5-Things: Learning to Close Games

The Bears lost a close one, after winning a close one, and losing a close one and winning a close one. With all of these nail-biters to start off Big 12 play, the Bears are learning some hard lessons about how to win games.

1. Lets get this out of the way early. The Baylor Bears are still a top-20 caliber team. They have a 13-4 record against one of the tougher schedules in college basketball (KenPom ranks them 17th toughest, Sagarin as 11th) and have wins over 7 teams that are at least in the conversation for an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament (South Carolina, Stephen F. Austin. Memphis, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, TCU and Iowa State). All of those are Top-100 wins according to KenPom, with 3 of those being true road wins. This is a solid basketball team with a good resume.

Saying that, it is also a team that has let big leads evaporate in the last two games, surviving at home against 11th ranked Iowa State and then falling late to a surging Kansas State team 63-61 on the road. The win over Iowa State probably says more about what the Bears can be versus that loss against the Wildcats. Manhattan has been an extremely difficult place to win in the past, though the Wildcats have already lost two games at home in 2014-15 with one of those coming against Texas Southern. On the flip side, the Wildcats have won 4-games in a row in the toughest conference in college basketball. They have beaten a Top-15 team in Oklahoma on the road, and then won three games at home against TCU, Texas Tech and now Baylor. The Wildcats are playing good basketball, but that still doesn't make me feel better about the Bears losing a 12 point lead.

2. Why do the Bears lose big leads like this? Quite honestly, it is easily explained as "basketball is a game of runs". Teams will make moves, go on long scoring streaks or even on long scoring droughts. The Bears are not unique in their ability to NOT score for prolonged stretches of action. That is a common issue for pretty much all teams that don't have an elite offense. A more in-depth answer though is probably needed here, as the Bears have such a hot/cold type manner to their offense. I wrote about this last week before the Iowa State game, saying that the Bears offense would be helped by seeing some average or worse defenses. We saw that against Iowa State, at least in the first half. We finally saw some lights out shooting and a ton of points rolling on the scoreboard.

Against Kansas State, we were again facing a defense that had not played very well this season. However, with the Wildcats playing almost as slow of a tempo as the Bears, this was going to be a low-scoring game with few easy baskets and transition opportunities. As the Bears grew their lead, the transition chances and the fast break points were in their favor. A layup and foul shot for Rico Gathers put the Bears up 49-37 with 11:27 left in the game. After that point, it was all Kansas State, as the Bears would score just 2 points during a 17-2 run covering over 5 minutes of action to give teh Wildcats a 54-51 lead.

3. During these scoreless droughts, the Bears offense usually involves a lot of standing around and ball watching. During this one, Lester Medford "took" over the offense and missed several key shots and layups while appearing to do too much. However, no one else stepped up to take on the challenge, right or wrong. Too many jump shots, forced shots closer to the rim, and turnovers are the common symptoms we see during these struggling time periods. They also happen to coincide quite a bit with Kenny Chery going to the bench, and usually the 6th and 7th men in the rotation on the floor at the same time in Allerik Freeman and Ishmail Wainright. Without Chery on the floor and with two developing offensive players, the Bears offense stagnates and becomes either a post up opportunity for one of the Baylor bigs, or an isolation play for Lester Medford. With such a predictable attack, it is hard to score effectively.

4. Is the issue the rotation, the lack of offensive production off of the bench (outside of Taurean Prince) or is it personnel? The lack of another guard or wing player to come in and give some quality minutes on both sides of the court is really hurting the Bears. Freeman plays like a freshman much of the time, and he is still learning how to fit with the team. He forces some bad shots at times, and has even been missing open looks as well. Wainright has still not found his role on the offense, as his facilitation skills are as good as anyone else on the team, but his lack of a jumper and his struggles closer to the rim have allowed defenses to leave him alone. This team really needs one more guard or wing player to come in and make a splash, something that I am sure the coaches wanted Kobie Eubanks to do before he could not qualify and had to go back to prep school for another year. They especially need it when Lester Medford goes 1-9 from the field and scores only 4 points in 31 minutes.

The Bears are not going to win with just two players carrying the scoring load. As we saw against Kansas, Taurean Prince and Kenny Chery scored the bulk of the points, 41 of 61 in fact. Baylor desperately needed a 3rd player to step up and score in double figures. Be it Medford, Royce O'Neale (6 points on 2-5 shooting) or one of the starting post players, the Bears won't win with just two guys scoring for them.

5. This is not a doom and gloom piece though. In the big picture, the Bears are in an okay spot. Yes, a win over Kansas or Kansas State would have been great. Winning close games is a skill, and you need to practice your skills to make them better. The past 4 games have been a crash course in how to win (and how to lose) those nail-biters down the stretch. A 2-2 record in those types of game in conference is not a bad thing....it just isn't a great thing either. With 13 wins on the season, and a 2-3 record, the Bears might only need to win 6 more conference games to get a good look at an NCAA tournament spot. They have the non-conference resume to overcome an under .500 record in the Big 12.

It also doesn't hurt that the Big 12 is by far the strongest conference in the nation so far, and its depth is unmatched. With at least 6 more Big 12 wins needed, the Bears still have two games against Bottom-3 team Texas Tech, and home games against Kansas State and TCU. Baylor should be favored in all four of those games, and with wins in each, would just need two more wins to get to that 8-win total. The Bears have 6 games left on the schedule that KenPom gives them greater than a 65% chance of winning, and with those 6 wins. KenPom still projects the Bears to go 10-8 in conference and with 7 home games left on the schedules, that is still very much in play.

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