In Monday night’s NCAA basketball nightcap, the Kansas Jayhawks find themselves in an unfamiliar role at Allen Fieldhouse: underdog.
At the turn of the century, college hoops fans would see “Baylor” on their team’s schedule and mark one in the “win” column. Prognosticators annually picked them to finish at the bottom of the league. Their fan-base hadn’t seen their team’s name on an NCAA Tournament bracket since the 1987-1988 season. The Baylor Bears were the basement-dwellers of the Big 12.
Allen Fieldhouse, on the other hand, was the epitome of “college basketball”. It had the names, banners, atmosphere: the tradition. Kansas teams were considered perennial contenders for the national championship, and the standard preseason consensus was that the conference’s regular-season title would run through the streets of Lawrence.
Fast-forward to 2012, and Big 12 basketball is a case of, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Baylor head coach Scott Drew has single-handedly turned the Bears basketball program around since taking the reins in 2003. He’s led them to two NCAA Tournament appearances, one Elite Eight, and his current squad remains undefeated midway through the 2012 season. Although Drew has had his share of prized recruits in recent years, his teams have acquired a reputation for underachieving; this group, led by Perry Jones III, is looking to change that by ending the Jayhawks’ dominance.
Coming into the season, Bill Self’s Kansas resumé boasted a 237-46 record–including 129-7 (95%) at home–seven consecutive Big 12 titles, and one national championship. The league’s preseason coaches poll ranked the Jayhawks as co-favorites (alongside Texas A&M) to finish atop the conference, despite having what is arguably Self’s least talented squad.
Tonight’s game is going to serve as a barometer for both teams. Kansas is ranked #7 in the ESPN/USA Today poll, but they’re behind rival Missouri (#5) and tonight’s opponent, Baylor (#3). However, Scott Drew’s 1-8 record against the Jayhawks assures that he’ll spend every waking moment preparing.
On paper, the Bears and Jayhawks share a lot of similarities: dominant big men, athletic backcourts that excel in transition, and point guards that can create shot opportunities for their teammates, but are also turnover-prone. Ultimately, two factors could potentially dictate tonight’s outcome: Kansas’ success against Baylor’s signature zone defense, and Baylor’s ability to take the crowd out of the game. If Tyshawn Taylor forces the Bears’ zone to collapse by penetrating and freeing up his teammates on the perimeter, Baylor will likely revert to man-to-man which will ease the pressure on Thomas Robinson in the post. However, if Baylor jumps out of the gate and quiets the rambunctious sixth man, they could leave the storied venue with a “W”.
Stats and predictions aside, one thing is for sure: this will be fun.