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 quiet – Brady 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.