May 18, 2021

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Baylor is unbeaten no more, and now the question becomes: Will Bears be able to return to their dominant form?

5 min read

Saturday marked the first time in decades — hundred and hundreds of games — Kansas took the floor as an underdog in its home gym. (No. 2 Baylor closed as a 4.5-point favorite at William Hill Sportsbook.) It’d been so long, reliable betting-line records for the last time it happened either no longer exist or are almost impossible to track down. Local media surmised it might be as far back as 1989, vs. Oklahoma, as the most recent instance where the Jayhawks were projected by Las Vegas oddsmakers to be more likely to lose a home game than to win it.  

Might be best to wait another generation or two before giving Kansas points at Allen Fieldhouse again.  

College basketball’s marquee bulletin from the weekend transpired in Lawrence, Kansas, and reverberated across the country: Undefeated Baylor is no more. Kansas 71, Baylor 58. KU with the knockout. The Bears, four days removed from narrowly escaping at home against terrible Iowa State in their first game off a 21-day COVID pause, showed extended lethargy and unshakeable residue from said pause Saturday, getting dropped by the 17th-ranked Jayhawks.

The streak we all should have paid more mind to prior to tipoff: Kansas almost never loses on Senior Night. This win marked the 38th consecutive year the Jayhawks ended the league slate at home with a W. 

Death, taxes, and the mojo of Perry Ellis in Kansas’ last home game every season against Big 12 competition. 

Bill Self and his staff prepped and coached their team to their best performance of the season, holding a Baylor squad that was averaging 84.6 points (third-best in college hoops) to a season-low 58. It was Baylor’s most anemic offensive showing since December 2018. The Bears also finished under 1 point per possession for the first time this season (0.94), made fact by their horrific 3-point display. Baylor entered the game making a shade better than 43% of its 3-point attempts; on Saturday, BU was 6 for 26 from deep (23.1%), with many of the shots begging to merely nick the front of the rim.   

“Shots are short,” ESPN’s Jay Bilas said on the broadcast. “This just doesn’t look like Baylor, at least not the Baylor I’ve seen all year long.”  

It wasn’t. Kansas played clean; Baylor looked clogged. Dozens and dozens of teams have been forced into lengthy pauses this season, but arguably no team looked more worse for it than Baylor. Its prominent profile may be affecting that perception. But it is also reality. It wasn’t just the shooting. Kansas grabbed 48% of its offensive-rebound opportunities and 72% on the defensive end, meaning Baylor’s numbers on the inverse (52% of its defensive boards and just 28% of its missed shots) show the Bears were mauled.  

Bears star guard Jared Butler was the symbol of Baylor’s ineptitude. When the teams met in January, Baylor won 77-69 in an exciting affair that saw Butler light the nets, finishing with 30 points. After that game Butler was averaging 23.2 points against Kansas, by far his highest scoring average against any Big 12 team. 

Kansas held him to a season-low five points Saturday night. 

He was almost entirely erased thanks to a KU defensive attack (strangely forcing just three turnovers) that has uncovered its vigor and has gotten the program back into territory where it’s more familiar. Kansas now logs as the No. 10 team in adjusted defensive efficiency at KenPom, marking its return to the top tier after tinkering for two months. In the past seven games, Kansas is restraining teams 59.3 points, is allowing a wicked 0.85 points per possession (this rate over the course of the season would put KU at No. 1 in defensive efficiency) and is 6-1 in that span with the lone loss coming in overtime on the road against ranked Texas. 

Bears coach Scott Drew acknowledged his team’s lack of practice availability as one logical reason things went the way they did Saturday night at the Phog. 

“We had three weeks where we got worse, they had three weeks where they got better,” Drew said in a postgame Zoom call with the media. “So we gotta catch up.” 

Baylor, still projected as a No. 1 seed by CBS Sports Bracketology expert Jerry Palm, probably can catch up, but it’s going to likely need more time. Here’s what’s left in the regular season, the cram coming as a result of not playing for three weeks: at West Virginia Tuesday, then hosting Oklahoma State Thursday and Texas Tech to wrap the regular season next Sunday. 

The bad news: It’s not inconceivable Baylor could lose two of those games. The good news: It probably will lose no more than one. The best news: Baylor’s cushion for a No. 1 seed is large and fluffy.

Baylor’s loss means one of the questions that will exist in the sport for the foreseeable future is: When’s Baylor going to get back to normal? Can Baylor look like Baylor again, and soon? Nobody knows, not even the players or coaches on that team. The West Virginia game should be a fascinating one. College basketball took a minor if not expected hit with this as well. It would’ve been something grand for the sport to have two teams enter the Big Dance unbeaten. That hasn’t happened since the early 1970s.

Instead, Gonzaga will go it alone. Better one unbeaten enter the NCAAs than none at all, and it sure seems like Gonzaga will be the latest team to pull it off. (Kentucky, in 2015, is the most recent.)

And for Kansas, the win will do wonders for its streak of earning a No. 4 seed or better. The Jayhawks have done it every NCAA Tournament since 2001. Beating Baylor, and potentially giving the Bears their only regular season loss, should help Kansas ascend back to that familiar top-four-seed territory. March is almost here, and the Jayhawks are starting to look at lot closer to what they were a year ago (when they were the best team in the sport) than the underachieving underdogs we’d strangely come to accept. We should’ve known better.

Matt Norlander
2021-02-28 00:20:18

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