It’s only the Big 12’s first full week of conference play, but without a runaway favorite and as many as six teams with hopes to win the conference, nearly every Big 12 game is going to have an impact. Tonight’s headliner pits Baylor against Kansas at the Ferrell Center in Waco. The Jayhawks were the last team to beat the Bears at home nearly a year ago (February 4, 2014), so Baylor is looking to avoid a repeat performance. In this preview, Brian Goodman breaks down the elements most likely to decide the outcome of tonight’s important battle.
- Kansas’ lineups and rotations. Over the last five games, the lineup of Frank Mason, Wayne Selden, Kelly Oubre, Perry Ellis and Cliff Alexander has been the Jayhawks’ most effective one, but it hasn’t been the one Bill Self has most frequently deployed. Rather, Self has preferred a lineup with Jamari Traylor taking Alexander’s place, despite being an average rebounder and mediocre finisher (shooting just 41.5 percent from the floor). Thanks to his athleticism, Traylor can be an effective energy guy in spurts, but the Jayhawks have been at their best with the more efficient Alexander manning the paint alongside Ellis. This was the case during Kansas’ game-finishing run to put UNLV away on Sunday.
- Baylor’s bruisers. It’s no surprise that the Bears rank fourth nationally in offensive rebounding rate, corralling 43.7 percent of their misses on the season. That consistency is due in large part to the effort of Rico Gathers, who grabbed 15 rebounds over 39 minutes in Baylor’s two meetings against Kansas last season, and makes it easy for Baylor to generate offense despite suspect interior shooting. The Jayhawks had trouble creating separation against UNLV’s athletic core of big men until the last 10 minutes of Sunday’s contest and will struggle to leave Waco with a win if Gathers and freshman Johnathan Motley deprive Alexander, Ellis and Traylor of those opportunities.
- The battle of perimeter attacks. Sharpshooter Brady Heslip isn’t around to haunt Big 12 teams anymore, but the Bears still have some serious long-range bombers on their roster. Scott Drew’s rotation currently features five players who shoot at least 34 percent or better from beyond the arc, led by a 53.8 percent clip from Taurean Prince, perhaps the conference’s most improved player. On the other end of the floor, Kansas’ shooters have been streaky. One of the main reasons why Frank Mason has been such a huge asset this season has been his 51.4 percent three-point shooting, forcing defenses to guard him and in turn opening passing lanes. Kelly Oubre‘s smooth shot (48.1%) has been effective as well, and after a disappointing start to the season, Wayne Selden has embraced his role as a shooter (36.7%) who will occasionally attack off the bounce. Despite all of that shooting firepower, one of the things keeping Kansas’ offense from higher productivity has been a relative team-wide passivity from distance. The Jayhawks are the best three-point shooting team in the conference at 39.2 percent, but they take only 29 percent of their shots from beyond the arc, a level of frequency that ranks a dispiriting ninth in the Big 12 (and 292nd in the country). It therefore stands to reason that Kansas would benefit from centering its offensive attack on perimeter shooting rather than depending on Ellis and Alexander to generate most of the offense inside.