Night Line: Baylor Becoming a Complete, Elite Team Before Our EyesPosted by EJacoby on January 11th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is an RTC columnist and contributor. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.
When Kansas State walloped previously undefeated Missouri last weekend, it looked like the Big 12 was shaping up as a jumbled mess of strong teams, without a clear favorite. K-State had a chance to stake its own claim atop the conference ladder with another home game on Tuesday night, but the Baylor Bears came through Bramlage Coliseum and had other ideas. Baylor remained undefeated by surviving the road test, 75-73, and in the process perhaps established itself as one of the top teams in the country and clear Big 12 front-runners. At 16-0 with several good road wins (BYU, Northwestern, and now K-State), neutral court victories (St. Mary’s, West Virginia), and the talent to match any team in the country, Baylor needs to be considered an elite team along with the likes of Syracuse and Kentucky.
We’ve all known that Baylor has some of the best athletes in college basketball, led by the talented underclassmen forward combination of Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller. Jones (13.4 PPG), Miller (11.1 PPG), and senior leader Quincy Acy (12.1 PPG) have all performed admirably offensively this season to match their expected high-level contributions on the defensive end. But the emergence of point guard Pierre Jackson has completely changed the look of Scott Drew’s team. Jackson, who is still not in the starting lineup, came off the bench and recorded a double-double in Tuesday’s win over Kansas State, going for 10 points and 11 assists in 33 minutes, while also chipping in five boards and two steals. Jackson was playing at the junior college level last year, and the transfer is now on the Bob Cousy Award list as one of the 20 best points guards in America. While not the greatest ball-handler or passer in the traditional sense, he’s become the strong guard that the Bears lacked last season and most pundits feared they would again this year. Jackson upped his season averages to 11.9 PPG, 4.9 APG, 3.0 RPG, 1.8 SPG, and 51% field goal shooting after the crucial win on Tuesday. With depth in both the frontcourt and backcourt as well, Baylor has become a complete team right before our eyes.
What makes Drew’s team so hard to beat is its size in the frontcourt, which makes it difficult for opponents to score near the rim and leads to easy shot opportunities on the other end. Their offensive field goal percentage of 48.7% ranks 19th in the nation, and their defensive FG% (37.1%) is among the top 10 in the country. The Bears were unable to establish such a large gap in shooting percentage on the road, but they locked down defensively when it mattered most. In the final five minutes of the game, Kansas State shot just 1-3 from the field with four turnovers. And on its final defensive possession of the game, with K-State down by two and with the ball, the Wildcats were unable to get a shot off when their lob pass at the rim was easily knocked away by Acy. Jones, Miller, and Acy combined for 39 points on an outstanding 18-24 shooting from the floor, and starting guards A.J. Walton (eight points and six assists) and Brady Heslip (13 points and four steals) made some big plays as well. You never know who is going to step up for Baylor at what time, and nearly everyone on the team this season seems confident enough to make plays.
The hard-fought victory in Bramlage Coliseum on Tuesday night was a sign of Baylor becoming an elite team, but the key now will be how the Bears are able to handle success. There’s no time to celebrate, as Baylor will have to endure the most challenging section of their schedule next week. First is a massive road test on Big Monday at Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse, followed by a home game against Missouri next Saturday. We’re certainly not expecting Baylor to run the table, and a split next week seems entirely reasonable. These remaining difficult games will help shape Baylor into a truly elite team in March as long as they stay competitive. If some were skeptical of BU for not playing a tough enough schedule in the non-conference slate, there’s no way the same can be said about the Bears’ conference schedule.
The issue with this team always seems to be a perceived inability to play to its highest potential as a collective unit. You don’t have to go back very far to find a recent under-performing Baylor team. The Bears did not even make the NCAA Tournament team last season despite possessing some of the better all-around talent in the Big 12. It looks like Drew is getting the most out of his talented bunch, and with so many versatile weapons on the roster they’re a matchup nightmare for opposing coaches. When they don’t beat themselves, Baylor just might be able to beat anybody else. The Bears will be monitored closely as the Big 12 schedule continues, and it’ll be interesting to learn if they can handle the spotlight this season just as well as they’ve handled the shadows.