No. 2 Bears nab big wins on the road

Baylor guard Mark Vital (11) blocks a shot by Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) during the first half of the Bears' 67-55 upset Saturday in Lawrence, Kan. Associated Press

By Matthew Soderberg | Sports Writer

With a No. 2 ranking in hand and quality wins over Butler, Villanova, Arizona and on the road at Kansas and Texas Tech, Baylor men’s basketball is set up for a major run as the first half of the season comes to a close.

The Bears finished non-conference play with a 10-1 record, with their only loss coming to a Washington team loaded with NBA prospects on a neutral court. Head coach Scott Drew said the play will only get tougher as teams become more familiar with each other.

“Once you get into conference play everybody guards a little bit different based on their two or three or four years experience going against your players and tendencies and weaknesses,” Drew said. “And things that you don’t see in the non-conference get exposed in conference.”

The Bears started Big 12 play last week with three straight wins against some of the most prestigious programs in the league. Baylor beat Texas 59-44 in the home opener and followed that up with consecutive road wins against the preseason favorites to win the league. Drew said after the Texas game that his team’s experience will help get through the next two months of conference play.

“Early in conference everybody’s pretty excited,” Drew said. “It’s kind of like the beginning of a marathon. Everybody’s fresh in the first two miles. So as things grind out, that’s when it really helps to have gone through [experience].”

The Bears have succeeded with a combination of strangling defense and slow pace. Baylor ranks No. 5 on KenPom in Adjusted Defense, a stat that determines the effectiveness of a defense independent of opponent difficulty and pace.

The Bears also rank in the slowest 100 teams in the country, limiting possessions for the other team to break away. Sophomore guard Jared Butler said that while Baylor has been an offensive-minded school in the past, the other side of the ball has been the building block so far.

“We always tell ourselves that our defense can never waver,” Butler said. “And no matter what our offense is doing, we’ve got to have good defense. And, you know, I think good defense travels.”

After a grueling week to start Big 12 play, Baylor gets a break over the next month, playing no teams ranked in the AP poll and no teams ranked above No. 35 (Florida) on KenPom. The more difficult part of the schedule picks back up on Feb. 15 with a home matchup against No. 12 West Virginia. The Bears finish conference play with a possible five of their final seven games against AP ranked squads.

The Green and Gold get back to work at 7 p.m. Wednesday against Iowa State back home at the Ferrell Center. The game will be available on ESPN+ in the ESPN app.