By Shehan Jeyarajah
SAN ANTONIO – Two of the hottest teams in basketball will face off today in San Antonio as No. 23 Baylor prepares to take on Nebraska in an NCAA Tournament second round matchup between the two West Region teams.
Baylor (24-11, 9-9) has won 10 of its last 12 games, including three wins on the way to a Big 12 Championship game appearance in Kansas City. During that stretch, Baylor defeated six tournament teams, as well as being the only visiting Big 12 team to win a conference game in the state of Kansas this season.
Senior power forward Cory Jefferson leads the Bears with 13.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. Senior guard Brady Heslip is one of the best three-point shooters in the nation this season, shooting 47.3 percent from long-distance.
Jefferson broke the Big 12 Tournament rebounding record with 43 total rebounds over the course of four games. Sophomore center Isaiah Austin added a tournament-record 18 blocks as well. Junior forward Royce O’Neale stepped up his game and averaged 11.0 points and 9.5 rebounds per game in the tournament.
The Bears lost the Big 12 Championship to Iowa State after leading for much of the game. Baylor held the Cyclones to 32 percent shooting in the first half, but seemed to run out of steam in the second.
Senior guard Gary Franklin is not worried about the possible factor of fatigue in the tournament.
“If you’re not excited to play in the NCAA tournament, you shouldn’t be playing basketball,” Franklin said. “I fully believe that if we had a game yesterday, we’d be ready to play tomorrow. So those four games in four days for us, I felt like was a couple of weeks of practice that we’ve had in the past where things were tough and then having to have a game. So I think we’re fully prepared. I hope my guys feel the same.”
Nebraska won 10 of its last 13 games to earn its first NCAA Tournament appearance in this millennium. The Cornhuskers beat then No. 9 Wisconsin on senior night and stole an impressive road victory over then No. 9 Michigan State on Feb. 16 in East Lansing, Mich.
Nebraska (19-12, 11-7) fell to Ohio State in the Big 10 Tournament after being held to 36.7 percent shooting from the field and outhustled on the boards 43-34.
Dynamic wing scorer Terran Petteway led Nebraska, as well as the Big 10, in scoring this season. The Texas Tech transfer averaged 18.1 points per game and upped his production to 18.6 points per game in conference play.
Comparable players to Petteway in the Big 12 would likely be players such as Iowa State forward Melvin Ejim and Kansas guard Andrew Wiggins. Baylor had success shutting down both Ejim and Wiggins this season. The two, both All-Big 12 team members, combined to shoot 37.5 percent against the Bears this season compared to 48.5 percent against all other opponents.
“The Big 12 conference prepares you to play against different styles and great players,” Baylor head coach Scott Drew said. “That allows you to hopefully be successful in slowing down guys from other conferences.”
Nebraska sophomore guard Shavon Shields is the team’s second-leading scorer with 12.7 points per game.
No other Cornhusker averages double-figures. Sophomore forward Walter Pitchford is 6-foot-10, but averages almost four three-point attempts a game and 4.7 rebounds.
The greatest advantage Baylor possesses against Nebraska is its frontcourt size and length inside. Sophomore center Isaiah Austin measures out with a wingspan of 7-foot-3, and senior power forward Cory Jefferson is no slouch with a 7-foot wingspan.
Baylor has outrebounded its opponents by almost seven boards per game this season, while Nebraska averages a two rebound deficit to its opponents.
Nebraska’s leading rebounder is Shields, who averages 5.8 rebounds per game. For Baylor to win, it will have to take advantage of the rebounding edge with its size.
Drew has led Baylor to the highest postseason winning percentage in college basketball over the past few seasons.
In both of its last two tournament appearances, Baylor reached the Elite Eight. Jefferson was buried on the depth chart behind Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller in 2012, but is excited to have his chance this season.
“This is one of the main reasons that I wanted to come back, was to actually play in the NCAA tournament,” Jefferson said. “The last two times that we were here as a team, I wasn’t really on the floor as much and I feel this year would be a great experience just being out there with my brothers.”
The No. 23 Baylor Bears will play the Nebraska Cornhuskers at 11:40 a.m. today in San Antonio at the AT&T Center. The game will be nationally televised on TruTV and broadcast live on NCAA.com.