Baylor basketball coach Scott Drew found himself rooting for fellow conference member/longtime nemesis Kansas on Saturday.
“We were cheering like heck for them because we needed those last two wins for the Big 12 to make sure we didn’t lose the challenge,” Drew said of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
It took the Bears’ victory at Mississippi combined with the Jayhawks’ win at Kentucky to assure the Big 12 a 5-5 tie in the one-day series of games between members of the two leagues.
“They did a great job in a hostile arena coming through with a big win for the Big 12, but we’re not cheering for them tomorrow night,” Drew added with a laugh on Tuesday.
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It’s been the job of KU coach Bill Self to convince his No. 3-ranked Jayhawks (19-2, 7-1 Big 12) that Wednesday’s 8 p.m. home game against No. 2 Baylor (20-1, 7-1) actually is a more important game than Saturday’s 79-73 victory over Kentucky at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.
“I’m not going to lie and say the Kentucky game didn’t mean something to our guys,” Self said. “That was a game everybody circles on the calendar going way back. Guys come to Kansas or go to Kentucky to play in those particular games. But to get a chance to play the second-ranked team in America at home, tied for the league title, I think that’s a bigger venue.”
How big is Wednesday’s game, which for the time being will determine sole possession of first place in the Big 12?
Put it this way … the last time KU was ranked as high as No. 3 and played host to a higher-ranked opponent was March 18, 1967, when the No. 3 Jayhawks defeated No. 2 Louisville 70-68 in the NCAA Tournament at Allen Fieldhouse.
“It’s a great opportunity with a lot of national attention, Dick Vitale on the game. A lot of people will be watching the Big 12, especially with the two teams playing well,” said Drew, who is in his 14th year at Baylor. His teams are 0-9 at Allen Fieldhouse and 3-19 overall versus KU.
“Hopefully we can give ourselves a chance to win up there because if you don’t handle the crowd and the excitement level at the beginning of the game, it’s really hard to come back on their court,” Drew added.
Baylor, which earlier this season became the fourth team to go from preseason unranked to No. 1 (1978-79 Indiana State, 1989-90 Kansas and 2009-10 Syracuse are the others), has has won five straight games since falling to West Virginia 89-68 on Jan. 10 in Morgantown, W.Va. Of course, West Virginia downed KU 85-69 14 days later in Morgantown.
“He’s had multiple Elite Eight teams. I think this is the best team he’s had,” Self said of Drew, whose Bears did reached the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight in 2009-10 and 2011-12.
“I love their personnel. Every team at some point has an identity. I don’t think we’ve developed one yet. They’ve developed the identity, ‘We don’t let people score easily (in allowing 61.1 points per game).’ It’s hard to get a good shot against them. Possessions are longer because they guard so well. They take pride in stopping teams.”
The Bears, who start Big 12 player of the year candidate Johnathan Motley (6-10, junior) and Jo Lual-Acuil (7-0, junior) in the frontcourt, traditionally have had great length in their 2-3 zone defense. This year they’ve also used a lot of man-to-man.
“There have been times we’ve attacked their zone great. There’s been times we were just awful in how we attacked it,” said Self, who is 19-3 against Baylor in 14 seasons at KU. “It would be nice to make shots on top of that, then being able to keep them away from the glass. I really think their offensive rebounding is one of their biggest strengths because of their length,” Self added.
Motley leads the Bears in scoring (16.2 points per game) and rebounding (9.6 ). He exploded for 32 points and 20 rebounds in a 74-64 win over Texas on Jan. 17 in Waco, Texas. It was the first 30-20 game in Big 12 play since Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin in 2009.
“I was hoping he would test the (draft) waters last year because I thought he could be without question a first-round draft pick last year,” Self said. “It was smart for him to come back to school, and he’s certainly played himself into a higher pick. He’ll be a big challenge for Landen (Lucas) and our other big guys,” Self added.
KU held Kentucky big man Edrice “Bam” Adebayo to 10 points and eight boards in 37 minutes on Saturday.
“I think Bam is pretty skilled, but he was probably more powerful, where Motley can move anywhere on the court. I mean, he can make a 17-footer or he can be a good passer, feed another big,” Self said.
Baylor’s second leading scorer is Miami transfer Manu Lecomte, a 5-11 junior from Brussels, Belgium, who averages 12.3 points with 93 assists and 49 turnovers.
“I’ve watched him a lot. He does a good job of running the team, getting other guys involved,” KU senior Frank Mason said. “It’s not just him. They have a good team, a lot of length. We’re all excited for this matchup.”
Baylor’s Ishmail Wainright, a 6-5 senior guard from Kansas City, averages 5.6 points and 5.0 boards while being known as a true team leader.
“I think he’s having his best year,” Self said, calling Wainright “the best athlete on the floor.”
“I have total respect for Ishmail. I think he’s even a better kid than he is an athlete or a player. He’s a terrific young man,” Self added.
Drew has just as much respect for KU’s Big 12 player of the year candidate — Mason.
“I think teams that win close games all have good leadership. Normally it’s upperclassman leadership. I’ll be excited when Frank graduates like everyone else in the Big 12 will be,” Drew said. “There are a lot of similarities between him and Ish. You have to have upperclassmen and people that stay poised and can handle big moments. If they make a mistake it doesn’t frustrate them.”
The Jayhawks and Bears also will meet on Feb. 18 in Waco.
“If we win or lose this game, the conference race isn’t over. That’s why playing 18 games and playing everybody twice, that’s how you get a champion,” Drew said.
“Would winning up there be a big deal? Yes. Our team likes making history, likes being the first to accomplish things. We’ve done a lot of those this year (such as getting off to the best start in school history and being No. 1 for the first time ever). We haven’t won at Kansas. That’s something we could check that box. At the same time if we win there it doesn’t guarantee we’ll win or lose conference so we’re looking big picture.”
Self noted: “It’s not very often you have a chance to host a top-five team at home, and we were able to do that last year in an epic game (a 109-106 OT win over Oklahoma in a battle between Nos. 1 and 2), and I’m sure this one will be a hotly contested game, as well.”