7:00 PM EST ESPN2 – Line: Baylor -1.5, Over/Under: 148
For the second straight night we’re staying in the Big XII, and why wouldn’t we with yet another battle between ranked opponents as the number nine Baylor Bears battle the fourteenth-ranked Kansas State Wildcats from the Little Apple? With six different teams currently occupying a spot in the AP Poll, the Big XII is once again proving to be the most powerful league in the country, while also being the most competitive as its residents continue to bloody one another. This of course brings us to Baylor (20-7, 9-5 in Big XII), who have seen all but two of their seven defeats come within league play, which is relevant giving that they are coming off their second-largest loss of the campaign, a 71-87 blowout on the road against (No. 5) Kansas. This showdown between the last two National Champions was a tale of two halves, as the Bears stormed into Phog Allen Fieldhouse netting 9-of-14 three-pointers (64.2%) en route to establishing a commanding 45-32 lead at halftime. However, the visitors could not maintain that torrid form for much longer, as the hosts mounted a furious run to cut the deficit to just three points only three minutes into the second half and could do nothing as the Jayhawks caught fire en route to throttling them 55-26 the rest of the way. So, what in the hell happened to (Head Coach) Scott Drew’s charges, you ask? Well, the easiest way to describe it was that they allowed their opponent to completely control the tempo of play primarily because they couldn’t stop fouling them. It’s bad enough when you give up 50.9% shooting from the field, including 23-of-36 from within the arc (63.9%), but putting them on the charity stripe where they calmly netted 23-of-27 free-throws (85.2%) is only compounding matters. Kansas outscored Baylor by fourteen points in this regard, which has other consequences that need to be addressed. When a possession ends in free-throws, it eliminates the potential for transition opportunities for the defense, in turn allowing the opponent to get themselves organized in the half court, which became a real problem as the proverbial well ran dry as the game progressed. (Senior Guard) Adam Flagler led the way with twenty-two points on 9-of-17 shooting (52.9%), along with three rebounds and seven assists, while (Freshman Guard) Keyonte George added twenty points of his own on 7-of-15 shooting (46.7%), including 5-of-10 from downtown (50.0%), though also was marred by six turnovers. Of course, George (pictured above) has been one of the brightest stars for Baylor this season, with the nation’s seventh-ranked recruit living up to the hype in Waco; the IMG Academy product leads the team with 16.6 points per game on 38.9% shooting, including 34.6% from long-range, along with 4.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.1 steals. Paired alongside the very experienced Flagler, the Bears have one of the strongest backcourts in the Big XII if not the country as a whole, with this dynamic duo setting the tone for the league’s most prolific attack; Baylor leads the conference in points (77.4), three-pointers made (130), attempted (353), and percentage (36.8%), while also proving sneaky good on the offensive glass where they’ve secured 9.6 boards of that variety (2nd in Big XII). Looking to tonight’s trip to Manhattan, they are looking to break the deadlock in the all-time series which is knotted at 24-24. Drew’s troops did own a seven-game winning streak against the Wildcats before their previous encounter this season, a narrow 95-97 loss at Ferrell Center that require overtime to decide a victor. After a (Junior Forward) Jalen Bridges’ trey pushed the hosts into overtime, the Bears found themselves a victim of the money ball, yielding the go-ahead three-pointer with thirty-two seconds left to play in the extra period. Flagler would then turn the ball over on the ensuing possession, with K-State hitting one of their two free-throws as the home side were forced to foul to prolong the affair. Unfortunately, (Junior Forward) Caleb Lohner desperation heave at the buzzer was wide of its mark. Drew’s defense left a lot to be desired in this one, as they permitted 53.1% shooting from the visiting side, though they did manage to keep things close by getting to the free-throw line a ton, knocking down 29-of-38 attempts (76.3%) leading to a +11 advantage. Flagler and George combined for forty-five points, though the freshman had a particularly tough shooting night, netting 5-of-14 attempts from the field (35.7%) and all five of his shots from the perimeter. From a betting perspective, Baylor has covered the spread in four of their last five games regardless of the venue, while matching that record against the spread in their last five contests against opponents with a winning record straight-up, which is the case tonight. Trailing Kansas and Texas by one game in the standings, there is still time to capture their third consecutive conference title, though their remaining schedule is nothing short of arduous; the Bears host the (No. 6) Longhorns this weekend, before traveling to Oklahoma State and closing out the regular season at home against (No. 19) Iowa State, who kicked off their midseason three-game losing streak with a 77-62 thumping in Ames back on New Year’s Eve.
Meanwhile, if there is a team that absolutely understands how difficult it is to compete in this league, it is Kansas State (20-7, 8-6 in Big XII), who have faced off against TEN ranked opponents in their last fifteen games. Granted, the Wildcats have win six of those affairs, though it appears that they may be getting fatigued from such a murderer’s row of opposition; K-State has lost three of their last five in this regard, including rematches with (No. 2) Kansas and (No. 6) Texas, whom they bested back in January. In this sample size, (Head Coach) Jerome Tang’s troops have outscored their opponents by a mere 1.6 points per game, while shooting 42.4% from the field, including 37.5% from beyond the arc, though haven’t been the cleanest when in possession, committing more turnovers (14.2) than assists (12.4). With that said, they did manage to snap an awful stretch in which they lost four out of five games, getting revenge against (No. 19) Iowa State over the weekend in the form of a 61-55 victory. This one featured two sides who looked utterly gassed, as neither shot the ball well at all, with both teams netting well below 40.0%. For that matter, the Kansas State was easily the less offensive of the pairing, relegating the Cyclones to a miserable 30.6% shooting from the field, including 14-of-35 from within the arc (40.0%) and 5-of-27 beyond it (18.5%), with five more turnovers (15) than assists (10). The Wildcats owned the second half of the affair, outscoring the visitors 38-24 over the final twenty minutes of action. (Senior Guard) Markquis Nowell and (Senior Forward) Keyontae Johnson were the only two players to reach double-figures in scoring for the hosts, with the former leading the way with twenty points on just 4-of-13 shooting from the field (30.8%), though he made up for it with six rebounds and five assists, while the latter finished the night with fifteen points on a far more efficient 6-of-13 shooting (46.2%), six rebounds, and a pair of dimes. Unranked to begin the campaign, K-State has grown exponentially in a short period of time under the leadership of Tang, who in his first season in the Little Apple has guided his team to their first appearance in the top-ten of the AP Poll since 2012-2013 on the strength of four victories over ranked opposition, including the last two National Champions, Kansas and Baylor. After spending nearly two decades in Waco as an assistant under Drew, the 56-year-old hit the transfer portal hard last Spring, bringing in the likes of Johnson (pictured above) and (Senior Guard) Desi Sills from Florida and Arkansas State respectively, while (Sophomore Guard) Camryn Carter and (Junior Forward) David N’Guessan arrived via Mississippi State and Virginia Tech. Looking to tonight’s reunion of sorts with the Bears, the Wildcats will attempt to break the all-time series deadlock at twenty-four wins apiece. However, this rivalry has been characterized by long streaks from both sides; Baylor won four straight from 2014 to 2017 before K-State strung together six consecutive victories, only to concede seven successive defeats before that aforementioned 97-95 thriller back in early January. Johnson and Nowell played huge roles in that upset, with the tandem combining for fifty-six points on 19-of-33 shooting from the field (57.5%), including 6-of-11 from downtown (54.5%), with the former leading the team with nine rebounds and latter logging fourteen assists. From a betting perspective, the Wildcats are 7-1 against the spread over their last eight games in Manhattan, while also posting a stellar 12-3 record against opponents with winning records straight-up, which is obviously the case tonight. Trailing the Bears by just one game in the Big XII hierarchy, there is still time for K-State to make a push for their first conference title since the 2018-2019 campaign; after tonight’s battle with ninth-ranked Baylor, they finish the regular season against the bottom of the league, traveling to Oklahoma State this weekend before hosting Oklahoma and visiting West Virginia in the finale, with those three opponents a combined 14-28 in conference play (.333).