By Shehan Jeyarajah
Baylor started its 2013-14 campaign as one of the best teams in college basketball. Despite playing a difficult non-conference schedule that included four teams that were ranked at some point in non-conference play, Baylor emerged with a sturdy record of 12-1, including a convincing win over No. 3 Kentucky. Baylor’s only loss was to Syracuse, who is now the No. 2 team in the nation.
During this stretch, senior power forward Cory Jefferson turned into one of the unquestioned leaders of the team. Jefferson averaged 14.2 points per game on 57 percent shooting during non-conference play.
Baylor featured a balanced offense throughout the nonconference slate with five players who averaged double-figures scoring: Jefferson, junior point guard Kenny Chery, senior guard Brady Heslip, senior center Isaiah Austin and sophomore forward Taurean Prince.
Chery has been a revelation at the point guard position since transferring from State Fair Community College in Pennsylvania. Chery is second in the Big 12 in assists per game with 5.2 per game. He is also averaging 11.4 points per game on the season.
The Bears have received a boost off the bench from Prince and sophomore forward Rico Gathers. Prince has been a dynamic scorer off the bench with 10.2 points per game on 50 percent from the floor and 41.7 percent from the three-point line. Gathers is fourth in the Big 12 with 7.7 rebounds per game despite averaging less minutes than the players ahead of him rebounding. He also leads the conference in offensive rebounds with 3.6 per game.
Since the outstanding play in non-conference, things have gone south for Baylor basketball upon entering Big 12 Conference play. The Bears have already lost four conference games, including three straight. Baylor was favored to win in three of its conference losses. The worst was an 82-72 loss to perennial Big 12 cellar-dweller Texas Tech in Lubbock.
After looking like a team that could contend for a championship earlier in the season, now the Bears have their work cut out for them in order to make the NCAA Tournament.
Jefferson’s play has greatly diminished since Big 12 conference play started. Stronger Big 12 defenses have taken to double-teaming Jefferson and forcing others to make decisions. His averages have fallen to 10.6 points per game on 43.9 percent shooting during conference play.
“Since Iowa State, they’ve been doubling Isaiah in the post,” Chery said. “The main goal is the get the ball inside first, but it’s been tough.”
Baylor has struggled mightily with turnovers all season long. The Bears are eighth in the Big 12 in turnovers per game at 12.7. They are also ninth in turnover margin, giving the ball up 1.94 more times than they take away. Baylor is averaging 16.8 turnovers per game in losses to ranked team.
“We have to work the ball around and play together,” junior forward Royce O’Neale said. “We haven’t taken care of the ball like we need to.”
Poor free throw shooting has plagued this team. The Bears shot 66.8 percent from the free-throw line during non-conference play. Since then, Baylor’s averages have fallen to under 64 percent in conference play.
Outside of a perfect shooting game in the one win against TCU, Baylor is shooting under 55 percent from the free-throw line in conference play.
Baylor’s losses have come by an average of 8.8 points per game. During those games, Baylor has missed an average of five free-throws. The Bears have shot 53.5 percent from the line in their five losses.
“Win or loss, you have to move on to the next game,” Baylor head coach Scott Drew said. “That’s what’s so important this year, especially with the grind. Numerous teams have been undefeated after 15 games and then lost three straight. There’s a tremendous amount of parity right now.”
Baylor has an immense amount of talent on the roster, but the end result will come down to execution.
If the Bears find themselves once again unable to convert on free throws and take care of the ball, it may mean missing out on the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row.