Forecast in the Ferrell Center for Waco, Texas, tuesday night: hot, uncomfortable, chance for rain from 4 prolific guards, possible windy conditions from athletic big men flying through the air, but also expecting a cool breeze from #24 Lacedarius Dunn. There's no doubt about this one for Baylor fans: it's time for their Bears to make their own forecast and control their own destiny.
The #11 Texas Longhorns come to Waco Tuesday hoping to improve on their 14-4 record and continue their 22 game winning streak over the Baylor Bears. But the Bears, hoping to take the step up they so desperately desire and improve on their 15-4 record, are ready to end that streak and send the Longhorns into the cold night.
The Bears have a lot going against them mentally. They were just shelled by the Oklahoma Sooners. They were picked to finish 3rd in the conference, but currently sit 5th. They sit behind Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, and Missouri. Guess who they are playing in a current 4 game stretch? Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and Missouri. They have already lost to Oklahoma, and the game at Missouri is looking tougher by the day. No game against Kansas is easy - so that leaves the Texas game - as a must win for the program.
The Bears have not defeated Texas since 1998, when Celine Dion was capturing hearts with the Titanic theme song "My Heart Will Go On." That's exactly what Bears fans had to tell one another as they left a deflated Ferrell Center last year. After a furious comeback, the Bears had the ball down 1 with less than 30 seconds to play - then one of those super-slow-motion plays happened. The type where everyone tries to yell "no" while helpless to stop a timeout being called - when there were no timeouts left. Baylor gets the technical. Texas gets the points and goes on for the victory. Brutal.
On top of all that negative mental energy working against the Bears, after staying in Top 25 for weeks, which always builds excitement in growing programs, the Bears have fallen out of both polls this week. Not that the players live and die by the polls in the way some fans do, but it still has to be slightly deflating to realize people no longer consider you one of the best 25 teams in the nation. Yes, the Bears will be put to the mental test this week, needing to focus and pull off a big victory against their conference rival from Austin. Let's look a little closer at how this could shake out.
Texas is 3-1 in conference play so far, and 14-4 overall. Without a doubt, they had the most grueling non-conference schedule of all Big 12 teams - playing currently ranked teams of Notre Dame, Villanova, UCLA, and Michigan State. They went 2-2 against those teams - beating 'Nova and UCLA, and losing to the Spartans by only four and the Irish by a mere point. All of that hard work did not help much when Texas travelled to Norman, Oklahoma - as the Longhorns were served up with the same dish the Bears received - a pouncing by the Oklahoma Sooners.
The two teams have two other common opponents outside of OU - fellow Big 12 South rivals Texas Tech and A&M. Both teams beat Tech (Texas by 22 on the road and Baylor by 12 at home) and Texas beat A&M by 9 at home, while Baylor lost to A&M by 11 on the road.
While everyone is complaining about tough stretches in their Big 12 schedule, the Longhorns have a relatively benign stretch coming up after Baylor. 5 of their next 6 games are against teams ranked 6th or lower in the conference standings right now, and their one game against a top 5 opponent is Missouri at home - a very winnable game for Texas. All that to say the Longhorns will want to use this chance to gain ground on the Sooners as they will still hope to have a shot at the Big 12 title.
Over the last several years, Texas has established itself as an extremely tough Big 12 team - no matter where they were playing. That of course is helped when you have a top 2 player in Kevin Durrant and a sure-fire first rounder in D.J. Augustin - but nonetheless, the numbers don't lie. Each of the last two years, the Longhorns have finished with winning road records in the Big 12 - including winning in Waco both times of course. The fans did their part last year in a great sellout in Waco, so it remains to be seen whether the team will be able to give the fans what they want to see so badly - a victory over Texas.
Texas is led by senior guard AJ Abrams and junior forward Damion James. Both are in the top 10 in scoring in the league (16.9 and 15.6 pts per game respectively), and James is the 5th best rebounder with 8.2 a game. As a senior, Baylor fans have seen plenty of Abrams dating all the way back to the Texas High School Coaches All-star Game that Kevin Rogers played in with Abrams before making it to college. Abrams has never been shy at putting up 3 pointers, coming in 4th in the league in 3 pointers made. However, he has found the defense focusing on him much more this year, which has resulted in a percentage reflecting only the 15th best shooter of 3 pointers in the league. Either way, he'll be shooting them often as he is on the court an average of over 36 minutes a game, so the Bears absolutely have to focus on making it difficult for him to get a clear shot.
Other than Abrams, the Longhorns don't shoot a lot of 3 pointers. As a team, they rank 12th in the league in 3 point percentage. But one guy who has been deceptively good from 3 point range is Damion James (shot over 40% last year). He will be a difficult matchup for the Bears as he can play inside and outside, which has caused some of our big men trouble. His ability to get to the hole and score has the tendency to get other team's big men in foul trouble if they aren't playing sound defensively. The Horns have another big man that can step out and hit the 3 - Connor Atchley. He has seen a drop in production this year, shooting a worse percentage and scoring about 4 points per game less. The Bears will have to remain dedicated to Atchley and not let him have a randomly great night in a year when he is only putting up 5 points per game.
Inside, Texas is led by pounding forward Gary Johnson, who is the third and last Longhorn averaging double digits in points (11.3) to go along with 6.9 rebounds. Johnson has added a mid-range jumper to his arsenal this year - hitting from about 14 to 17 feet with pretty good consistency. The Bears have to resist the temptation to leave him to help in that position if he is showing early that his shot is falling.
Justin Mason has taken the position of point guard from departed DJ Augustin. Playing out of position, Mason has done a serviceable job averaging about 7 points, 4 boards, and almost 5 assists per game. Perhaps Texas's best chance for a true point comes in newcomer Dogus Balbay, who has shown at times this year that rare ability to create his own shot and set others up. Don't look for Balbay to shoot much from outside though.
Overall, the Longhorns have rotated in many more players on a game-by-game basis than the Bears do. They have received some extremely solid contributions from Dexter Pittman at times, and rotate him with big men off the bench such as Clint Chapman.
The Longhorns are not a team that will overwhelm you when analyzing their offensive statistics. Above we broke down some of their 3 point shooting woes as a team, they also come in 8th in the league in scoring, 10th in field goal percentage, 11th in free throw percentage, and 9th in assists.
But, there's a reason they are 14-4 and have beaten some very good teams, and that is simply they do what it takes to play great defense and grab every rebound possible. The Longhorns rank 2nd in the conference in scoring defense, 4th in field goal percentage defense, 3rd in 3 point field goal percentage defense, 1st in rebounding, and 1st in blocks. With 8 guys averaging over 10 minutes a game and a few more getting nearly 10 minutes a game, the Longhorns will rotate guys in all night to keep fresh legs and stay focused defensively. With only two players averaging over 30 minutes (compared to 4 for Baylor), Texas will more than likely have more energy down the stretch.
As we have documented in past weeks, Baylor is the polar opposite of Texas, excelling in most offensive categories, while being in the lower half of the league on defense. It was a lack of defense against Oklahoma that allowed them to score 50+ in the first half last Saturday, so the Bears will need a push from the home crowd to limit Texas in the first half on Tuesday. If they couple that with better shooting at home, the Bears could get out to an early lead.
Summary and Projection
This game has the makings of Baylor's theme for this season - can they play enough defense to give their prolific offense a chance to win a big game? Against OU in their last game, Baylor had the double-whammy of missing shots and not playing great defense. Thus, they did not make a game of it. However, if Baylor can feel the impact of the home crowd and keep constant pressure on Abrams, they will force someone else on Texas to beat them.
What Baylor must NOT let happen is for Abrams to score 30+ and beat them by himself. Against the Longhorns in years past, whether it's been Daniel Gibson, Kevin Durrant or other past stars - the Bears have a nasty habit of letting one guy go off. If they do nothing else, it is imperative they don't let Abrams get comfortable.
The Bears have the perfect matchup for Abrams in senior guard Henry Dugat. They have similar builds and are both lightning quick - so look for Coach Scott Drew to focus Dugat in on Abrams. If the Bears are indeed able to disrupt Abrams, there won't be any blowouts in favor of the opponent in Waco. It will at the least be close, and at best, for the Bears, be what they need to finally get over the hump. Look for the Bears to come out energized and looking to prove something. If they can get the big win, Baylor will be back in contention in the Big 12 and be right where they want to be.