Posted by Ryan Clark at 4:50PM

[3] Texas Longhorns (23-9) vs. [7] Baylor Bears (23-10)
Sprint Center | Kansas City, MO | Tip: 8:30 CT
TV: Big 12 Network (Affiliate List) or ESPNU (in markets not served by Big 12 Network)
Vegas: Baylor -1.5 | Pomeroy: Baylor, 70-69 (52%)

The Texas Longhorns bounced back quickly from their loss to Texas Tech in the regular-season finale, racing out of the gate in a blowout of West Virginia last night in the Big 12 Championship quarterfinals. Texas sprinted to a 21-4 lead by the under-12 media timeout, stifling the Mountaineers at every turn. The game was never in doubt, as the Longhorns led by as many as 30 points midway through the second half. Texas ultimately advanced to the semifinals with a 66-49 victory, but the game was never actually that close.

The win sets up a third meeting with Baylor in the Big 12 tournament semis, the 13th time in the league’s 18-year existence that Texas has made it to this stage. Texas posted a season sweep of the Bears in their two previous meetings this year, but Baylor is on the upswing and finally looking like the team that people expected them to be back in October.

The Longhorns are projected anywhere from a No. 5 seed to a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament, depending on which bracket projections you prefer, but another Top 50 RPI win over Baylor would make it unlikely they would actually end up in a 7/10 game when the field is announced on Sunday. A win tonight would not only give Texas its seventh appearance in the Big 12 Championship final tomorrow, but could perhaps give the team enough of a push to even end up on the 5-seed line in next week’s tournament.

Keys to the game

1) Dictate the tempo – It’s much easier to force teams to play slower than it is to speed up the game. Although you can try to speed up a team with traps and extra ball pressure, the offense has 35 seconds to burn if it wants. If that same team has a good defense, particularly a zone, you also have to be patient to get a good look. The Bears have been that kind of stubborn team all season, with an average tempo of 62.8 possessions per game, the 24th-slowest pace out of 351 Division I teams.

Even though Texas won both games against the Bears this season, the importance of dictating the pace against Baylor is evident in the results. The Longhorns won fairly comfortably in the first meeting in Waco, a game in which the teams played 72 possessions. During a much tighter Texas victory in Austin, the two teams played just 58 possessions. The importance of getting out in transition and looking for opportunities in the secondary break is clear for Texas in tonight’s game.

Playing at a brisk pace is also important for the Longhorns when you consider fatigue and Baylor’s short bench. The Bears are playing their third game in three days, with their five starters all averaging 30 minutes in the two games. (Technically Isaiah Austin (No. 21) averaged 29.5 minutes in the two contests, but rounding is great when it supports your point.)

The Longhorns, meanwhile, took two days off from practice earlier this week and looked incredibly fresh to start last night’s game. With the result well in hand, the starting five averaged just 22.8 minutes in the win. That difference in workload could mean the difference in crunch time tonight, especially if Texas can turn this into an up-tempo affair.

2) Limit second chances – Baylor is the nation’s third-best offensive rebounding team, and they boast the country’s second-best offensive rebounder by percentage in Rico Gathers (No. 2). The Longhorns have been strong on the glass all season long, but have had some lapses in conference where they allow teams to extend key late-game possessions with offensive boards. Texas will obviously have their work cut out for them on the glass tonight, but they simply cannot afford to let Baylor score a significant number of second-chance points.

This also ties in with our previous key to the game, as allowing Baylor to have longer offensive possessions only serves to slow the pace and shorten the game. Texas has to close out its defensive stops with solid rebounding, and not allow Baylor to win too many offensive rebounds tonight.

3) Keep Heslip quietBrady Heslip (No. 5) has nailed 45.9% of his three-point attempts on the year and averages more than three makes per game. That percentage puts the Canadian sharpshooter among the nation’s ten best when it comes to three-point percentage, so he’s always a threat to quickly bury a team under a flurry of threes.

Texas did a good job limiting his damage in the first two games, holding him to just 2-of-8 shooting beyond the arc in those contests. The Longhorns also locked down the perimeter very well against a great three-point shooting West Virginia team last night, so their backcourt does seem to be keyed in at the right time. If Heslip gets hot tonight, it will make things very tough on Texas, but if they can put in another good defensive showing on the perimeter, the Longhorns should be in position to challenge for a Big 12 title berth.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 1:54PM

Baylor Bears (18-9 overall, 6-8 Big 12) at #24/23 Texas Longhorns (20-7, 9-5)
Frank Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 8 P.M. CT | TV: ESPNU
Vegas: Texas -4 | Pomeroy: Texas, 73-68

With just a week and a half left in the Big 12 season, the conference race is heating up. No, not the race for the conference title. Kansas wrapped that up on Monday night, clinching at least a share of the Big 12 crown for a 10th-consecutive season. Not even the 1-seed line in the conference tournament is up for grabs, as Kansas also holds the tiebreaker in any of the unlikely scenarios that would see them sharing the title of co-champions with Texas or Iowa State. Instead, the real drama as the Big 12 race heads down the stretch is seeing just how the bunched chase pack will finally shake out.

Heading into tonight’s action, Texas and Iowa State hold a slim half-game edge over Oklahoma and Kansas State, who have already played once this week. The schedules of all four teams are generally even over these final 11 days, with Iowa State and Kansas State squaring off on Saturday, the same day Texas and OU will have their rematch. The race is so even at this point, Ken Pomeroy’s computers are currently predicting a four-way tie for second, with all teams finishing 11-7.

But while those four teams jostle for position, there is additional drama further down in the standings. Baylor, Oklahoma State, and yes, even West Virginia are living life on the bubble as we head into March. Before Monday’s action, the Big 12 had seven teams in Joe Lunardi’s bracket projection. Baylor had jumped to the 10-seed line by virtue of a timely four-game winning streak, while Oklahoma State was clinging to one of the last four spots in the field. The Mountaineers were still sitting nine spots out of the field, according to Lunardi, but with games left against Iowa State, OU, and Kansas, opportunities still exist for WVU to play its way in.

With Baylor playing for its tournament life and finally starting to look like the team most expected to see back in October, tonight’s game is a very dangerous one for Texas. The Longhorns own a two-game losing streak after facing the Big 12’s toughest road pairing last week, and another stiff road test awaits on Saturday in Oklahoma. A loss tonight would put Texas in serious jeopardy of a four-game losing streak at the most important time of the year, and it would make their quest for the second seed in the Big 12 tournament a dicey proposition.

Keys to the game

1) Own the paint – The Baylor bigs have not battled for position that often this season, instead being content with leaking out to the perimeter or high post when they can’t body up down low. During the team’s recent winning streak, the Bears have made a concerted effort to get the ball inside, with Rico Gathers (No. 2) providing a nice dose of physicality for Baylor in the paint. If Texas can Isaiah Austin (No. 21) and Cory Jefferson (No. 34) work for their space down low, the Horns could force the Bears back into their bad habit of settling for outside looks. In addition to forcing lower-percentage shots, it also takes some of Baylor’s size out of the paint and helps to neutralize their strength on the offensive glass.

2) Stick to Heslip like glue – Baylor’s best three-point threat happens to be one of the best three-point shooters in the entire country, but Texas managed to hold him to an 0-for-4 mark behind the arc in the first meeting. While it will likely be tough for the Longhorns to again skunk the Canadian from long range, they definitely need to be aware of his location in transition and when the ball gets into the paint. Although Baylor frequently works to free up their marksman with multiple screens, a good game plan can account for that. It’s on the dribble penetration and kickout or fast break spot-up looks where Heslip can break the backs of even the best defenses, so the Longhorns cannot afford to lose track of him tonight.

3) Keep the ball moving – The Texas offense has stalled out at times this year when dribble penetration and post entries aren’t immediately available, and Baylor’s zone defense could give the Longhorns those same kinds of issues tonight. However, the Bear D has been slow to rotate many times this season, leading to a defensive efficiency in conference games that is ranked 7th out of 10 teams. Texas needs to move the ball quickly, be ready to attack right on the catch, and they need to look opposite under the rim for easy layups. The Longhorn offense desperately needs a bounce-back game after a pitiful performance in Lawrence, and if they can execute, they will certainly have that opportunity against a spotty Baylor D.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 10:13AM

Texas Longhorns (15-4 overall, 4-2 Big 12) at #24/23 Baylor Bears (13-5, 1-4)
Ferrell Center | Waco, TX | Tip: 12:45 P.M. CT
TV: Big 12 Network (Affiliate list)/ESPN Full Court/ESPN3

The Texas Longhorns took care of business at home over the last week, knocking off back-to-back ranked teams in Iowa State and Kansas State. The wins propeled Texas from the “First Four Out” of Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology to an 8-seed playing in San Diego on the tournament’s opening weekend. The Longhorn performances also shifted the projections from Ken Pomeroy, making 10-8 the most likely Big 12 finish for Texas.

With only one-third of the conference race finished, Texas still has work to do. The Horns need to avoid losses against teams it should beat — namely West Virginia, TCU, and Texas Tech — and pick up a few more quality wins along the way. Today’s road game in Waco provides Texas yet another chance to log one of those quality wins and further increase the odds that the Horns will reach the magical 20-win plateau.

Scott Drew finally watched The Sixth Sense
(Photo credit: LM Otero/Associated Press)

The Longhorns aren’t expected to win the game, with Pomeroy giving them a 34% chance to win and projecting a four-point final margin. However, an upset this afternoon would give Texas some more breathing room in terms of bubble talk, and also give the program its first streak of three consecutive victories against AP Top 25 opponents.

The Bears, meanwhile, are in desperate need of a win. After being tabbed as a potential challenger to Kansas’ Big 12 supremacy in the preseason, Baylor has dropped four out of its first five league games. The losses at Iowa State and Kansas didn’t help Baylor’s conference title chase, but they weren’t surprises. The road loss to Tech and a home loss to Oklahoma are what has the Bears reeling, already making them an afterthought in the Big 12 race after just three weeks.

The Bears aren’t in danger of missing the NCAA tournament, but they do need to right the ship quickly and start defending their home court. The Longhorns will not only be trying to beat a good Baylor team on the road today, but they’ll be trying to beat a good Baylor team desperate to prove something and get back on track.

By the numbers

Pace is going to be the biggest clash in this game, with the Longhorns coming in at an adjusted 71.4 possessions per game and the Bears averaging just 63.8 adjusted possessions. Baylor’s slow pace makes them even tougher to beat when you take a look at just how good their offensive efficiency numbers are. The Bears have posted an adjusted OE of 1.147 points per possession, the 29th-best mark in the country. With fewer possessions in the game and an offense that scores so frequently, it only takes a few stops by the Baylor defense to create an edge.

That defense isn’t spectacular, as it allows 1.005 points per possession, which ranks just inside the top third of D-I teams. Baylor’s D has stumbled through conference play and is ranked 7th in the league, allowing 1.133 points per possession against Big 12 foes. The Bears have a ton of length that typically makes their zone defense very tough to beat, but they have reacted slowly in recent conference games, allowing opponents far too many open looks.

Baylor usually runs a 2-3 or an extended 1-3-1, and most defensive possessions they appear to seamlessly transition between both looks. With 7’1″ Isaiah Austin (No. 21) patrolling the paint and the length of Cory Jefferson (No. 34) and Royce O’Neale (No. 00) on the wings, passes are more difficult for opponents, shots are usually challenged, and Baylor has some leeway to be able to recover from mistakes.

On the offensive end, Baylor’s strengths are reclaiming missed shots and knocking down long-range looks. The Bears are ranked third in the entire country with an offensive rebounding rate of 43%, and have posted an even higher mark against conference opponents. In Big 12 games, Baylor has won back 43.9% of its misses, making it very hard for opponents to slow them down. With the Bears already posting an effective field goal mark of 52.4%, it’s absolutely crippling when an opponent actually makes a stop, only to see a neon jersey swipe the ball and put it right back in the bucket.

Brady Heslip is unconscious behind the arc
(Photo credit: Orlin Wagner/Associated Press)

Behind the arc, the exploits of sharpshooter Brady Heslip (No. 5) are well documented. With the Canadian product making more than 47% of his threes, it should come as no surprise that the Bears have an impressive 38.8% team three-point percentage. However, he is not the only accurate long-range shooter, as both Austin and Jefferson can spread the floor and have knocked down 40% of their rare three-point attempts. The wings, O’Neale and Taurean Prince (No. 35), can also hit from long range, with both hovering around the 37% mark. Baylor doesn’t actually take that many threes, but they have enough accurate shooters that opponents have to pay attention to everyone around the arc, not just Heslip, and that can open things up elsewhere on the floor.

Meet the Bears

The man that makes everything click for Baylor is juco transfer point guard Kenny Chery (No. 1). Coming to Waco from State Fair CC in Missouri, Chery is an incredible leader that simply knows how to get his team on the scoreboard. He’s not incredibly quick, but he takes good angles, uses hesitation dribbles, and has the strength to repeatedly get into the paint for easy looks or to set up teammates by drawing the D. Watching Chery, you will often think that he’s driving into a set defense or that his man has him easily guarded, but a few seconds later he’s at the rim or dumping off to a Baylor big down low.

Joining him in the backcourt is senior Gary Franklin (No. 4), an excellent defender and good shooter. Although Franklin has seen his shooting numbers dip in his final season, he’s still a threat to get hot from long range. Texas fans may remember his 3-for-3 performance behind the arc in Austin last year, so they know that he’s always capable of turning in some solid numbers.

Baylor runs an eight-man rotation where everyone gets quite a bit of playing time, so although Franklin is a starter, he eats up only 54.6% of his available minutes. Heslip is team’s other backcourt option, and although he comes off the bench, he actually plays just a slight bit more than Franklin. In addition to Heslip’s incredible 47.3% mark behind the arc, he’s also worked on his midrange game the last two seasons. Now, when opponents chase him off the perimeter, he can put the ball on the floor and connect on floaters or pull-up jumpers. The biggest knock on Heslip’s game is his defense, as he often struggles to contain dribble penetration and will get caught falling asleep when he should be providing help.

On the wings, O’Neale and Prince both offer the ability to face up and drive to the bucket, and can both knock down the three. Prince has been especially hot from long range in Big 12 play, having made 5-of-11 three-pointers in the last four games. He is also one of the many excellent offensive rebounders on the team, crashing from the wings to reclaim more than 9% of his offensive rebounding opportunities. His size and length have also provided mismatch opportunities in a Big 12 where many teams are opting for smaller lineups or three-guard looks. Baylor has taken advantage of those situations against man defenses, posting Prince up against smaller guards.

Jefferson and Austin also provide a ton of offensive rebounds for the Bears, snagging 10% and 9.5% of their chances, respectively. Although neither is exceptionally smooth with the ball, they both have serviceable handles and can face up opponents near the perimeter and get to the rim. Against Oklahoma, Austin even took one defensive rebound and brought it all the way up the floor before being rejected by Ryan Spangler at the rack.

Isaiah Austin has focused on his inside game this season
(Photo credit: Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press)

Last season, Austin tended to hang out around the arc and settle for long jumpers or threes. Early this year, he still took his share of long jumpers, but was completely ignoring the three-point shot. It seems that the Baylor coaching staff recently asked him to start taking advantage of those opportunities, as he has suddenly committed to taking — and making — long-range shots in his last two games. After going just 1-for-7 on threes in the team’s first 16 games, Austin has taken 11 threes in his last two games and made six of them (54.5%).

The final piece of the core rotation is Rico Gathers (No. 2), an absolute tank of a man who leads the nation in individual offensive rebounding. At just 6’8″, Gathers has reclaimed 22% of the offensive board opportunities when he’s on the floor, repeatedly breaking the will of defenses by getting an easy putback after they had worked so hard to force a missed shot. That rebounding acumen allows Baylor to keep their length on the wings even when Austin goes to the bench, as Gathers typically guards the lane in their zone in those situations. Although that eliminates the shot-blocking threat down low, being able to leave Jefferson and Prince or O’Neale on the wings limits open threes and makes it harder to get the ball into the paint.

Keys to the game

1) Clean up the defensive glass – Baylor is not only the best offensive-rebounding team in the Big 12, but also one of the best in the nation. Although Texas has generally been very strong on the boards, the team will have its hands full trying to keep the Bears off the glass. The Longhorns were undone by Oklahoma’s offensive rebounding in their home loss to the Sooners, and a similar performance on the boards will spell disaster in Waco this afternoon. While Texas isn’t going to be able to dominate the defensive glass against this Baylor team, the Horns need to limit the number of second chances, especially when it gets down to crunch time.

2) Stick to Heslip like glue – Brady Heslip needs very little time or space to get off a shot behind the arc, and the Bears do a good job consistently running him off of screens to get him that little bit of separation. The Horns have had their struggles limiting damage from good three-point shooters this season, and they simply cannot afford to let Heslip go crazy today. The Bears are going to run the Longhorn defense ragged with staggered screens off the ball, so Texas has to communicate and offer help when the defenders inevitably get hung up.

3) Don’t let the ball stick – The Longhorns will have to be patient against the Baylor zone, but patience doesn’t equate to waiting. Texas needs to keep the ball moving and use dribble penetration to attack the gaps. The Baylor defense has sprung some leaks in Big 12 play, with Texas Tech exposing their weaknesses in a phenomenal performance up in Lubbock. The Red Raiders moved the ball quickly, passed it well out of the high and low post, and made good cuts off the ball. Baylor’s zone not only has the usual gap right in the middle, but also has a ton of space about twelve feet out on the baseline. If the Longhorns can avoid their bad habits of dribbling the ball too much beyond the arc and passing without purpose, there are points to be had against the Bears.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 3:56AM

Texas Longhorns 79, Baylor Bears 70

For forty minutes on Monday night, the young, beleaguered Texas Longhorns finally looked like a team. Role players made key contributions, stars stepped up to make huge buckets, and the squad that had so often folded under pressure actually responded to adversity with poise and composure. The Longhorns turned back the Bears and their comeback bid at every opportunity, holding on for a 79-70 win in the final home game of the season.

The loss was especially damaging to Baylor, which entered the game as one of the “First Four Out” in Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracket Math update. It was the fifth defeat in the last six games for the Bears, and the eighth loss in the team’s last 11 contests. After also squandering an opportunity for a résumé-building win against Kansas State two days ago, Baylor now must put all of its eggs in the “upset Kansas” basket on Saturday. Even with a victory there, the Bears still would likely need a solid win over the Big 12’s No. 3 seed in the conference tournament next Thursday to truly feel comfortable.

Sheldon McClellan led Texas with 23 points
(Photo credit: Eric Gay/Associated Press)

As damaging as the loss was for Baylor, it meant very little in the grand scheme of things for Texas. The Longhorns now have a better chance to claim the No. 7 seed in the league tournament, but will still need assistance from Oklahoma and Iowa State, who both play West Virginia over the next four days. Outside of helping the Longhorns perhaps earn a marginally better draw for a possible four-wins-in-four days miracle run to the NCAAs, the victory had no tangible big-picture implications.

Still, there was so much to be excited about after watching the Longhorns earn a tough win tonight. Myck Kabongo bounced back quickly from his rough game in Stillwater, scoring 19 points while also leading the team with six boards and eight assists. Sheldon McClellan also turned in a big performance, scoring 23 points just two days after seeing the court for only seven minutes in the Saturday loss to Oklahoma State.

Coming off the bench, Cameron Ridley showed heart and hustle, never more apparent than in a huge play late in the game where he was falling out of bounds and tapped a loose rebound to the corner, where Ioannis Papapetrou knocked down the triple to stifle a Baylor rally. That big shot was one of many clutch plays by Papi, who was aggressive with the bounce and steady behind the arc en route to a highly-efficient 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting. Even Prince Ibeh made key contributions, coming up with two blocks and three important boards.

The Longhorns established their new season high for offensive efficiency, scoring 1.241 points per possession. It was the third time in the team’s last five games that the offense cracked the 1.2 mark, and it was a vast improvement over the even 1.0 points per possession that they scored against Baylor in Waco on January 5th.

Texas also made a huge turnaround on the glass, where the team limited the Bears to reclaiming just 30.6% of their offensive rebounding chances. In the earlier loss to Baylor, Texas gave up 39.1% of those opportunities. The Longhorns also kept the Bears from getting to the line, slashing their defensive free-throw rate from an astronomical 70.3% in the loss to just 38.6% in Monday’s win.

But even with the big plays and solid performances up and down the lineup, Texas’ win over Baylor still left behind a feeling of sadness. Since the return of Kabongo, the Longhorns have pulled off wins over Oklahoma, Iowa State, and Baylor, teams ranked fourth through sixth in the league. Although it’s an incredibly small sample size, those results and the jolt Kabongo has provided the offense make it seem like these Horns could have easily been in the middle of the Big 12 standings had he played all year.

With that in mind, it’s not a stretch to imagine that the full-strength Horns could have won one of the games against West Virginia, if not both. The road loss at Oklahoma was close enough that you can’t help but wonder if that outcome would have changed, too. Heck, the Longhorns forced Kansas into enough second-half miscues that the Jayhawks were on the ropes in Austin, even without Kabongo. Take a step further back, into the non-conference slate, and you can easily picture Texas hanging on against UCLA and hopefully avoiding the detestable loss to Chaminade.

Texas might have been a bubble team with Kabongo
(Photo credit: Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman)

If you hypothesize that Kabongo’s presence flips a few of these games to the win column, you can’t magically create an amazing season, but you do start to add up enough victories to be able to imagine Texas as a bubble team. It seems that every year, the teams filling the bottom of the bracket have résumés that are even more odious than the ones in the previous year. This season has been no exception, with Ole Miss was still only five slots out of Lunardi’s bracket after losing at home to a 7-20 Mississippi State team — the very same Mississippi State team that lost at home to Vanderbilt by 41 points just a week earlier.

There’s no way to know what impact Kabongo would have actually had on the games earlier in the season. Some of the close losses could very well have remained losses even with his leadership. Even with those wins, Texas’ horribly weak non-conference SOS might have kept it out of the NCAA field. The Longhorns’ inability to put together road and neutral-site wins against quality competition might have also left them on the wrong side of the bubble. Unfortunately, the sad fact of the matter is that the NCAA didn’t ever give this team or its fans a chance to find out.

ESPN’s Jay Bilas was the most outspoken critic of the NCAA’s decision to suspend Kabongo, a ban that was reduced to 23 games after initially being set for the full season. But even prior to this particular decision, numerous analysts have been ripping the agency’s enforcement arm for the last few years. Recent scandals surrounding the Shabazz Muhammad and Miami investigations have put more egg on the face of the NCAA, which prodded the league into investigating itself in the miraculous time span of two weeks.

Should Kabongo have been forthcoming with UT compliance officials from the start? Absolutely. But as Bilas and others have reminded us, these 18- to 22-year old kids are thrown into frightening situations where they are questioned without any counsel. These are kids who are playing for no money, only a college education and dreams of making it as a professional athlete. Asking them to handle the stress of a huge institution scrutinizing their possible transgressions is tough enough without also trying to use them as examples to future scallywags when they try to massage the truth in an effort to save face.

As Texas beat writer Mike Finger pointed out this weekend, the Longhorns’ string of 14 consecutive NCAA appearances will likely end because of a $475 plane ride. Kabongo, a kid who was worried about jeopardizing future in which he could make millions, was scared enough to lie about a measly 475 dollars because he might have done something deemed illegal in the NCAA’s arcane rulebook.

It is no secret in the sports world that the NCAA model is a system that is broken in so many different places, it is impossible to even know where to start. There are the issues with enforcement, the gulf between the haves and have-nots, the constant shifting of realignment’s tectonic plates, the debate on pay-for-play…the list never ends. Kabongo’s case is not unique, his problem is far from the biggest one facing college sports, and Texas is certainly not a persecuted victim. But at some point, all of the off-the-court problems, scandals, and distractions take us away from enjoying the game that we all love, the game that brings us all together for five fabulous months every year. When investigations and sanctions earn as many headlines as the contests themselves, some of the magic of college hoops is stripped away.

These are the debates and issues that dominated my thoughts as I watched my 250th consecutive Texas basketball game on Monday. On a night that should have felt like some sort of grand closure to my seven-year journey, a night I should have been swept up in the drama of a back-and-forth game, all I could focus on was how sad it was that none of the effort Texas was putting forth would mean anything. As hard as the Longhorns played and as resilient as they were for forty minutes tonight, nothing that happened between the lines would actually matter. A season that could have been filled with suspense and bubble-sweating and résumé-dissecting and Championship Week pressure was simply over before it even began. Because a college kid made one mistake and compounded it with another, 13 other guys were simply playing for fun from November to March.

There is still the slim chance that Texas could get hot in Kansas City and play its way right in to the NCAAs. The Longhorns had opportunities to prove their worth before Kabongo’s return, and they still have one more week to do the improbable. But after seeing what the Longhorns were capable of with their full roster, it’s a shame Texas fans didn’t get to experience the highs and lows of living on the bubble in February and March. In a thrilling year of college basketball that loudly and undeniably refuted the New York Times’ declaration that the regular season was irrelevant, the Longhorns and their fans had to suffer through a season that never truly mattered.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 4:12PM

Baylor Bears (17-12 overall, 8-8 Big 12) at Texas Longhorns (13-16, 5-11)
Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 8 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN
LRT Consecutive Game #250

When the Big 12 released its conference schedule last summer, Texas’ home finale against Baylor looked like it would be a very important Big Monday showdown. Although the consensus was that Kansas was once again the prohibitive favorite, both the Bears and Longhorns would likely be battling for seeding in both the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments. Baylor would probably be playing for the right to play its NCAA opening weekend games in Austin, while the Horns would be working towards their fifteenth consecutive NCAA appearance, and perhaps a favorable draw that would feed into the Arlington regional.

Pierre Jackson and Baylor are sweating on the bubble
(Photo credit: Rod Aydelotte/Associated Press)

Instead, tonight’s game is huge for very different reasons. The Bears have lost four out of their last five and currently sit in the “First Four Out” of Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracket Math ($), with Kansas coming to town on Saturday. While a win over Texas does nothing to improve Baylor’s lot, a defeat at the hands of a Longhorn squad holding an RPI of 122 would be crippling.

There’s also the distinct possibility that the Bears could finish the season below .500 in the Big 12, with only one of their league wins coming against a team projected to be in the NCAAs. Earlier this season, Lunardi also ran the numbers ($) on teams who made the NCAA field with a losing record in conference play. In the last 10 seasons, only nine squads earned at-large bids with losing records in their leagues. Six of those nine teams had non-conference strength of schedules that ranked in the top 50 nationally; Baylor’s is ranked 43rd.

The numbers would seem to give the Bears some hope that they could survive losses in their last two games, especially with all of the horrible losses suffered by other bubble teams this weekend. Still, antiperspirant sales would skyrocket in Waco ahead of Selection Sunday if the Bears were to lose to both Texas and Kansas this week. That would give Baylor a 1-6 record in its last seven games, and an 8-10 mark in the conference. It’s safe to say that tonight’s game is a must-win for the reeling Bears.

For Texas, the stakes are much lower. The Longhorns have no shot at an at-large bid to the NCAAs, and would need to win four games in four days at the Big 12 Championship in Kansas City to make the field. There are still post-season options in the form of the NIT and CBI, but as we explained in the TCU game preview two weeks ago, even the NIT looks like a long shot. Although the rule was removed that requires NIT teams to have a .500 record, no team with a losing mark has ever actually been invited to the tournament. Even with wins against Baylor and Texas Tech this week, the Horns would still have to win their opener in KC and then upset the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the quarterfinals just to reach that .500 mark.

The Longhorns could still be selected for the College Basketball Invitational with a losing record, but there’s no guarantee that Texas would even accept that bid. The CBI is a 16-team tournament that culminates with a best-of-three championship series, with all games at campus sites. In the five-year history of the event, six of the 80 participating teams played with a losing record, and all were from the Big East or Pac-12. As long as the Horns avoid losing their next three games, it’s hard to imagine the Gazelle Group not inviting Texas, which participates in many of its November tournaments. Still, it’s incredibly sobering to reflect upon how far expectations have fallen in just six short months.

Meet the Bears

For an in-depth look at the Baylor roster and the team’s tendencies, check out LRT’s game preview from the first meeting between these two teams.

The first match-up

In the first Big 12 game of the year, it was overworked freshman point guard Javan Felix who shouldered the load for Texas. With the Longhorns down nine at the half, Felix came out of the locker room firing and poured in 15 second-half points to carry the Horns into overtime at Baylor.

In the extra period, Felix scored the first four points for Texas, which led by one with only 1:29 to go. The Bears responded with three free throws over the next half-minute, leaving the Horns with a two-point deficit, the ball, and 50 seconds to go. But, after leading the Texas upset bid all afternoon, it was Felix who missed an ugly turnaround jumper to tie the game with 30 seconds to go. After a few more Baylor free throws and some desperation attempts from Texas, the Bears escaped with a seven-point win in overtime.

The biggest difference in the game was Baylor’s composure at the free-throw line. The Bears were more aggressive all afternoon, hustling for rebounds and loose balls, while the big men repeatedly got to the rim against the Texas frontcourt. All told, Baylor shot 45 free throws in the game, knocking down 80% of their attempts. In a game that had to go an extra five minutes to decide the winner, missing just a free throw or two during regulation could have resulted in a loss for Baylor.

The Bears were led by a 25-point performance from Pierre Jackson (No. 55). He scored 11 of those points in overtime, including 9-of-11 shooting at the charity stripe in the extra period. Baylor’s twin towers, Cory Jefferson (No. 34) and Isaiah Austin (No. 21), combined for 33 points and 22 rebounds against the overmatched Texas forwards.

Since then…

Rodney McGruder shocked Baylor at the buzzer
(Photo credit: Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press)

Thanks to a quirk in the schedule, Baylor and Texas have gone more than eight weeks between their two meetings this season. The Bears are now sitting in sixth place in the Big 12, just one game behind Iowa State with two games to go. Unfortunately, seven of their eight wins have come against the four teams below them in the standings, with their home win against Oklahoma State providing the only victory against an upper-division Big 12 team.

The struggles have intensified in recent weeks. Baylor has lost four out of five, including a heartbreaking defeat against Kansas State on Saturday. The Bears never let the Wildcats get ahead by more than six in the second half, and ended up with the ball and a second left in a tie game. A full-court heave from rarely-used Jacob Neubert went out of bounds untouched, giving K-State the ball under its own basket. The Bears lost Rodney McGruder on staggered screens along the baseline, and he popped out to the wing for a game-winning three at the buzzer.

The difficulties of the long conference season have seemed to weigh the most on 7’1″ freshman Austin, who has been visibly frustrated during the team’s last few games. In the team’s last ten games, Austin’s offensive rating has dipped below 100 in six contests, reaching the low 70’s in games against Iowa State and West Virginia. His three-point percentage has also taken a slight dip in conference play, with just 24.2% of his attempts going down in the last ten games.

Although he’s still averaging more than 13 points per game in Big 12 play, Austin’s inconsistencies have been frustrating. The freshman seems to be lacking a soft touch on the hook and turnaround in his post-up opportunities, and he now appears to be a bit timid in face-up situations, lacking the fluidity that allowed him to stretch the floor and made him such a difficult match-up.

With Austin regressing slightly on the offensive end, Jefferson has quietly become one of the most underrated players in the Big 12. Much of that is due to the fact that the Bears are mired in the middle of the league standings, giving his solid performances less attention from the media. Jefferson is averaging 11 points and nearly eight boards in conference games, while also providing an intimidating interior presence on the defensive end. His excellent timing makes him a formidable shot blocker, which repeatedly caused issues for Kansas State in Saturday’s close-fought game.

As always, the straw that stirs Scott Drew’s drink — a Dr. Pepper, of course — is the point guard, Jackson. The senior leads the Big 12 in both points and assists, scoring 18.6 points against league opponents while dishing out 6.5 dimes per game. Even though turnovers continue to be a problem for Jackson, all of the other fantastic things he does on the court far outweigh those issues.

When Jackson is on his game and dissecting opponents on the bounce, the Baylor offense can be a thing of beauty. It’s not unsurprising, then, that in most of Baylor’s conference losses, the point guard can be found chucking up an inordinate amount of threes. In Baylor’s eight Big 12 defeats, Jackson averaged more than eight three-point attempts, and made only 31.3% of them. In the team’s eight league wins, Pierre averaged just over six attempts and made 38% of those looks.

Keys to the game

Cory Jefferson has been on a roll in Big 12 play
(Photo credit: Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press)

1) Play tougher inside – Baylor abused the Longhorns in the paint during their first meeting. Jefferson and Austin both posted double-doubles, with Jefferson also earning 14 trips to the line. The Texas big men played terrible interior defense, and they repeatedly found themselves out of position on the glass. The Longhorns allowed Baylor to reclaim 39.1% of its missed shots, including three offensive boards that all came in one 93-second possession late in regulation.

Tonight, the Texas frontcourt must do a better job limiting those second-chance points and must also play much better defense against Jefferson and Austin. With the troubles that the Longhorn bigs have had defending their counterparts all season long, that could be a very tough task.

2) Limit Jackson’s penetration – It was outlined above just how much of a difference Jackson makes when he is aggressive with the bounce. Although the Bears have a capable frontcourt that can get points in the traditional manner, Baylor’s offense is at its best when Jackson is utilizing ball screens to penetrate and start the help-defense domino effect. His driving ability frees up Austin and Jefferson inside, and it sets up sharpshooter Brady Heslip (No. 5) for numerous wide-open threes.

In the first game preview, it was mentioned that Jackson and the Bears struggled against non-conference opponents who blitzed Baylor’s ball screens. With Austin currently struggling to knock down his threes, that becomes an even more important strategy. His usefulness as a pick-and-pop guy decreases, and the pick-and-roll is much easier to defend with help. If the Longhorns can limit the number of drives by Jackson — hopefully by doubling hard on those ball screens — it will force Baylor to create shots in other ways, something that the team has had a hard time doing.

3) Be alert in transition defense – One of the other ways that Baylor often scores is by beating opponents in transition. The Bears do a fantastic job of running the floor and excel at getting open looks from the perimeter and easy finishes at the rim when opponents are still trying to set up defensively. Texas has especially struggled at giving up transition points in recent games, so this is a major cause for concern in tonight’s match-up. The Longhorns have to force Baylor score from half-court sets, or else they will have a tough time keeping up on the scoreboard.

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