While some conference races look like they’ll be bitter fights to the finish (ACC/Big Ten), others are all but wrapped up. After Baylor’s stunning loss to the Texas Tech Red Raiders on Monday night in Lubbock, Texas, the Big 12 race has gone from intense to essentially determined.
The Jayhawks now sport a two-game lead over the Bears, who were trying to halt Kansas’s incredible 12-year conference championship winning streak. Instead, the Bears will face off against the Jayhawks on Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m. ET on CBS with the goal of sending a message ahead of the upcoming Big 12 and NCAA Tournaments.
We caught up with CBS Sports college basketball analyst Wally Szczerbiak to get his take on the second meeting this season between the Kansas Jayhawks and the Baylor Bears.
CBS Local Sports: What do the Bears have to do differently to beat the Jayhawks this time around?
Wally Szczerbiak: The Jayhawks have a knack for winning close games, and we saw it Monday night against West Virginia. They were down 14 with 2:40-something left, and they just find a way. This is a team that is a little thin on the front line. Baylor has to attack them in the paint, because they have a tremendous front line with Maston, Lual-Acuil Jr. and Motley. They have to go to work down there and try to figure out a way to play like they did last time against Kansas in Phog — they were in that game pretty much the whole game. They just have to find a way to close it out.
CBS Local Sports: Baylor is coming off a tough loss to Texas Tech. How worried should Baylor fans be about that loss?
Szczerbiak: Listen, Texas Tech just got beat by Kansas by one a few days before, so any road win is clearly tough to get in the Big 12. Baylor hasn’t shown the ability, though, to take care of some of the games that they should. Losing to Kansas State at home, then losing to Texas Tech, it makes it difficult to win the Big 12 regular season. It looks like it’s Kansas’ again.
But, having said that, Baylor’s been solid all year long, and they’re right up there for a No. 1 seed. They’ve had a really good year. They just have to figure out a way to bounce back, play really well against Kansas and find a way to get that win.
CBS Local Sports: Is there anything you’ve seen from Baylor this year that tells you that they’re ready overcome early-round tournament struggles of years past?
Szczerbiak: Coach Drew has done a really good job this season. You’re going to have a few hiccups over the course of a season when you’re playing good teams in their league. I have a tendency to trust them more this year because, like I said, I think he has a great handle on this team.
The way they change defenses, the way they zone up, the depth they have down low, gives me the mindset that they’re not as susceptible to being nipped as they were in years past. And then their guards are solid too. They’re not afraid of the moment. They’re not afraid of making plays down the stretch when it counts in games. So having those qualities makes me believe in them a lot more.
CBS Local Sports: Who is your X-factor in this game?
Szczerbiak: Devonte Graham. He had been struggling a bit, but down the stretch of the West Virginia game, he found his shot and made some big plays to help Kansas pull out that win. So when Graham is playing well, you know Josh Jackson and Frank Mason III are normally going to be there. But when you add that third guy, that’s when Kansas becomes really really difficult to beat. And another guy is Landen Lucas. Because of the strength and depth of Baylor’s front line, he’s got to stay out of foul trouble and make sure he’s out on the floor. Or else Baylor will dominate down low.
CBS Local Sports: Heading into March, what’s one area Kansas needs to shore up to ensure a deep tournament run?
Szczerbiak: I would think all these close games are wearing on them physically and mentally a little bit. It takes a lot to pull out all these close, close wins. I just hope mentally they’re not getting fatigued having to constantly grind out these wins, because they’re not very deep at all. Other than Landen Lucas and Carlton Bragg down low, they don’t really have that much. They’re relying heavily on Josh Jackson. He’s super talented and is emerging as maybe their best player all around with all the stuff he brings to the table. The stress level is very high in their wins, and we’ll see if that kind of catches up to them.
CBS Local Sports: Kansas still has tough road games against Texas and Oklahoma after Baylor. Do you see any way Baylor can run the table and put a late scare in Kansas for the Big 12 regular season crown?
Szczerbiak: No. I don’t have any faith in any team in the Big 12 but Kansas. I’ve tried to believe in the past, but after seeing what I saw in West Virginia, completely melting down in the last two minutes of that game, I have no faith in any other teams but Kansas to win the Big 12 title.