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.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 10:20AM

Texas Longhorns (8-5 overall, 0-0 Big 12) at Baylor Bears (8-4, 0-0)
Ferrell Center | Waco, TX | Tip: 1 P.M. CT | TV: ESPNU
LRT Consecutive Game #234

The Texas Longhorns head into conference play moving in the right direction. A home win over a talented but inconsistent UNC squad and an impressive performance on the road against Michigan State revealed a confident Longhorn team that looked nothing like the one that sleepwalked through a disastrous week on the island of Maui. Last Saturday, the Longhorns added another piece of the puzzle when tenacious rebounder Jaylen Bond rejoined the squad. There was also the huge news in late December that sophomore point guard and unquestioned team leader Myck Kabongo would be eligible for the final eight games of the season.

With one of the nation’s best defenses and a string of good news, things are finally looking up for Texas. Of course, opening conference play on the road against a formidable Baylor team could stop that momentum in an instant.

Scott Drew won’t be on the Baylor sideline today
(Photo credit: Rod Aydelotte/Associated Press)

On paper, the Bears looked like a challenger to Kansas in the Big 12. On the court, the results have been mixed. Baylor recorded the school’s first road win against a Top 25 non-conference opponent when the Bears went into Rupp Arena and upset a young Kentucky team that is still finding its way. However, that win was sandwiched between home losses to the College of Charleston and Northwestern. There’s no doubt that these Bears should be one of the elite teams in the conference, but the question is whether or not they can consistently perform at a high level through the league’s grueling 18-game schedule.

By the numbers

The Bears have a practically unstoppable combination of talent in the paint and on the perimeter, and it shows with an adjusted offensive efficiency mark that is currently 17th in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy. The Bears score 1.132 points per possession, while holding opponents to an adjusted 0.945 points.

Baylor has been impressive so far this season against one of the nation’s toughest schedules. Pomeroy has their non-con slate ranked 32nd toughest in the land, as it also included a neutral-site game against Colorado, a home date with BYU and a true road game against Gonzaga last weekend.

While the efficiency numbers above have already been adjusted to account for that difficult schedule, the rest of their stats have not, and they are still dominant. The Bears are averaging more than 40 points per game in the paint, giving them one of the nation’s best two-point field-goal percentages at 55.4% per game. Their experienced backcourt takes care of the ball, posting a Top 30 turnover percentage of just 17.3%. Surprisingly, their offensive rebounding mark is at 34.2%, which just qualifies for the top third of Division I teams.

Defensively, the Bears have been using much more man than in years past, but it hasn’t stopped oppponents from hitting nearly 37% of their three-point attempts. Although Baylor starts four upperclassmen, there are still some major issues with communication on defense, which is keeping them from being truly dominant on that side of the ball. Their adjusted defensive efficiency is still ranked 89th in the country, but there is definitely room for improvement.

Prior to their loss to Gonzaga, the Bears appeared to be making strides in that department, holding BYU and USC Upstate to less than 0.9 points per possession. The Bulldogs torched Baylor both inside and out, however, posting 1.26 points per possession and an effective field goal percentage north of 60%. There’s no doubt that Gonzaga is a title contender this season, but Baylor will need better performances against elite teams if it wants to live up to its preseason billing.

Meet the Bears

For the first time in a long time, Texas will be battling the Bears with a new face on the Baylor sideline. Jerome Tang will be at the head of the Baylor bench this afternoon, as head coach Scott Drew is sitting out the first two conference games as part of the university’s self-imposed NCAA penalties. Although Baylor will be without its head coach, there’s still a ton of talent on the court for Texas to contend with.

The man that runs the show for Baylor is Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year Pierre Jackson (No. 55). If you don’t remember him from his impressive debut season in Waco last year, you will certainly know him by the end of this one. Jackson leads the league in scoring with 19.6 points per game, but is also an incredible facilitator, dishing out more than six assists each night.

It’s incredibly tough to shut down Jackson, because he can beat you in a variety of ways. His three-point shot is incredibly accurate, and he needs very little space to get it off. Jackson loves to simply step into a smooth three as the team races up the court in transition, so the Longhorns have to quickly find him as they get back on defense.

Jackson can also easily create his own shot in the half-court set. He’s a master at varying his speeds on the drive, hesitating just long enough to get a defender to downshift before he uses his blazing speed to drive to the rim. Jackson also has a wicked crossover that he loves to use on the wings, freezing opponents while he bursts to the rack.

Baylor also runs numerous ball screens for him on the perimeter, freeing him up to quickly drive to the rim. While he’s great at finishing through traffic, he really makes the highlight reel with his great feeds to the team’s bigs. As opponents scramble to provide help on Jackson’s drives, he’ll shovel a pass into the post or zip a one-handed feed to his teammate for a dunk.

Colorado and Gonzaga both gave Jackson some problems by rushing the ball screen and doubling him hard. The Buffaloes also had the luxury of a 6’6″ guard in Spencer Dinwiddie who could sag off of Jackson to limit his drives, yet still close out and contest three-pointers with his length. Texas doesn’t have that option today, but the Horns can certainly try to use their bigs to double past the ball screens and disrupt the Baylor half-court sets.

Isaiah Austin is a 7-footer with a great jump shot
(Photo credit: Young Kwak/Associated Press)

One thing that helps Baylor when they are doubled in those situations is the impressive game of 7’1″ freshman Isaiah Austin (No. 21). The big man has a great jump shot and is accurate beyond the arc, having hit 33% of his triples on the season. When Jackson is double-teamed, Austin’s height and long-range accuracy always give the Bears a relief option on the perimeter.

Austin is also very nimble with the basketball and can easily drive against opposing big men who try to guard him on the perimeter. He still has a very wiry frame and isn’t built to truly bang in the post, but with his nice shot and usual height advantage, it often doesn’t make a difference. A few more pounds of muscle will make Austin practically impossible to stop, but as it is, he’s still a match-up nightmare.

With Austin often stretching the floor, the man in the middle is junior Cory Jefferson (No. 34). He averages 13.2 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, and his offensive rebounding mark of 11.5% ranks him just outside the Top 200 nationally. Jefferson makes his hay on putbacks and easy finishes near the rim after Jackson has drawn defensive help. However, that’s not to say he can’t score outside the paint. Jefferson has a serviceable midrange game, but still lacks some consistency. The Horns want to force him to score on his jumpers, and hope that this is one of those days he’s not hitting them.

Even if Texas can keep Jefferson from scoring easy points, the Horns still have to worry about one of the nation’s most dangerous three-point shooters in Brady Heslip (No. 5). The Canadian junior has hit 35.6% of his long-range attempts this season, which is down considerably from his mark of 45.5% in 2011-12. However, last year Heslip lived on the perimeter and rarely drove the basketball. This year, he’s using the head fake to get defenders up before he drives for floaters or layups.

Rounding out the starting five is senior guard A.J. Walton (No. 22), the team’s defensive specialist. He is second in school history with 185 steals in 116 career games. While Walton is usually harassing the opponent’s best perimeter player, he still can score the ball. The senior is very smart about using his body inside to draw contact and shield the basketball, making sure to get it up and always have a chance at the three-point play.

Although Walton is probably too small to be tasked with shutting down Sheldon McClellan, he’ll likely be right in the jersey of Julien Lewis all afternoon. The one thing that may help Texas, however, is the aforementioned problem Baylor has had with communicating on defense. The Horns love to run both Lewis and McClellan through multiple screens off the ball, while Baylor often forgets to switch in those situations. If that happens this afternoon, there is little that Walton can do to stop the Texas shooters when he’s hung up on a screen without backup from his teammates.

The Bears rely primarily on their starting five, with those players eating up more than 76% of the team’s minutes. Still, the short bench is very talented and causes little drop-off when the starters need a breather.

Freshman Rico Gathers (No. 2) is built like a tank, or at least a middle linebacker. He’s only averaging 15.4 minutes per game with Jefferson ahead of him, but still manages to grab 4.3 boards and score nearly six points per game.

If Jefferson and Gathers both find themselves in foul trouble as they did against Gonzaga, freshman Taurean Prince (No. 35) will see much more than his average of five minutes. His post defense is still a work-in-progress, something that Gonzaga’s Elias Harris took full advantage of when Prince was in the game.

In the backcourt, Cal transfer Gary Franklin (No. 4) gives some quality minutes off the bench, and can both knock down the three or slice through the defense off the bounce.

Sophomore Duece Bello (No. 14) had a breakout performance in last season’s Big 12 Championship game, but hasn’t followed it up with consistent success this year. He has incredible hops and brings length to the perimeter with his 6’4″ frame, but is playing less than 12 minutes per game this season.

Freshman L.J. Rose (No. 1) also gets some time at the point each game, as he learns the ropes from Jackson. He’s currently averaging less than seven minutes per game.

Keys to the game

1) Limit second-chance points – The Bears aren’t as strong on the offensive glass as you might expect, although Jefferson has a nose for the ball on that end of the court. Still, Baylor is already so tough to stop on offense that Texas cannot afford to give up many offensive rebounds in this game. The Longhorns need to get a body on Jefferson when the shot goes up, and make sure that Austin doesn’t crash the glass from his usual spots outside the lane.

The Baylor guards have quick hands on defense
(Photo credit: Rod Aydelotte/Associated Press)

2) Turn Jackson into a passer – This key is much easier said than done, although the approach mentioned above is likely the best bet. Texas should blitz ball screens and stay close to the senior guard when he’s isolated on the perimeter. Although he can easily beat opponents off the dribble, the Longhorns will have to be ready to provide help once he drives and be willing to swallow a few points when he makes some impressive interior passes to his big men.

3) Cut down on live-ball turnovers – With Walton’s quick hands on the perimeter, the Bears get their fair share of breakaways. Couple his defense with Texas’ own turnover problems, and it could be a recipe for trouble.

Although Walton gets all the defensive praise, Jackson also gets quite a few swipes from unsuspecting opponents. Once he gets out on a fast break, his lightning-quick speed means that he is guaranteed to get to the rack on the other end. Texas is already going to have a tough time shutting down the Baylor offense, so they simply cannot be giving up fast break points if they want to have a shot this afternoon.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 3:43PM

#14/13 Baylor Bears (22-5 overall, 9-5 Big 12) at Texas Longhorns (17-10, 7-7)
Frank Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 8 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN
LRT Consecutive Game #214

The Texas Longhorns took a big step backwards on Saturday, losing to Oklahoma State and a superhuman Keiton Page in Stillwater. The loss snapped the team’s four-game winning streak and set the Horns back a few pegs on the S-curve, with just two weeks left in the regular season. A win over the Cowboys would have kept Texas safely above the bubble, but now the Horns find themselves back in the danger zone.

With just three wins against the RPI Top 50, the Longhorn résumé could use some extra lines. Those three victories came against Temple (currently 16th in the RPI), Iowa State (40th), and Kansas State (50th), so a win tonight over Baylor (10th) would certainly bolster Texas’ post-season hopes. While the Longhorns could still feasibly make the NCAAs without a win tonight, it would require a lot of help from other teams, or a solid run in the conference tournament.

Rick Barnes’ 13-year streak of NCAA bids is in jeopardy
(Photo credit: Pat Sullivan/Associated Press)

Texas has had more than its fair share of opportunities to knock off top teams, having lost three games against teams in the RPI’s Top 10 by a combined nine points. Tonight’s battle with Baylor represents the best chance the Longhorns have left for a defining victory. The only question that remains is whether or not this young team can finally rise to the challenge.

Meet the Bears

For a full look at the Baylor roster, check out LRT’s game preview from the first time these two teams met.

The first game

The Longhorns found success early against the Baylor defense with quick ball movement and aggressive play. Texas actually built a small, early lead over the Bears, holding a four-point edge eight minutes into the game. But with both Clint Chapman and Myck Kabongo cooling their heels on the bench after picking up two fouls each, Baylor was able to pull ahead and take a nine-point lead to the locker room.

Although the Bears stretched their lead as large as 12 points, the Longhorns chipped away at that advantage throughout the second half. J’Covan Brown exploded for 20 of his 32 points after the break, bring the Longhorns all the way back to tie it with just 2:53 to go. Pierre Jackson immediately responded with a clutch three to give Baylor a new lead, one that the team would never relinquish. Although Brown had a three-point attempt to tie the game with 10 seconds left, it clanked off the iron and the Bears salted it away with a pair of free throws by A.J. Walton.

Perry Jones III led the way for Baylor, posting a double-double with an impressive 22-point, 14-rebound line. Quincy Miller also put up great numbers, showing off a smooth jump shot as he piled up 18 points.

Texas did a great job rattling the Baylor offense in the first meeting, turning 18 miscues into 20 points. Unfortunately, the Longhorns also had one of their worst outings of the season at the free-throw line, making just 16 of their 26 attempts. In a game where the Bears only won by five points and made 80% of their own shots at the charity stripe, that failure to convert the freebies was crippling.

Since then…

Quincy Acy and Baylor have had a tough two weeks
(Photo credit: LM Otero/Associated Press)

Baylor has posted just a 3-3 record since facing the Longhorns, with two of those wins coming narrowly against teams at the bottom of the standings. The Bears needed some last minute heroics from Jackson — and an inexplicably bad shot from Elston Turner — to knock off A&M at Reed Arena, 63-60. A few days later, the Bears again held on in the final minute to earn a 64-60 road win at Oklahoma State.

After surviving those close calls, the Bears were hoping to earn some revenge the following week against the only two teams to defeat them — Kansas and Missouri. Instead, Baylor was embarrassed on national television by Kansas and Jeff Withey, and then lost by 15 to the Tigers in Columbia.

Two games out of first place and having been swept by both of the teams ahead of them, the Bears were essentially eliminated from the Big 12 race. Saturday’s one-point loss at home to Kansas State served only to shovel more dirt on those title hopes, while also dropping Baylor into a tie for third with Iowa State.

Over the last two weeks, the PJ3 critics have once again been out in force. The sophomore star has long been lambasted for disappearing in big games and lacking the drive to carry his team. With the Bears losing three out of their last four, his weak performances have given the naysayers plenty of ammo. In the losses to Kansas, Baylor, and Kansas State, PJ3 averaged just 4.3 points per game on 19.2% shooting from the field.

The Bears have also seen a severe drop-off in their three point success. In their last five games, Baylor has made just 28.2% of their long-range attempts, a far cry from the 41.4% mark they carried into the first game with Texas. While there’s certainly no way that the Longhorns can lay off the Baylor three-point shooters and focus solely on the interior threats, another rough night for Baylor behind the arc will definitely help Texas’ chances.

Keys to the game

1) Win the turnover battle – The Longhorns did an excellent job forcing mistakes when they took on the Bears in Waco. Baylor ended more than 26% of their possessions with a turnover, leading to 20 points for the Longhorns. In front of a Texas crowd that often only cheers when given a reason to, fast break buckets will be key to keeping the Longhorn fans on their feet.

In Saturday’s loss to Oklahoma State, Texas coughed it up on more than 21% of their possessions, while forcing the Cowboys into mistakes on just 11% of theirs. Even if Texas isn’t able to force as many mistakes by Baylor as they did the first time around, the Horns simply cannot afford to waste their own possessions. Texas absolutely must take better care of the basketball tonight.

2) Make the second chances count – One of Baylor’s most glaring weaknesses is their inability to close out possessions with defensive boards. Even though their team is long and athletic, the Bears are in the bottom half of D-I hoops when it comes to allowing offensive rebounds. The Longhorns happen to be the 13th-best offensive rebounding team in the nation, so they will certainly get some second and third chances tonight. Texas must take advantage of those extended possessions and turn them into more points.

3) Move the ball quickly – The Baylor zone has sprung a few leaks this season, as Kansas showed the nation in their win on February 8th. The Bears are especially susceptible in the short corner, often failing to rotate and giving up easy points on the baseline. Texas exploited this a few times in Waco, and needs to do the same again tonight. Quick ball movement and aggressive penetration will force Baylor to react on defense, something that has been a major problem for the team all season long.

4) Avoid first-half foul trouble – Kabongo and Chapman have been particularly bad offenders in this category, spending much of the first half on the bench in multiple conference games. While some of Chapman’s first-half fouls fall on other Longhorns missing defensive assignments, Kabongo often picks up cheap fouls on plays he has no business trying to make. The Longhorns will need both players to remain in the game this evening, and will also need Alexis Wangmene to avoid foul trouble and help compete against Baylor’s size.

5) Get McClellan going – If Kabongo does happen to find himself in foul trouble, it will be much easier for Baylor to focus their defense on Brown. Sheldon McClellan needs to be assertive and make himself a scoring threat to open things up for his teammates. When McClellan takes charge, the Longhorn offense is much less stagnant, and much more difficult to defend.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 11:13AM

#7/6 Baylor Bears 76, Texas Longhorns 71

It was another nail-biter for the Longhorns in Waco on Saturday, but the familiar script remained the same. Texas was on the losing end of another game decided by six points or less, coming up just short of a monumental road upset of Baylor. Despite being tied with 2:53 to play and having a shot to tie it again in the final seconds, the Longhorns saw their record in games decided by two possessions or less fall to 0-6 on the season.

J’Covan Brown carried Texas down the stretch
(Photo credit: Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press)

Texas was carried by the play of J’Covan Brown, who scored 32 points on 50% shooting from the field, a sharp improvement from the 25.7% mark he posted in the team’s last three games. With Clint Chapman and Myck Kabongo playing limited minutes thanks to foul trouble, the Horns had to have a big game from Brown to even stay in it.

Brown’s one-man show was one-upped by Baylor’s Perry Jones III, who logged a double-double with 22 points and 14 boards. He scored from seemingly everywhere on the court, knocking down mid-range jumpers, drilling turnaround looks, and posting up against the foul-plagued Texas frontcourt. Freshman Quincy Miller, a superstar whose brilliance is oftentimes eclipsed by PJ3, added another 18 points to Baylor’s winning effort.

What looked good

It was imperative that Brown finally break out of his funk and have an efficient game, but it didn’t look like that would be the case in the first half. He scored just four points in the game’s first 15 minutes, with those coming off of a goaltended layup and a pair of free throws. Fortunately, the junior was consistently setting up his teammates to score, logging three assists over that same stretch.

Coming out of the locker room, Brown played like a man possessed. He dropped 20 of his 32 points in the second half, even sinking off-balance looks that likely had the coaching staff sweating. Brown also finally found his stroke from long range, knocking down 4-of-7 from behind the arc after going 0-for-3 in the first half.

In addition to Brown’s second-half surge, the Texas defense played a big role in keeping Baylor at arm’s reach when the Bears tried to pull away. The Longhorns forced 18 Baylor turnovers for a TO rate of 26.3%, which led to 20 Longhorn points. Julien Lewis was the biggest catalyst, logging four steals for Texas.

Jonathan Holmes also had a promising start, but struggled on the defensive end and piled up the fouls. He knocked down a triple and a short jumper just outside the lane in the first few minutes of the game, but managed only one other basket the rest of the way and missed both of his free throw attempts.

What needed work

Those missed free throws were an epidemic for the Longhorns on Saturday afternoon. For a team that had made 92.1% of their free throws in games against Kansas State and Kansas, the timing could not have been worse for a tragic downswing. Texas made only 16 of their 26 attempts against Baylor (61.5%), while the Bears made just under 80% of their attempts. In a game decided by just five points, leaving that many freebies at the line was an absolute killer.

In addition to Holmes’ donut at the line, the Longhorns also had crippling misses from Alexis Wangmene, who went 0-for-2, and Kabongo, who missed half of his eight attempts. Obviously, Texas won’t be able to consistently hit at that incredible 92% clip they reached against the two Kansas schools, but the 61.4% mark over the last two games is very troubling as the team heads down the homestretch of the regular season.

Texas was also scuttled by a very poor performance on the defensive glass. Although Baylor has one of the longest, most athletic frontcourts in the country, the Longhorns hurt themselves with a ton of whistles inside that led to a rotating cast in their own frontcourt. The Bears reclaimed more than 45% of their missed shots, which was the 4th-best mark the team has posted in its 21 games and was well above their season average of 37.3%.

Clint Chapman once again found himself in foul trouble
(Photo credit: Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press)

One of those players hampered by foul trouble was Chapman, whose absence once again proved how crucial he is to the team’s success. As it was when Chapman was saddled with fouls in the road loss to Missouri, the Longhorns were abused inside for buckets and boards, giving up 22 points and being outrebounded by a count of 40-28.

While any scouting report worth its salt is going to tell teams to attack Chapman and get him on the bench, the Longhorns will have to find a way to protect their big man. That could mean switching to a zone defense against teams that aren’t automatic from long range, although the Big 12 is full of great three-point shooters. Five of the other nine teams in the league have made more than 36% of their threes so far this season, with Baylor actually cracking the Top 10 nationally with a 40.8% mark. In addition, a zone defense would only exacerbate the problems Texas has had on the defensive glass.

The optimal solution would be for Wangmene and Jaylen Bond to step up when Chapman is unavailable, but so far that outcome seems unlikely. Bond is still a fierce rebounder, and did some good work on the glass against Baylor. Unfortunately, he’s undersized for his position, and it’s caused him to really struggle on defense against bigger teams. Wangmene has also done good work on the boards, but his defense is hit-or-miss and he has problems handling the nice interior passes from Brown and Kabongo on the offensive end.

Coming into Texas’ current six-game stretch against the top teams in the Big 12, most fans had an understandably bleak outlook on the team’s future. The fact that the Longhorns were competitive in each of the first five games offers a ray of hope for the upcoming home games against the heavy hitters of the Big 12. Texas let one slip away against Kansas at the Erwin Center last weekend, but still has the opportunity to take down Missouri, Kansas State, and Baylor at home in coming weeks. If the Longhorns want to keep their 13-year NCAA tournament appearance streak alive, that’s exactly what they will have to do.

Up next: vs. #2/2 Missouri (19-2 overall, 6-2 Big 12); Monday, 8 P.M. CT

Posted by Ryan Clark at 7:55AM

Texas Longhorns (13-7 overall, 3-4 Big 12) at #7/6 Baylor Bears (18-2, 5-2)
Ferrell Center | Waco, TX | Tip: 12:05 P.M. CT | TV: CBS
LRT Consecutive Game #207

The Texas Longhorns took care of business on Tuesday night, earning a win they had to have over Iowa State. The Horns have spent most of the season positioned squarely on the proverbial NCAA tournament bubble, but another loss against a marginal RPI Top 50 team like the Cyclones would surely have darkened the postseason outlook for the Horns.

Today’s game against a deep, athletic Baylor team ranked in the Top 10 is certainly not a must-win. Even the most optimistic of Longhorn fans likely realizes just how difficult it will be for Texas to pull off a monumental road upset in Waco this afternoon. But while no one is expecting the Horns to march into the Ferrell Center and shock the nation, an improbable victory would provide a massive boost to Texas’ NCAA tournament chances.

By the numbers

The Bears roared out to a 17-0 record this season, the best start in school history. Baylor had close calls during that historic stretch, needing a clutch three and overtime to beat West Virginia in Las Vegas, while winning by just a bucket at Kansas State and against Mississippi State in Dallas. The Bears also won by three against BYU at the Marriott Center, one of the toughest venues in all of college basketball. With 11 games left until the conference tournament even begins, this Baylor team is already well-prepared for high-pressure situations.

Perry Jones III and Baylor are among the best in the nation
(Photo credit: Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press)

Baylor has one of the ten most efficient offenses in college hoops, scoring 1.168 points per possession. Even against the tougher opposition in Big 12 play, the Bears have only seen that number dip to 1.149, the second-best mark in the league. Baylor’s success hinges on an incredibly high effective field goal percentage of 55.6%, a number boosted by the team’s deadly accuracy from long range. Six of the eight members of Baylor’s core rotation have made at least a third of their threes in league play, and the team has knocked down 41% of their long-range looks this season.

With a big, athletic frontline, the Bears also extend possessions when they happen to miss shots. The team’s 37% mark for offensive rebounding ranks in the Top 40 nationally, and that percentage has actually ticked up slightly in league games. On defense, that length and athleticism also leads to a lot of blocked shots, and the team’s 15.1% swat percentage is ranked 14th in the nation.

Where that height and athletic ability fails the Bears is on the defensive glass. Baylor is actually one of the 100 worst teams in Division I when it comes to securing defensive boards, as the team allows opponents to reclaim 34.3% of their misses. Under Scott Drew, the Bear defense has been synonymous with the 2-3 zone, although this year they have mixed in much more man and even a 1-3-1 look. With the team not used to having box out assignments in the zone, they have had difficulties remembering to put a body on opposing rebounders when playing man. For a Texas team that is actually very good at grabbing offensive boards, this could be huge.

Meet the Bears

While the Baylor lineup is full of highly-touted recruits and potential NBA lottery picks, the biggest impact this season has come from a junior college transfer. A player of the year at the JUCO level, Pierre Jackson (No. 55) has earned a starting spot in the team’s last two games, and it’s easy to see why. The Baylor offense is a completely different animal with Jackson on the floor, as he dices up defenses with his dribble penetration and always seems to put his teammates in the perfect position to score.

In conference play, Jackson is nearly averaging an unconventional double-double, posting 14 points and nine assists each night. In addition to being able to put the ball on the floor and thread the needle with ridiculous passes, the former Southern Idaho standout is also practically automatic from long range. In Big 12 games, Jackson has drilled 53.3% of his looks from behind the arc.

Joining Jackson in the backcourt is another guy who cans it from deep, Canadian product Brady Heslip (No 5). A transfer from Boston College, Heslip has taken 82% of his shots from downtown this season. With a 47% success rate from three-point range, it’s hard to fault the guy. Although Heslip doesn’t shoot it often from inside the arc, he has shown a deft touch when defenses run him off the perimeter. He can knock down the soft floater, and has even gone old-school with a few banked pull-up Js.

The name that all fans are likely familiar with is sophomore star Perry Jones III (No. 1). Known as PJ3, the 6’11” forward is an all-around stud who has the NBA scouts drooling. He’s played every position in his career, so he’s the deadly breed of big man with great handles who can also knock down jumpers all over the floor.

Quincy Acy’s shot blocking protects the lane
(Photo credit: Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press)

The main knock on PJ3’s game is that he disappears in the clutch, deferring to teammates when he should be demanding the rock. Critics made this claim following the team’s losses to Kansas and Missouri, but they also failed to point out that he injured his ankle during the game against the Jayhawks. Back to full strength on Tuesday night, PJ3 posted a 21-point, 12-rebound line against the upset-minded Sooners.

Alongside PJ3 in the Baylor frontcourt is senior big man Quincy Acy (No. 4), a high-energy guy who knows how to rock the rim. In his career, Acy has 219 dunks, which account for 51% of his made field goals. He’s often the recipient of great dump-offs from Jackson, but will also fiercely throw down an offensive rebound when the opportunity presents itself. The Bears also run a simple lob play on baseline inbounds situations to get Acy dunks, something they have been doing all four years he’s been on campus. He’s also a force inside on defense, swatting more than two shots per game for a block percentage of 8.4%, a mark that is just outside the Top 50 nationally.

Freshman forward Quincy Miller (No. 30) rounds out the starting five for Baylor, and he provides yet another all-around scoring threat. On a team without PJ3, Miller would likely be the go-to guy, but at Baylor he’s an incredibly-talented second option. He had major knee surgery during his senior year of high school, so his first step still isn’t quite as explosive as it once was, but he can still score in bunches with an array of moves and a jump shot that’s good past the arc. In conference play, Miller is tops on the team with 15.3 points per game.

Coming off the bench is point guard A.J. Walton (No. 22), who lost the starting job to Jackson. Known for his outstanding perimeter defense, Walton still averages around 20 minutes per game and will likely be tasked with shutting down J’Covan Brown when he’s on the floor. Walton has a steal percentage of 4.6%, which may not sound like much, but is actually the 25th-best individual mark in the nation.

Senior forward Anthony Jones (No. 41) is another displaced starter, but he is playing his role perfectly on this deep team. He provides a lot of length for the back line of that Baylor zone, but also is a long-range threat that loves to camp out in the corner for kickouts on the offensive end. Jones has made roughly 31% of his threes so far on the season, and is also one of three Bears to have an individual offensive rebounding mark north of 10%.

Sophomore guard Gary Franklin (No. 0) is a transfer from Cal who became eligible at midseason. He’s only playing about 11 minutes per game in conference, and is essentially just a long-range catch-and-shoot threat. Sixteen of his 17 field goal attempts in Big 12 games have come from behind the arc, and he’s hitting at a 37.5% clip.

Cory Jefferson (No. 34) rounds out the core rotation, playing about nine minutes per game against Big 12 opponents. He’s a long and lean 6’9″ forward who will undoubtedly lead the team in blocked shots before he graduates. Against UT-Arlington, he blocked seven shots in 25 minutes on the court. In 10 of the team’s first 17 games, Jefferson swatted at least two shots, but he has seen very little action over the last three contests.

Keys to the game

1) Make second chances count – One of Baylor’s biggest weaknesses is on the defensive glass, which matches up perfectly with the Texas strength of offensive rebounding. The Longhorns must turn those second chances into points if they want to have any chance for an upset this afternoon. It will be even better if Texas can quickly turn those offensive boards into easy putbacks, as the Horns have really struggled in the half-court lately.

2) Get efficient contributions from Brown – A big reason for those half-court struggles has been the ball-dominating play of junior J’Covan Brown. In the team’s last three games, Brown is 18-of-70 from the floor (25.7%), having taken 40% of the team’s shots. When you consider that the Longhorns won one of those games and were in it until the final seconds against both Kansas and Kansas State, one can only wonder how Texas would have fared if Brown involved his teammates a little more.

Pierre Jackson can be forced into mistakes
(Photo credit: Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press)

In addition to eating up possessions with a ton of missed shots, Brown’s one-man show also led to his teammates doing very little when he was off the ball. Most Longhorns stood around on offense, failing to make cuts or set screens, instead waiting for the junior guard to come back to the ball and shoot. If Texas wants to win this tough road test, they will have to get an efficient game from Brown that involves his teammates.

3) Rattle Jackson – When Pierre Jackson is on his game, Baylor is tough to stop. The quick, tiny guard can push the issue in transition, break down the defense in the halfcourt, and hit dagger threes with little separation from his man. That being said, he’s also shown a tendency to make mistakes, and to let those mistakes snowball.

Jackson has picked up a fair number of charges on the season, so quality help defense can pin a few offensive fouls on him. In addition, his turnover rate of more than 30% is incredibly high for a point guard, oftentimes the result of him trying to do too much. The Longhorns don’t necessarily need to apply a ton of pressure on Jackson, but do need to play sound, team defense so they can capitalize when he tries to force things.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 12:47AM

#8/7 Texas Longhorns 60, Baylor Bears 54

Scott Drew wants Rick Barnes at the flagpole at 3:30
(Photo credit: Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press)

It was far from pretty. But after losing three of their last four games, the Longhorns were willing to take any win they could get.

Texas finally ended its road woes last night, winning in Waco for the team’s first victory away from the Erwin Center since beating Oklahoma in Norman on February 9th. The Horns overcame 35% shooting from the field, capitalizing on an excellent rebounding performance to gut out a 60-54 win over Baylor.

The loss was much bigger for the Bears than the win was for the Longhorns. Texas was already locked into the Big 12’s second seed in the upcoming conference tournament, while the Bears entered the game as one of Joe Lunardi’s projected “First Four Out” of the NCAA field. Following the defeat, Baylor was still entrenched in that dreaded group, as other bubble teams failed to secure convincing wins.

Fortunately for the Bears, they can get another crack at Texas. Thanks to a late season win against Nebraska, Baylor owned the tiebreaker over the Cornhuskers and earned the league’s 7th seed in the conference tournament. Now they only have to beat 10th-seeded Oklahoma in order to face Texas in the tournament quarterfinals on Thursday night. At just 7-9 in league play, with just a pair of victories over Texas A&M to hang their hat on, even a win in that game might not be enough for the Bears.

What looked good

In a game that had just 45 combined points in the first half, there wasn’t much that looked exceptionally good. Much of the ugliness on the court was caused by the long-awaited return of Texas’ stifling defense. The Longhorns limited Baylor to just 0.915 points per possession, only the second time in the last five games that Texas was able to keep an opponent under one point per trip. The other came against the league’s cellar-dweller, Iowa State, who managed only 0.767 points per possession in Austin last week.

Tristan Thompson was too much for Baylor to handle
(Photo credit: Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press)

While the Texas defense was finally making its reappearance, the offense was struggling. Tristan Thompson managed to keep Texas afloat in the first half, however, dominating the offensive glass and piling up second chance points. Thompson finished the game with 19 points and 13 rebounds, with eight of those boards coming on the offensive end.

Thompson’s rebounding percentage on the offensive glass was an insane 22.8%, the first time he had even cracked the 15% mark since beating Missouri in early January. As a point of reference, the nation’s best offensive rebounder — Morehead State’s Kenneth Faried — is averaging a 20.1% success rate on offensive rebounding opportunities against his overmatched Ohio Valley foes.

Thompson wasn’t the only one dominating the rebounding battle. As a team, the Longhorns grabbed more than 51% of their missed shots, which resulted in quite a few boards thanks to their 38 missed shots on the night. In the first half, Texas reclaimed 44% of their offensive rebounding opportunities, and did an even better job out-muscling the Bears in the second half. The Longhorns secured 12 offensive boards in the final twenty minutes, while Baylor grabbed just eight defensive rebounds.

A big part of Texas’ late-game success was clutch play from Alexis Wangmene. He played only 11 minutes in the game, but grabbed five offensive boards, including three in the final three minutes. He earned four attempts at the line, and sunk all of them, a huge feat for any Longhorn. The team made just 59.3% of their free throw attempts on the night, and just 52.2% if you take Wangmene’s makes out of the equation.

With the game still in doubt and less than a minute on the clock, Wangmene managed to grab his most important rebound off a missed jumper by Cory Joseph. The Horns kicked it out to the sure-shooting J’Covan Brown, who essentially iced the game with a pair of free throws. Although Alexis doesn’t get credit on the stat sheet for those points, the much-maligned reserve was instrumental in preserving the win.

The other player who must be singled out for an impressive performance is Gary Johnson. Playing in his final regular season game, Johnson did it all on both ends of the court. In addition to eight big rebounds, Johnson also had a pair of clutch jumpers that kept Texas in the game early in the second half when it looked like Baylor was going to run away with it. Most important, however, was his surprising defense on Baylor’s LaceDarius Dunn, who was becoming a one-man wrecking crew coming out of halftime.

Early in the second half, Dunn drilled a three-pointer with Balbay in his face. Texas responded on the next possession, as Joseph left A.J. Walton to double Dunn. The extra attention backfired, as it allowed Walton to get an easy putback on a weakside rebound. Two possessions later, Anthony Jones had a wide-open three because Joseph again elected to double Dunn instead of sticking with Walton, and Baylor’s quick ball reversal around the perimeter led to the easy triple. LaceDarius followed all of that with another bucket on the ensuing possession, and the Bears were suddenly up by nine.

Gary Johnson slowed down Dunn in the second half
(Photo credit: Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press)

Coming out of the under-16 media timeout, Rick Barnes gave Gary Johnson the difficult task of sticking with Baylor’s superstar. Where Dunn could once pop ridiculous shots with Balbay in his face, he now had to deal with a 6’6″ defender. Beyond just the height advantage, Johnson also showed incredible athleticism and hustle in sticking with Dunn through screen after screen, limiting his ability to find the space to shoot. With Johnson defending him, Dunn had a scoreless stretch of more than seven minutes, and went just 2-for-9 the rest of the game.

What needed work

Unfortunately for the Longhorns, a big part of their early struggles was the continued difficulty for Jordan Hamilton on the offensive end. He was just 1-for-7 from the field in the first half, with his only basket coming on a dunk. Two of his misses were on ugly, forced shots, and he passed up open looks inside by trying to make unnecessary interior passes to the blocks.

Those extra passes inside were indicative of a larger problem for Texas, namely that the team looked incredibly tight in the first half. The Longhorns had a few early possessions where they actually penetrated the zone or made the pass into the soft middle. But instead of being assertive with the basketball and taking the shot or making the quick pass, the players seemed to be too concerned with not making mistakes. That indecision let Baylor recover, and Texas was forced into long, ugly possessions that typically ended in bad looks.

As always, free throws were an albatross for the Longhorns. As previously mentioned, the team shot below 60% at the line, the 11th time they have been below that watermark in their 31 games. Add in the fact that Texas missed the front end on three different one-and-one attempts, and that’s a ton of potential points the team left on the line.

While it’s a known fact that Thompson is going to struggle from the line — and that he gets to the line more frequently than the rest of the team — the troubling thing is that J’Covan Brown and Cory Joseph were the culprits on two of those wasted one-and-ones. When even the guards are struggling at the line, Texas is going to have some major issues with offensive efficiency.

Up next: Big 12 Tournament Quarterfinal vs. Baylor or Oklahoma (in Kansas City); Thursday, 6 P.M. CT

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