By Daniel Hill
The Baylor Bears basketball team is right in the midst of contending for a possible Big 12 championship.
The Bears will take on No. 10 Kansas State Wildcats in hostile Fred Bramlage Coliseum at 6 p.m. Saturday in Manhattan, Kan.
This is arguably the most important game of the regular season for the Bears.
A win on the road against a top-ranked team would undoubtedly be the highest quality win of the season thus far. A win would also result in the Bears moving one step closer to the top of the Big 12 standings.
The Wildcats are tied atop the conference standings with an 8-3 record alongside both Kansas and Oklahoma State.
Just one game behind the leaders, the Baylor Bears have a 7-4 record, which ties them with the Oklahoma Sooners. Essentially a win against Kansas State will certify that the Bears belong in the upper-echelon of the Big 12.
“I think the best thing that we can do is just to focus on the next game,” Baylor head coach Scott Drew said. “For today, just getting better in practice. No matter what league you play in, the next game is going to be a tough one. With us, we’re just getting better each and every day. If you look ahead you tend to get yourself in trouble.”
Kansas State senior guard Rodney McGruder leads the Wildcats in scoring with 15.2 points per game.
With his 6-foot-4 frame, McGruder is a guard with valuable size and the Bears have shown that they are vulnerable this season against guards with elite size.
Iowa State senior guard Will Clyburn, who stands 6-foot-7, torched Baylor with 28 points on Feb. 2.
The tallest Baylor starting guard is senior A.J. Walton, who stands 6 feet 1 inch tall.
Walton will most likely be assigned to guard McGruder and the winner of this individual matchup could determine the outcome of the game.
“We just have to get after it,” senior guard Pierre Jackson said. “Just in case we get blew by on defense, we’ve got Cory [Jefferson], Isaiah [Austin} and Rico [Gathers] down there to protect the rim. Coach has been making us play a lot of defense in practice and put us in a bunch of game situations to help us out.”
One area where Baylor should have a sizable advantage is on the interior with freshman center Isaiah Austin and junior power forward Cory Jefferson.
Austin, at 7 feet 1 inches, and Jefferson, at 6 feet 9 inches, have a chance to dominate the paint in this game.
Kansas State prefers to start a smaller lineup and then bring in size off the bench if it is needed.
Sophomore Adrian Diaz and senior Jordan Henriquez are the two biggest players on the Wildcats’ roster. Diaz is 6 feet 10 inches and Henriquez is 6 feet 11 inches.
While the duo is certainly tall, they don’t receive too much playing time for Kansas State. Henriquez only plays 14.7 minutes per game and Diaz plays for less than a quarter of each game.
Baylor’s unique size on the frontcourt could force the hand of Kansas State head coach Bruce Weber to play a different lineup than usual.
“Playing in the Big 12, every game is physical,” Jefferson said.
Freshman center Isaiah Austin is the key difference maker in this contest.
Austin accounts for almost one-third of all of Baylor’s blocked shots this season. He also has more than one-fifth of the team’s rebounds on the year.
In 14 games this year, Austin has posted a positive plus/minus differential. In the six games where Austin has been negative or neutral in plus/minus differetial, Baylor has lost five of those contests. Austin’s performance on Saturday is the perfect thermometer to gauge Baylor’s chances of pulling off the upset win in Manhattan, Kan.