By Daniel Hill
The Baylor Bears host the West Virginia Mountaineers at 8 p.m. today in the Ferrell Center. It’s a pivotal matchup for both teams as Baylor and West Virginia are neck and neck in Big 12 Conference standings.
After a lightning hot 5-1 start in conference, the Bears cooled off during a three-game losing streak. On Saturday, Baylor bounced back to end the losing streak by defeating Texas Tech.
In the Big 12 standings, Baylor is 6-4 while West Virginia is 5-5. The Mountaineers are riding high as they head Waco with a three-game winning streak.
If the Mountaineers can win in Waco, it means West Virginia would pass Baylor in the Big 12 standings.
“Playing in the Big 12, it’s a crazy environment going into somebody else’s court,” junior forward Cory Jefferson said. “When they come to ours, they’re going to have to play a tough game to come home with the win.”
West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins is known for having disciplined teams that play a physical, tough brand of basketball.
“They are the same physical team that you have come to know with Coach Huggins,” Baylor head coach Scott Drew said. “His teams always play really hard and we’ll have to be able to match that physicality.”
West Virginia and Baylor last met in the Continental Tires Las Vegas Classic tournament in December of 2011. The Bears won that game 83-81. Jefferson remembers how physical West Virginia was in that game.
He expects another tough game on Wednesday night against the Mountaineers.
“I think it will be more physical,” Jefferson said. “It actually was a physical game when we played them in Vegas, and it’s going to be physical tomorrow.”
Baylor is the best defensive rebounding team in the Big 12 at 39.7 rebounds per game. Drew said he is proud of the defensive effort because it means the team can still win even on nights where they struggle offensively.
“I love the defensive effort,” Drew said. “Offensively, we’ve been great at times and not so good at times. The defense is so important because some nights, the shots are falling and if you take care of the ball and rebound, then you give yourself a chance to win on those nights you don’t shoot it well. I think our guards have all improved, keeping the ball in front of them. I think the bigs have done a great job in helping and improving their interior defense. It’s been a collective effort and hopefully that’s something that can continue for the rest of conference.”
Over halfway into the Big 12 schedule, there is no true leader of the conference and several teams are still in position to win the regular season conference title. The Bears are only 1.5 games behind Kansas and Kansas State for first place.
Six teams are all within 1.5 games of first place in the Big 12.
“Our confidence is going to stay high because we know we are a good team,” junior guard Brady Heslip said. “We play together. The Big 12 is wide open. I don’t know what the standings are after last night’s games, but there’s a whole bunch of teams, six teams at the top that are all close together. If we string together some wins at home and on the road, then we’ve set ourselves up for a chance to win.”
Even though the Bears have aspirations of winning the conference, Drew knows that you have to take things one game at a time.
“I think that’s across the board in college basketball this year with the parity,” Drew said. “I think it’s exciting for Big 12 fans. Each game is so important and each game means so much. As you can see there’s not a lot of separation and that’s why you don’t want to look back and say ‘oh, if we had just done this’ then there’s going to be a lot of what ifs at the end of the year.”