SCOUTING THE BEARS
When Isaiah Austin announced his intention to return to Waco for his sophomore season, it seemed as if Baylor was primed to continue its run toward the top of the Big 12. A 12-1 start, marred only by a loss to top five Syracuse, did nothing to dispel that notion, but since then the Bears have managed only a blowout of TCU against five conference losses.
Head coach Bryce Drew has shuffled his starting lineup a bit to try to end the slide, but the first five haven't been the key for the Bears in either its wins or its losses. BU is very strong off the bench, and its subs have outscored foes by nearly 15 points per game. Further changes could be in evidence this evening, but that could serve as more of a mental shake-up than as a real strategic advantage.
Led by Austin (C, So., 7-1) the Bear frontcourt has both height and a physical presence. Austin is slender but bouncy, scoring 10.5 points per game while grabbing 5.7 boards and blocking 2.8 shots per outing. He hasn't shot the ball well this year, making just 43.6% of his tries, but he can still dominate stretches of the game. Cory Jefferson (F, Sr., 6-9) tallies team bests of 12.9 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, and is a match-up problem, as he gets his points in a variety of manners. Taurean Prince (F, So., ) rounds out the starting lineup, and adds 8.2 points and 3.4 rebounds to the mix.
Backup 270-pound Rico Gathers (F, So., 6-8) who has been on a tear over the past half-dozen games. He has matching totals of 7.5 points and rebounds, with nearly half of the latter total coming on the offensive glass. Of the bigs, he struggles the most at the line, barely topping the 50% mark. Putting him there might be a good tactic for the WVU defense.
Kenny Cherry runs the show from the point, but he's also a scorer, balancing 11.1 points per outing against 5.1 assists. The 6-1 junior is paired in the starting backcourt with Royce O'Neal who chips in 6.1 points and 3.7 rebounds. The sniper that must be accounted for is Brady Heslip, who comes off the bench to play almost as many minutes as the starters. Heslip (G, 6-2, Sr.) hits more than 46% of his 3-point shots (52-112), and makes Baylor a more multi-dimensional team when he is on the floor. Backup Gary Franklin (G, 6-2, Sr.) also helps in that regard, as he hits nearly 39% of his tries from behind the line to account for many of his 6.7 points per outing.
If West Virginia hopes to go to a postseason tournament, it has to win games such as this one.
That's not to downgrade Baylor as an opponent, because the Bears clearly have talent. Wins over Kentucky and Colorado show that, but despite their ability, they haven't been able to put together consistent play in league games. Admittedly, the Big 12 is the toughest league in the nation, but at some point those natural gifts should show.
7:00 PM E
WVU 11-9, 3-4
BU 13-6, 1-5
WVU - 91
BU - 52
The biggest problem for BU in league play has been shooting. In those six games, they are making just 39.9% of their attempts. Even Gathers and Jefferson, who rarely range out to the 3-line, are struggling, making well under 50% of their tries. Those that follow West Virginia know that defense has been a problem for the Mountaineers this year, so look for Baylor to go inside early and often to try to build confidence for their bigs and get the scoring ball rolling.
West Virginia doesn't have any additional bodies to counter with, so it will again look, for the umpteenth time, to get everyone in the frontcourt involved with a better team defensive effort and more rebounding. While Baylor is missing a lot of shots, it's also retrieving a lot of them, having grabbed 99 offensive boards while giving up only 66 in those half-dozen league tilts.
For WVU, the rollercoaster of player performances continue, with no one other than Juwan Staten being able to string together a series of good games. That's not penetrating analysis, but unfortunately it's the story of the 2013-14 Mountaineers. With 20 games under their belt, the hope was that experience would lessen the ups and downs, but that hasn't been the case to date. Until the Mountaineers can get three or four players who can be counted on to achieve at their expected levels night in and night out, wins are going to be hard to come by.
Baylor did not play a true road game during its non-conference season, although it did play neutral site contests against five teams. The first road contest came at Iowa State, which was a loss. Perhaps that lack of preparation has contributed to the current losing skid, in which three of the losses came on the road?
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WVU is 5-1 all-time in games played in Texas, but that one blemish came against the Bears in last year's game in Waco.
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Baylor is 32nd nationally in blocked shots per game (5.5). It is also blocks almost 10% of the shots taken by its opponents this year -- certainly a concern for a Mountaineer team that has trouble elevating and scoring inside.
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Neither team is stellar defensively, so this game may come down to the squad that executes better without the ball. Low national rankings in many defensive categories dot the stat charts for both schools, but one place where both are nearly equal is in points per possession allowed. Baylor yields 1.02 points per opponent possession while WVU is right behind at 1.03. The team that can lower that total in this game is likely to come out the winner.