Baylor’s National Perception Depends on Performance at Gonzaga TonightPosted by dnspewak on December 28th, 2012
Baylor and Scott Drew are all about perception. They always have been, and fair or not, they always will be. Drew has reached the Elite Eight twice in the last three seasons, and yet not a soul in the college basketball community trusts his program. The Bears returned the league’s best player in Pierre Jackson, added a few studs in the frontcourt and began the season ranked in the Top 25, but that perception lingered. It’s the perception that Drew can assemble all the individual talent he wants and still never come close to reaching expectations or challenging Kansas for the Big 12 title. It’s the perception that no matter how many games he wins in the decade after an infamous murder scandal and no matter how many five-star prospects he recruits to Waco, it just won’t ever be good enough. And when the Bears dropped early games to Colorado, Charleston and Northwestern in the first month of the 2012-13 season, the cynical talk began.
The talk stopped momentarily when Baylor knocked off Kentucky at Rupp Arena and regrouped with a home victory over BYU. After a fairly horrendous start against the Cougars, the Bears surged near the end of the first half and ran away with a game that started to build this team’s identity. Cory Jefferson’s 16 rebounds were a huge part of that identity, and say what you will about Kentucky, but that victory helped, too. Still, the Bears aren’t finished building yet, and Baylor has a point to prove on Friday night at Gonzaga. Is this the team with such a ridiculously disruptive zone that caused Kentucky to shoot 30 percent from the field on its home court? The team that has Isaiah Austin going off for 13 points and 13 rebounds against St. John’s, and 23 and 17 against Lamar? Or is this the team that let Northwestern and Charleston outrebound it?
Drew and his Bears have a chance to put those questions to rest when they head to the Great Northwest in that pit of an arena up in Spokane. The Bulldogs aren’t invincible at The Kennel — Illinois proved that earlier this year — but they’re pretty darn close most of the time. A road win here could propel the Bears toward the top of the Big 12 as league play begins. A loss could signal a return of those demons inside the heads of every Baylor player and coach. You know, the ones that say: You’re no Kansas. You’re Baylor. There’s that perception again.
The issues in Baylor’s losses have been collective. Sure, you can point to individual problems, like Pierre Jackson’s 1-of-8 performance from beyond the arc against Northwestern and Austin’s disappearance in that game. Truthfully, though, it’s all about team consistency for the Bears at this point. It’s not rocket science. When Drew pushes the right buttons to get consistent effort from every player on the roster, the team plays as flawlessly as it did against Kentucky or for the final 30 minutes or so against BYU. Boy, has Cory Jefferson been good in a few of Baylor’s victories. He already has three double-doubles this year and recorded at least 13 rebounds in all of those contests. The winning Baylor teams fight their way to victory with performances like Jefferson’s, the kind of fight that was nowhere to be seen in the Bears’ three losses.
There’s no telling how the Bears will respond to the Zags’ fiery frontline, led by two international big men, star Elias Harris and 255-pound Sam Dower. If Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson take a never-say-die attitude up to Spokane and bruise their way to a road win, the Bears can fly high into Big 12 play. There’s no such thing as a make-or-break game in non-conference play, but the nation is about to find out what Baylor is made of tonight. We think we’ve seen flashes of it, but now we’re ready to see the real deal.