Men fight to stay near top of standings

Nick Berryman | Lariat Photographer
No. 24 senior LaceDarius Dunn drives the ball toward the basket in a Jan. 29 70-66 win over Colorado. The Bears face Nebraska at 7 p.m. today in Waco.

Basketball faces Cornhuskers at home

By Chris Derrett
Sports Editor

Fresh off what could be a season-turning win at Texas A&M Saturday, Baylor returns to the Ferrell Center for a 7 p.m. matchup today with Nebraska.

The Bears (15-7, 5-4) took sole possession of third place in the Big 12 by beating the Aggies, with three teams tied at 4-4 and another three at 4-5.

“In Big 12 play, every loss is hard to take, and [with] every win, you get very excited,” head coach Scott Drew said. “The mature teams move on after each game and get ready for the next game.”

The game will be Nebraska’s last against Baylor as a member of the Big 12. With a win, the Bears would tie the series at nine games apiece in the Big 12 era.

The Cornhuskers (15-7, 3-5) enter tonight after dropping an 86-66 contest to Kansas at home and a 69-53 contest to Kansas State in Manhattan. Their two other conference losses, however, were a close 63-60 loss at Kansas and a 77-69 fall to Missouri.

To avoid being upset, Baylor will have to handle a Nebraska defensive that flourishes on slowing the game and keeping opponents away from the rim.

“They really pack it in the paint and make it hard to get easy buckets,” Drew said. “They double team the post and are very aggressive on ball screens. The congestion they cause with their help-side defense make it different than most teams.”

League opponents have managed just 68 points per game against the Cornhuskers, ranking them third in the conference. Including all regular season games, that number drops to 58.4, good for first among Big 12 teams.

Once a guard-oriented team, Drew said Nebraska’s big men have played an increasingly large role offensively. Jorge Brian Diaz, a 6-foot-11 center, leads all Cornhusker posts with 9.5 points per Big 12 game.

The Bears’ answer inside will be Perry Jones III, a 6-foot-11 freshman who caught attention from NBA scouts early in the season and has built his NBA resume ever since. Jones III dropped a career-high 27 points in College Station, bodying up defenders in the paint and using his smooth stroke to nail key midrange jumpers.

As Jones III’s offensive capability has shone at a rate of 18.9 points per Big 12 game, he has forced himself to demand the ball as much as possible. At the same time, his teammates demand such an aggressive attitude.

“It’s a freshman thing,” junior Anthony Jones said. “I guess he wanted to wait his turn. But we told him, ‘Your turn is now. Demand the ball; we have no problem giving it to you. We know how good you are.’”

For Jones III, the process involves separating his off-the-court persona from his gametime decisions.

“I’m so quiet, and I somewhat disappear sometimes on the court,” Jones III said. “Being active throughout the whole game is helping me.”

On the perimeter, the game could be decided on how well or poorly each team holds onto the ball. Sophomore A.J. Walton will face the best ball-handling point guard he has seen this conference season in senior Lance Jeter. Jeter’s 3.07 assist-to-turnover ratio (46-15) is the second highest among all Big 12 players who average at least three assists per game. Jeter also leads his team in conference scoring at 12.1 points per game.

In its last two games, turnover struggles have plagued the Bears in spurts. At Oklahoma, 12 second- half turnovers led to a seven-point lead evaporating in a 73-66 loss. In Reed Arena, the Bears committed six turnovers in the last four minutes of the first half to squander a 14-point lead.

“[Drew] goes around to each player and tells him what he thinks he can do to cut down at least one turnover,” Walton said. “We’ve just go to stay mentally focused. No mental mistakes.”

Another advantage the Cornhuskers hold is depth. Nine players average at least 11 minutes, compared to six for the Bears.

With third and ninth place in the Big 12 separated by one game, every game will be crucial for each squad’s NCAA tournament resume. At the end of the season, Drew said, there could be six or more Big 12 squads that earn tickets to the Big Dance.

“The body of work of this conference speaks for itself,” Drew said. “We think it warrants six, seven, eight, however many teams.”