Coming into conference play with only two losses, one to a highly ranked Wake Forest team and the other by 1 point to South Carolina, Baylor was hopeful this was the season to really make a run at the Big 12. The Big 12 coaches agreed - voting them to finish 3rd. However, after some tough losses and a middle of the road start, the Bears find their record at 3-3, good enough for only 5th place in the league standings.
So far, the Bears have not been able to pull off a conference victory that people did not expect - and to get to where they want to go - it's going to have to start Saturday. But the Bears don't expect a solid home-court Missouri Tiger team in front of a sold out crowd to just give them anything, so they will have to step up their play from their last few games if they want to make a name in this conference race.
Missouri has 4 losses on the year, but none of them have been at home. In non-conference play, they lost at Xavier and also lost to Illinois. Also in non-conference, they had two notable wins - both over Pac 10 teams (Cal and USC). In conference, their losses have come at Nebraska and at Kansas State, while they have one notable win at Oklahoma State to go along with a few blowouts over other Big 12 North opponents (by 45 over Colorado, by 31 over Iowa State).
In conference both teams have played Texas Tech at their respective home court and in Manhattan at Kansas State. Against Tech, the results were similar - Baylor winning by 12 and Missouri winning by 11. Missouri did run a much faster-paced game though, dictating the tempo to Tech and putting 97 points on the board. Against Kansas State, the Wildcats could never figure out how to defend Baylor and LaceDarius Dunn so the Bears won easily by 18. Missouri on the other hand ran into some problems and could not score on the Wildcats defense, hitting only 39% of their shots and ultimately losing by 16. The teams have also each faced Oklahoma State in close contests - but Missouri's win was more impressive in that it was on the road and in regulation (97-95), while Baylor took overtime in Waco to knock off the Cowboys.
Missouri goes on the road for its next two games then comes home to play Kansas. Because of that tough upcoming stretch, and likely refocusing after a tough loss to Kansas State, the Tigers should be ready to give it their all against the Bears on Saturday. Right now they sit only a half-game behind Texas for 3rd place in the conference, and since Texas is their next opponent - they would surely love to go into that game with the chance to jump them in the standings.
Pacing Missouri each time out are two senior forwards: 6'8" DeMarre Carroll and 6'9" Leo Lyons. Carroll is averaging 16.4 points and 7.0 rebounds per game (good for 9th and 8th best in the league in each category), while Lyons is putting up 14 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. These two appear to be good tests for Baylor forwads Kevin Rogers and Quincy Acy - who stand 6'9" and 6'7", respectively, and are both top 20 rebounders in the league in conference play (Rogers coming in at 3rd overall and 1st in offensive rebounds).
But unlike Baylor, whose bench has been extremely thin in conference play and who might struggle if Rogers or Acy get into foul trouble, Missouri does not have a single player averaging over 25 minutes a game. They will play a variety of players, including 8 others that average over 10 minutes a game. Some names Baylor fans might recognize include senior Matt Lawrence (9.5 pts per game), junior guard J.T. Tiller (7.5 pts, 3 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game), and junior guard Zaire Taylor (5.6 pts, 3 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game). It's hard to know who will lead the Tigers any particular night, although Carroll is certainly the best bet; Missouri has had 6 different leading scorers over their last 8 games.
This matchup promises to be a high scoring affair - which is nothing new for either Missouri or Baylor. Missouri is 2nd in the conference in scoring and Baylor third - and when looking at conference games only, Missouri is number 1 in scoring at 83.5 points per game. Missouri's offensive statistics throughout the league are pretty prolific - they are #1 in scoring margin (Baylor #7), #3 in field goal percentage (Baylor #4), #4 in 3 point field goal percentage (Baylor #2), #1 in assists (Baylor #10), and #3 in 3 pointers made (Baylor #2).
But much like Baylor, their defensive numbers don't look quite as good. Missouri is #8 in scoring defense (Baylor #10), #5 in field goal percentage defense (Baylor #7), #10 in defensive rebounding (Baylor #9), but they are #1 in steals (Baylor #5). Despite the fast pace they play, Missouri is very good at taking care of the ball, coming in #1 in the league in turnover margin.
Because of their balance, individual Missouri players do not show up on the individual lists quite as much as Baylor. Even so, Carroll and Lyons are top 20 in scoring and rebounding, Carroll is right in front of Kevin Rogers in field goal percentage in the top 5 in the league, both teams have 2 guys in the top 15 in assists (Curtis Jerrells and Tweety Carter from Baylor, Taylor and Tiller from Mizzou), and both have 2 in the top 15 in steals (Henry Dugat and Jerrells from Baylor, Tiller and Carroll from Mizzou). Baylor has a few sharp-shooters in 3 point field goal percentage in Tweety Carter at 43% and LaceDarius Dunn at 41%, and Missouri is paced by Matt Lawrence at 43%. In conference play however, Missouri is also helped out by Kim English (45%) and Marcus Denmon (41%).
Summary and Projection
If Baylor is unable to gain a lead early in this game, they are simply going to have to go deeper into their bench. Fred Ellis struggled last game against Texas, so Baylor fans are still looking to see if freshman Anthony Jones will get a shot at contributing in conference. If Coach Scott Drew feels Ellis and Jones are unable to handle the pressure, then the Bears could definitely tire in the second half. Missouri will apply good full court pressure and some of the Baylor guards have a tendency to relax or get a little sloppy as they get into the 30+ minute range.
Missouri has won 14 straight at home and has not lost 2 games in a row all season. Beating Baylor would mean Missouri would already have more wins this season than they did all last season. What this means, along with a sold out crowd, is that Missouri will come out with tons of energy and try to get the Bears down early.
Curtis Jerrells will need to have a great game for Baylor controlling the tempo early. If he can find his teammates after breaking the press or finish around the rim the way he normally does, he should have a big game. Once again, Baylor needs Acy and Rogers to stay out of foul trouble so they can keep up with the pace of Missouri and not force Josh Lomers or Mamadou Diene into too many minutes in a row.
Baylor has been good dating back to last season when their back is against the wall. Whether it was a big win over Michael Beasley and Kansas State after a few losses or another big win over Texas Tech in the last game of conference ensuring a birth in the Big Dance - Jerrells and company come up big when it counts. Baylor fans will be hoping and expecting for that to occur again Saturday, because if not, Baylor's hill to the top of the Big 12 may just be too steep to climb.