By Daniel Hill
The Baylor Bears are set to take on the No. 13 Kansas State Wildcats at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Ferrell Center. The Bears are fresh off of a 65-62 road win against West Virginia and are trying to gain momentum for the last three games of the Big 12 Conference schedule.
“It was a good road win for us,” senior guard A.J. Walton said. “We’ve been working hard in practice just trying to stay focused and stay together and not get down on ourselves. We’re 1-6 now in games under five points so it’s good for us to get that win. It just shows how much we’ve been working and how much we’ve grown.”
A win against a ranked Wildcats team would bolster the Bears’ chances of being selected for the NCAA tournament. The Bears are currently sixth in the Big 12 standings. This is significant because the last four seeds in the Big 12, the seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th place teams, play an extra game in the Big 12 tournament.
If the Bears can maintain their sixth spot, then they won’t have to play until the second day of the Big 12 tournament, and they’ll avoid the play-in round.
Taking down Kansas State at home will be a difficult task for the Bears.
When these two teams met in Manhattan, Kan., two weeks ago, the Wildcats ended up winning by 20 points, 81-61. The final score didn’t indicate how close the game really was, though.
“Well, you look at the game and [it was] 41-43 in the second half so it wasn’t a 20-point game, it was a two-point game,” Baylor head coach Scott Drew said. “With four [minutes] to go, it was a three-point game. We played well in spurts.”
Kansas State sophomore guard Angel Rodriguez torched Baylor with his shooting and passing as he scored 22 points and had 10 assists against Baylor. Wildcat junior guard Shane Southwell knocked down six 3-pointers to give K-State 18 points versus Baylor.
“Obviously, we’ve got to do a much better job on Angel Rodriguez,” Drew said. “We’ve got to do a much better job on Southwell. I think we have to do a better job on the glass. We’ll do those things and we’ll change up some schemes on how we defended people from what we did last time and try to make things tougher and see if we can contest a couple more shots and rebound a little bit more.”
As far as the NCAA tournament is concerned, the Bears are simply focusing on Kansas State and not getting too caught up on what looms beyond the Wildcats.
“I really barely even watch ESPN,” Walton said. “I just love playing basketball. I love playing with these guys. I just go out there and try to give my all.”
Drew said that the only thing that matters right now is the next opponent, Kansas State.
“Right now, if we are in or out, it doesn’t matter,” Drew said. “It just matters how you finish, so we spend more time focusing on the next game because that’s really what matters. I know it’s fun for everybody else to talk about, but from a coach, it really doesn’t matter where we are at today. It’s where we end up.”
Kansas State has steamrolled everyone within the Big 12 Conference except for their two losses to the Kansas Jayhawks and their road slip-up at Iowa State.
“They are just an aggressive team,” junior forward Cory Jefferson said. “They are always on the ball and around the ball. If you have the ball in your hands on the perimeter they are always crawling over you trying to force a turnover and on the post they are trying to do the same thing.”
Even though the Wildcats already defeated Baylor this year, Walton says this Bears squad won’t back down from the challenge.
“That’s one thing about this team — we don’t back down,” Walton said. “Nobody is scared of any team regardless of whether we beat them once or lost to them. We come in every day and practice hard and go at each other hard and continue to listen to what Coach Drew has for us in the game plan.”
When asked what Baylor needs to do to win, Jefferson kept it simple.
“Execution,” Jefferson said. “That’s the biggest thing. We know what we have to do on offense and defense and go out there and do it.”
What separates Kansas State with several other Big 12 teams is its wealth of experience.
“These guys have been through the wars and they know the highs and lows and the grind of the Big 12,” Drew said. “They don’t get rattled because they’ve been there before. It’s players that have been successful in the Big 12. This is a team that has done a lot of good things over the years and now they are a bunch of veterans and experienced players. I think that they don’t beat themselves. Coach [Bruce] Weber has done a great job.
The Bears have an opportunity to shock college basketball on Saturday by slaying one of the Big 12’s strongest teams.