With their Big 12 title dreams dashed, the Baylor Bears are left playing for tournament positioning, both the NCAA and the Big 12. A loss to Iowa State this weekend sent the Bears tumbling down to fourth place in the Big 12 standings, the lowest they have been all season. It has also pushed them out of the Top-10 in the AP Poll, the first time they have been outside of the Top-10 since emerging in the polls Week-4.
Losing three of your last four games, and going 3-5 in their last 8 games will have that effect. The benefits of a 20-1 start to the season, including a 12-0 non-conference schedule, are wearing thin now. Just two games remain in the regular season schedule, a season-ending trip to Austin to take on Texas, and a senior night date Monday evening with West Virginia.
The Mountaineers, who demolished the Bears in Morgantown 89-68 to give the #1 ranked Baylor team its first loss of 2017, are 23-6 on the season, and a Big 12 second best 11-5. While the Bears have been falling, the Mountaineers have been holding steady, winning three straight games and only an over time loss at Kansas in their last 6 games.
Led by Jevon Carter, the Mountaineers are one of the more unique teams in the country, featuring an attacking full-court press and trapping defense. Offenses only average 15.7 seconds per possession against WVU, the smallest in the nation. They force a turnover on 29.1% of opponents possessions, best in the nation. They are second in steals (15.0%) and are quick and athletic all over the court.
Legendary coach Bob Huggins has remade his team the past few years with this style, playing 10 players at least 11 minutes per game to keep his guys fresh. Their guards are all bigger, at 6-foot-2 to 6-foot-3, with the exception of backup point guard James Bolden. Carter, Tarik Phillips, Daxter Miles, and Teyvone Myers are all juniors or seniors, and have played in this system for years. That experience is crucial to pulling off a scheme like this.
While their defense is best suited for a fast-paced, hectic game, their offense is great at two things. They are a tremendous fast-break offense, able to get out and run with the best of them. However, their half-court offense struggles at times, though their offensive rebounding makes up for those dry spells. This is an elite offensive rebounding team, led by forwards Nathan Adrian and Esa Ahmad.
Even with no true 7-footer in the rotation, the Mountaineers have a quartet of post players that give them strong minutes. Adrian is the best of the bunch, joined by fellow-starter Elijah Macon. Off the bench, both Esa Ahmad and Brandon Watkins give them good size and strength down low. Even freshman Lamont West gives them some quality minutes at time. This is as deep of a post-unit that the Bears will see all year.
It is a good thing that West Virginia is so deep, due to the pace of play. However, foul trouble has been an issue at times, due to the amount of reaching and bumping calls they get on defense. They are the exact opposite of Iowa State, where the Cyclones don't want to foul, they play their starters big minutes and make teams make shots.
The Mountaineers will foul all the time to keep you from an open look or shot, daring the refs to call it all. Almost 23% of all opposing points come from the foul line against WVU (39th in country). They have committed the 68th most fouls in the nation.
Baylor might be going into this game without the services of junior point guard, Manu Lecomte. An injured ankle that has been bothering him since the Kansas game on February 8th, Lecomte left the Iowa State game early in the second half. A game-time decision, Lecomte has struggled with pressure defenses this year. He committed five turnovers in the first game against WVU, and that total might have been low.
If Lecomte can't go, the Bears will turn to Jake Lindsey and Al Freeman in the backcourt. With King McClure not nearly as comfortable handling the ball, expect Freeman to make his return to the lineup. Freeman was a big bright spot in the loss to Iowa State, scoring 17 points and making all 5 of his 3-pointers.
With Lindsey, Freeman, and senior Ish Wainright, the Bears will have the necessary height to hopefully beat the press, something they did not handle well in Morgantown. Even if Lecomte is healthy, expect him to be less of the primary ball-handler this game, especially with an injured ankle.