It’s coming down to crunch time in the race for the Big 12 regular season title. The No. 7 Texas Tech Red Raiders (22-4, 10-3) find themselves at the top, one game ahead of Kansas. Tech currently owns a six game winning streak in league play with an average margin of victory of 14.75 points over the last four. They have certainly made their case for being the team to beat for the championship.
While Tech is trying to win a conference championship, the Baylor Bears (16-10, 6-7) are trying to win over the NCAA Tournament selection committee. Baylor had a terrible start to league play going only 2-7 in the first half of the double round robin conference schedule. To make it worse, four of the seven losses were by three points or less.
Fast forward to now and you will find the Bears off to a blistering start to the second half of league play. They currently have a four game winning streak with three of the four coming by more than 10 points, one of which was a 16 point win over then No. 10 Kansas.
These two faced off in Lubbock on December 29 in the much anticipated conference opener. As much as it was anticipated, it turned out to be just as much anti-climactic. Let’s take a look at this game as well as a look back on what was missing in that conference opener.
If you’re reading this article then you’re probably pretty knowledgeable on Big 12 basketball. You probably know the names to look for when it comes to Baylor.
Baylor has been pretty consistent with their personnel. Tristan Clark started all 26 games for the Bears while Manu Lecomte and Jo Lual-Acuil, Jr. have played in 25 games and started all of those.
Lecomte, a 5’11 senior guard, is the unquestioned leader. He leads the team with per game averages of 16 points and 34 minutes as well as a team leading 92 assists. He was held to just eight points in 33 minutes in the first game between these two. He also failed to dish out a single assist and was held to just 27 percent from the field. Much below his 41 percent season average.
Clark, a 6’9 freshman forward, averages seven points in 21 minutes per game while shooting a team leading 61 percent from the field. I think it’s safe to say he doesn’t shoot near enough. Of course, the youngster is also second on the team with 66 fouls and leads the team with 3 disqualifications. He managed 10 points in the first meeting while only shooting 42 percent from the field. By the way, this was also one of his three disqualifications.
Lual-Acuil Jr., a 7’0 senior forward, has averaged 14 points and 33 minutes in league play. He leads the team, and is one of the top rebounders in the Big 12, with 231 rebounds. He also is team leader, and fifth in the league, with 45 blocks. He can be a very effective interior force and he was the missing piece in the first game.
Along with those three starters, the Bears have five other players who all average 21 minutes per game or better. They also average five to 10 points per game. The combination makes for a pretty solid top eight players.
The Bears went through their early schedule at 10-2 with the two losses coming against Wichita State and Xavier. Then, it came time to play for real.
They were picked to finish fifth in the preseason rankings of the Big 12. The anti-climactic conference opener between these two teams was mentioned earlier. It was a 77-53 whooping administered by Tech to a then No. 18 Baylor.
There was one big piece missing in that game and that piece was Jo Lual-Acuil, Jr. Lual-Acuil was a late scratch and the Bears never seemed to be in the game mentally. They shot 30 percent from the field in the first half and were losing by 21 at halftime. It was coast city from there on out for Tech.
Lual-Acuil, Jr. is playing this game and he brings with him an imposing presence. He’s long and lean and makes opposing players question decisions about taking inside shots. However, that type of player doesn’t seem to bother Tech like it did a month ago.
As a matter of fact, I’m thinking of exactly a month ago. Because it was on January 17 that Tech rolled into Austin to take on Mo Bamba and Texas. They looked more nervous than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs when they got the ball inside. I haven’t seen that lately.
Baylor is 11-3 at home with only four of those wins coming in league play. So it’s an impressive home record but not an impressive home schedule. Texas Tech in the past has been less than impressive on the road. However, they do hold a 4-3 record on the road this year with two of those wins coming in the last two weeks against TCU, 83-71, and Kansas State, 66-47.
Baylor is playing better of late, there’s no question about that. However, three of their four wins during the streak have been against lower teams in the Big 12. The fourth was over a Kansas team that is struggling mightily just to win a game.
Just like the TCU game in Ft. Worth, I don’t think this is going to be much of a road game for the Red Raiders. There are plenty of apathetic fans in Waco that are gladly selling their seats to Tech fans. Tech is starting to figure out how to play on the road, how to win on the road, and how to win in this league. Tech takes another big step in this one.
Prediction: Tech 75, Baylor 65