8:00 PM EST, ESPN2 – Line: Kansas -2, Over/Under: 150
With the NCAA Tournament right around the corner, teams jockeying for postseason positioning clash in Waco, Texas as the nineteenth-ranked Baylor Bears host the second-ranked Kansas Jayhawks at the Ferrell Center. In a season void of any clear-cut favorites or dominant teams, Kansas (23-4, 11-3, 1st in Big XII) has hovered around the Top-Five in the Polls, throughout the campaign, ascending to Second Overall after Sunday’s 72-63 victory at bitter rival Kansas State. After a disappointing stretch in which they lost three out of five games, it looked as if the Jayhawks’ iron grip on the Big XII was finally over, but since that point Bill Self’s charges have rallied off seven consecutive wins, reclaiming the top spot in the process. Travelling to Manhattan, the visitors jumped on the home side early, establishing a 39-29 lead by Halftime, before a largely evenly matched second half. Defense was the name of the game that day, as Kansas held their instate foes to just 37.7% shooting from the field, includ9ing 15-of-37 from within the three-point arc (40.5%) and 5-of-16 from beyond it (31.3%), along with a scant ten assists, while forcing a dozen turnovers. The Jayhawks also held a solid advantage on the glass, outrebounding the Wildcats thirty-four to twenty-nine, in a contest in which there were quite a few rebounds to be had; by the end of the game, there twenty-five offensive rebounds accounted for between them. On the other end, the visiting side put together a stellar performance offensively, shooting 50.0% from the field, including 18-of-30 from within the arc (60.0%), led by Frank Mason (16 points) and Perry Ellis (14 points), with the former dishing out five assists, while the latter posted a pair of rebounds and assists apiece. However, it was far from the cleanest of victories, as Kansas committed fifteen turnovers, which has been a problem for them all year. Fortunately, Kansas State couldn’t do much with the extra opportunities afforded to them by their opponent, for the hosts in turn couldn’t keep the ‘Hawks off the stripe, where they netted eighteen of their thirty free-throw attempts (60.0%). With that said, does anyone outside of Lawrence, Kansas have any faith in this team managing to keep their lofty position come tourney time? While Self’s roster is as talented as any in the country, possessing a wealth of experience to boot, they’ve been maddeningly inconsistent despite their record, rarely putting everything together for a sustained period of time. Case in point, they were certainly at their best in their previous meeting with Baylor, in which they hammered the Bears in a 102-74 drubbing. Rock Chalk Jayhawk heat the century mark in a game in which defense was rather optional, netting 53.7% of their attempts from the floor, including a blistering 11-of-19 from beyond the arc (57.9%), along with 19-of-24 from the charity stripe (79.2%). Kansas outscored their opponent by twenty-four points from long-range, where Wayne Selden went to WORK, drilling all but one of his six attempts (83.3%) on his way to a game-high twenty-four points to go along with five rebounds, four assists, and a steal. However, there have been far too many occasions when they’ve looked barely engaged, evidenced by their struggle to force turnovers (11.3), the lowest figure in the league, or the fact that they’ve seen the opposition attempt 329 free-throws in conference play, fourth-most in the Big XII. The problem has been the Backcourt, where the aforementioned tandem of Mason and Selden has not lived up to their billing, or at least in league play; Mason has shot a poor 37.7% from the field in that time, with Selden barely besting him on 41.6% shooting, while barely combining for more assists (5.9) than turnovers (4.2). Furthermore, their respective PER (Player Efficiency Rating) has dipped considerably since entering the Big XII schedule, with Mason dropping from 18.9 to 15.6, with Selden delving from 18.8 to 12.8. Granted, the Big XII has been arguably the most competitive conference in the country, and the fact that this team has still managed to rise above their competition despite their relative struggles is a testament juts how much talent is on hand, not to mention Self’s coaching chops, but these kids had better find some measure of consistency soon, lest they court an early dismissal come March Madness.
Meanwhile, Baylor (20-7, 9-5, T-2nd in Big XII) isn’t far from Kansas in the conference rankings (just two games), but currently stands stuck in a scrum with Oklahoma and West Virginia for Second Place. They too know a little bit about rebounding from a tough spell, as Scott Drew’s charges managed to right the ship after a stretch in which they lost three out of four games, with some rather decisive results. Baylor lost those three games by an average of 12.3 points, with the last being a troublesome eighteen-point loss at home to an improving Texas Tech team. With that said, the Bears have since managed to pick up some rather impressive league wins over the likes of Iowa State (100-91) and Texas (78-64) lately, which has helped them to remain in striking distance of tonight’s opponent. Last Saturday’s victory in Austin was truly a one-sided affair, as the visiting side exploded in the first half, outscoring the hosts 40 to 22 over the first twenty minutes of play. Drew’s kids had their way on the offensive end, shooting a white-hot 62.7% from the field, with the vast majority of their damage done inside the three-point arc, shooting 30-of-46 in that area (65.2%), opposed to attempting a mere five three-pointers (making two, 40.0%). Simply put, Jonathan Motley put on a show Saturday Night, making all but one of his thirteen attempts from the field (92.3%), en route to twenty-four points, along with four rebounds, a steal, and a pair of blocks. All of the Sophomore Forward’s attempts came from within the painted area, serving as a microcosm of his team’s performance. On the flipside, Texas had a hell of a time getting anything going offensively, shooting just 41.5% from the field themselves, with a solid 51.4% from inside the arc, weighed down by a dreadful 4-of-18 from three (22.2%). The obvious question now though, is will Baylor be able to keep that maintain that level of focus on both ends of the court against Kansas? As we noted earlier in this post, that simply wasn’t the case when they last locked horns back on January 2nd, in which the Jayhawks ran them out of Allen Fieldhouse in a twenty-eight point debacle. On that day, Drew and Co. couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean, shooting a pitiful 39.0% from the floor, including a poor 20-of-48 from inside the three-point arc (41.7%). And therein lies the problem in this matchup; while Kansas hasn’t been sound in defending the perimeter this season, they’ve been stout in the paint, while Baylor’s attack has been seriously one-dimensional, leading the league in two-point field goal attempts (584), while ranking dead-last in three-point attempts (200) in conference play. That’s a serious disparity, folks, as a whopping 74.5% of the Bears’ field goals have been of the two-point variety, the most in the Big XII. Senior Forward Rico Gathers and the aforementioned Motley are as active a pair of bigs as you’ll find in the country, with the pair averaging a collective 23.0 points, 14.6 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game. In fact, Motley has proven to be the team’s most indispensable player, racking up a staggering 28.3 PER in conference play, by far and away the highest such figure on the roster. Add the team’s leading scorer Taurean Prince (15.0 points per game) into the mix and you have one of the most productive front lines in the Big XII, if not College Basketball as a whole. With that said, you would think that they’d be stouter on the defensive end, but that just hasn’t bee the case, for no team in the conference has been more forgiving defensively, as Drew’s charges have permitted the opposition to shoot 47.7% from the field (10th in Big XII), including 51.7% from within the three-point arc (8th in Big XII) and 40.1% from beyond it (10th in Big XII). No wonder Kansas scored 100 points against them. Then again, this team has been prone to serious defensive lapses this season, as five of their seven losses have come by nine or more points.