Next time you wonder why Baylor's men's basketball program sticks with Adidas while football and women's basketball are with Nike, it's probably due to things like this. On a related note, we have a huge game tonight in Lawrence, Kansas against KU on ESPN's Big Monday. We are ... not favored to win.
Baylor (11-4, 3-0) at Kansas (14-1, 2-0)
Jan. 14, 2013 | 8:00 p.m. CT
Lawrence, Kan. | Allen Fieldhouse (16,300)
TV: ESPN & WatchESPN | Radio: ESPN Central Texas 1660 AM, Sirius 91, XM 91
Watch | Listen | Gametracker | Notes | Tickets Sold Out
So Baylor gets to play tonight on ESPN, that's the good news. The bad news is that our opponent is none other than the Kansas Jayhawks, winners of eight straight Big 12 championships and denizens of the Phog, a place where opposing teams go to make silly noise-driven turnovers and eventually just lose games. Whatever voodoo priestess holds Bill Self's soul in return for his success really needed to drive a harder bargain if she was going to curse the arena itself, too. She might have gotten Danny Manning's, too, if she tried.
Kansas has been, by almost any measure, one of the best teams in the country this year. Their only loss to date came on November 13, 2012 against Michigan State in a game the Jayhawks probably win this time around. Since then, they've won 13 straight games, though, to be fair, they only squeaked by ISU on January 9 and then beat Texas Tech in Lubbock by much fewer than we did (transitive property works when I want it to, yay!). Do I think this means we're going to win? No. Especially not coming off that god-awful game against TCU that made me want to quit basketball forever.
Here's the point: the Jayhawks are really good and play in a place where it is really tough to win. If we could pull it off tonight, it would easily be our biggest win of the season (even bigger than over UK at Rupp) and would set us up very well in conference play. I don't expect us to do that, but here's to hoping!
I don't pretend to know a lot about the more technical aspects of basketball, nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn last night, but the real difference between our two teams, it seems to me, is defensive. Kansas allows fewer points per possession, a lower effective field goal percentage, a lower true shooting percentage, and has significantly more blocks. They do all of this through preventing 2 point baskets, something I think is most attributable to the fact that they have Jeff Withey on their team and he's a less-heralded version of Anthony Davis. Withey's presence affects everything an opposing team does, and against Baylor, a team that relies so heavily on guys like Cory Jefferson, Isaiah Austin, and Rico Gathers inside, either getting him in foul trouble or bringing him away from the basket, either one, is absolutely critical. We're not going to win if Jeff Withey roams the paint blocking shots and grabbing boards all night, regardless of how many points he actually scores.
Aside from Mr. Withey, Kansas' best player (and pro prospect) at this point is probably freshman Ben McLemore, a 6-5 combo guard who basically beat Iowa State a few nights ago single-handedly. He's an excellent shooter who can create off the dribble, and I shudder to think of a situation where I want Brady Heslip having anything to do with guarding him. If our zone gets busted over the top, it will be by McLemore and Travis Releford, a guard that has been playing at Kansas since before it was a state. Both command attention on the outside and absolutely can light us up if we let them. A.J. Walton having an A.J. Walton-type game tonight (something like 8 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals, and good perimeter defense) would go a long way to limiting their production, as would Deuce Bello building on his strong play against TCU. Those two are the best defenders we have, and we're going to need them to step up and stay out of foul trouble.
Baylor's best chance in this game comes if we can get Withey in foul trouble, run their guards off the 3-point line, and pound the ball inside the same way we started doing against TCU in the second half. Our posts, specifically Austin and Jefferson, are good enough to carry the load scoring-wise and take pressure off Pierre Jackson. Whether they accomplish that defends largely on what we do against Withey to take him off his game.
Kansas is a 11-point favorite for a reason, and it's not entirely that they play in the basketball arena that time forgot in Lawrence. Bill Self's teams are extremely well-prepared (meaning the zone defense won't faze them) and talented, a delightfully awful combination for Big 12 opponents. Baylor will have to play its best game of the season as a whole on the road on ESPN tonight to have a chance at winning. I'm not saying it's not going to happen ... but it probably won't happen. I'll still watch, though, and you should, too, if only to see how Isaiah Austin responds in the biggest spotlight he's had yet at Baylor. NBA scouts will be watching the Withey-Austin matchup intently to see how Austin handles the most physical presence in the conference as a precursor to his jump to the NBA. An impressive performance by him in that matchup will not only raise his stock even higher but also go a long way to giving Baylor a chance at the upset.