exciting. The second thing is everyone in conference knows every play you run. You call it, they tell you where to go, and they have you scouted. It’s nice to play against people that don’t know all that.”