Preview: West Virginia Mountaineers – Baylor Bears
Baylor has been the hottest team in the Big 12 in February, winning five consecutive games, and providing the Mountaineers a very tough road return trip coming off another disheartening loss to Kansas.
UPDATING THE BEARS
Much of Baylor’s improvement can be attributed to simple health, as it has been playing with its full lineup after seeing its roster decimated during the early part of the season. Terry Maston (6-8, 225 lbs.), who missed a half-dozen games with a broken hand, has become a go-to player off the bench, earning league player of the week honors while scoring 60 points in his last two games. Jo Lual-Acuil (Sr., 7-0, 225 lbs.) has become a double-double threat on a nightly basis, contributing 14.2 points and 9.2 rebounds, while Manu Lecomte (Sr., 5-11, 175 lbs.) leads the team with 16.5 points and 3.5 assists per outing. Getting their entire team back and playing together was an uphill battle at first, as the loss to West Virginia set off a 1-6 stretch of play, but since then the Bears have been on a strong upward arc. Wins over Kansas and Texas Tech anchor that winning streak, and have put Baylor into position to battle for an NCAA bid.
Through the winning streak, Baylor has been able to win games in a variety of ways. They have shot well at times, but has also ridden defense when the ball hasn’t been falling. They hung tough in a two-overtime win at Texas, and now stand poised to draw even with WVU in the league standings with a win. Even though they have ten losses, there’s only one “bad”one on the list, as eight of the defeats have come to ranked teams. If they can manage a .500 record in league play, it’s likely they will snare that call from the selection committee.
Even with a healthy lineup, head coach Scott Drew has stuck to a mostly-eight man rotation. In past years, that might have been an advantage for West Virginia and its press, but this year it’s time to concede that its not. The “wearing down” factor has all but disappeared from WVU’s arsenal, as teams have been able to fracture the most aggressive tactics in West Virginia’s full-court defense for open shots. The Mountaineers will try to keep the ball out of Lecomte’s hands, but Jake Lindsey has been very good at moving the ball too, and holds a nearly 3-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
The first encounter between Baylor and WVU played out with some strange occurrences — will those also be present in the rematch in Waco?
|West Virginia (19-8 /8-6) vs. BU (17-10 / 7-7)||Tue Feb 20 7:00 PM ET|
|Ferrell Center||Waco, TX||Series: BU 8-5|
|RPI: WVU – 33 BU- 46||TV: ESPN2||Sirius/XM: 83 / 83|
The Mountaineers were called for just 15 fouls in the game, which was their lowest total of the season, and neither team shot the ball well. WVU was a cold 31%, and Baylor not much better at 36%. Also against the trendline? WVU managed to hold onto a lead for the entire second half, and escaped with a three-point when when Lecomte’s final attempt from beyond the arc missed. Baylor has made a habit of rallying from deficits, though, and has trailed at halftime in ten of its 14 league games to date.
For WVU, it’s a circle the wagons type of game. Thoughts of Kansas have to be put away, and any creeping “here we go again” intimations that pop up when play doesn’t go well have to be banished immediately. On the court, the Mountaineers must be all hands on deck in terms of rebounding. Outside of Lecomte, the Bears deploy a ton of length in the lineup. Along with Acuil and Maston, Nuni Omot, Tristan Clark and Mark Vital all get their share of boards, and if West Virginia’s guards and swing forwards aren’t battling, the Bears could win the game by denying WVU second shots and converting some of their own. While the Mountaineers are first nationally in offensive rebounds at 12.3 per game, BU is very good too, retrieving 10.3 per outing. Also of concern is West Virginia’s performance on the defensive end, where the Mountaineers are grabbing only 22.4 (254th).
West Virginia tries to craft its lineup and substitution patterns to have scoring punch off the bench, which partly explains Beetle Bolden’s return to that role after starting a couple of games. Can he match Maston, who has been on a roll over the past week? He scores in a different way than Bolden, and the two won’t be crossing paths defensively, but bench scoring figures to be a key component in this game. Can WVU hold the strong Maston in check, especially in the lane? Can Bolden find his niche to score and give the Mountaineers the lift they need in the scoring column? Keep an eye on the defensive match-ups here, as they could be the telling factors in the game.
Finally, there’s West Virginia’s halfcourt defense. The Mountaineers have tried a 1-3-1 on several occasions, with results trending more negative than positive. A version of the point drop was also used, but it has also been on the shelf recently. Does Bob Huggins have a defense other than man-to-man that he is comfortable in deploying as a pace-changer, or to disrupt a run? Or is this simply a man-to-man team that has to live and die with whatever results it gets there?
With three more assists, Jevon Carter will become the first player in WVU history to have more than 1,500 points, 500 rebounds and 500 assists. He is WVU’s all-time steals leader with 301. He will also become just the fifth player (first Power 5) in NCAA history to have more than 1,500 points, 500 rebounds, 500 assists and 300 steals in a career.
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Baylor is trying to duplicate the finish of its 2014 season, which it also began struggling but finished with a flourish. It started 2-8 in the 2014 Big 12 season, but the Bears won 7 of the next 8 to finish the season at 9-9, then advanced to the Big 12 Championship title game as a No. 7 seed and the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 as a No. 6 seed.
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How much time will Beetle Bolden get in this game? Will WVU be able to play its three-guard look against a much bigger Baylor lineup? Bolden played only 12 minutes against Kansas and 17 against TCU after averaging nearly 28 in the previous four games. Granted, the Mountaineers had to keep Daxter Miles on the floor against the Jayhawks, where he played spectacularly, but they also need Bolden’s scoring punch too, especially if Esa Ahmad continues in his funk, which has yielded just five points and five rebounds over the past two contests.
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The University of Texas continues to get love from ESPN and other national media who fawn at the altar of the Longhorns, but it’s Baylor that rules the state’s hoop scene. The Bears are 55-11 against other Texas squads, and have advanced further than any of them in the postseason over five of the past six seasons.