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NCAA Tournament Round 1: Baylor Bears

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First off, a quick programming note: We are now officially live at offthetracks.org. All previous bookmarks will re-direct to the new site. All sign-ins for comments should be the same as it was on blogger. Nothing should really change on your end, but it is still an exciting time as we have finally gone live at the new address.

What is also exciting is that I finally have a new opponent to preview. It's nice to have some variety after covering the same teams for the last two and a half months. We're just two days away from the opening tip of the NCAA's. It is looking more and more like Purdue will take the role of favored team in its first round game for the first time since 2000. That season we were also a 6 seed in the West, opening against Dayton. We managed to escape with a 1-point victory that also propelled us to wins over 3 seed Oklahoma and 10 seed Gonzaga. Wisconsin ended our Final Four bid in the regional final, which was doubly depressing since I was a sophomore at Purdue that year and the Final Four was down the road in Indianapolis. In the "what might have been" category we had played every team in that Final Four (Michigan State, Wisconsin, Florida, and North Carolina), beating three of them at least once in the process. We had knocked off Florida out in Maui before losing to the Tar Heels in a close championship game.

Of all the schools in the Big Ten it appears that Wisconsin has been the bane of our existence since the beginning of the decade. Considering the pain they have caused us in both football and basketball and the way they have prevented our rise nationally, we should be pretty pissed off at them. Fortunately, we don't have to worry about them until the National Championship game. It's unlikely we are going to get that far, but how vindicating would it be to turn the tables on them and deny them a National Championship by beating them a third time after all they have done to us? For now, however, let's get back to the opponent at hand in the Baylor Bears.

Baylor so far:

Baylor has obviously had a pretty good season, otherwise they wouldn't be in the NCAA Tournament. They even have a blog, making them a dangerous foe in the world of fandom. They come in with a 21-10 overall record and 9-7 record in Big 12 play. They have stumbled down the stretch, including a bad double overtime loss to last place Colorado in the Big 12 tournament. They are making their first NCAA appearance since 1988. It makes me old to think that most of their current roster was in diapers the last time Baylor played in the tournament, if they were even born yet. In an interesting twist they were a first round loser to Memphis by a 75-60 score that year. We defeated the Tigers that year in round 2, 100-73, meaning a second round matchup that season was possible. The Bears do have a bit of history in the tournament by appearing in the 1948 and 1950 Final Fours, but this marks just their fifth NCAA tournament appearance, and only second since 1950. It should also be noted that the 1946, 1948, and 1950 appearances came when only 8 teams played in the tournament.

For all the good work that coach Painter has done, I am more impressed with what Scott Drew has done at Baylor. Drew is in his 5th season, and to say he took over a team in disarray is like saying the Pacific Ocean is a little damp. Coach Painter merely inherited a team that lacked talent recruited by a legend on the downside of his career. Drew took over a program that was in the midst of a full-fledged scandal of epic proportions. This scandal saw a player murdered by a teammate, the coach asking players to lie about said murder, drug use, recruiting violations, lying to investigators, and basically everything that makes any other NCAA scandal look like a quilting ring. This resulted in the Bears facing the harshest penalty in NCAA basketball history when they were not allowed to play any non-conference games for the 2005-06 season.

We recently played the Bears in the midst of that scandal. During Drew's first season (2003-04) while the Bears were being investigated we defeated them in Waco 76-65. The very next year, in coach Keady's final season we suffered maybe the worst home defeat of his illustrious career when a team of walk-ons and scrubs came into Mackey Arena and beat the Boilers 73-72 on Brandon McKnight's completely stupid foul in the final five seconds with the score tied. I was actually at that game, and I could not believe how dumb McKnight's play was. It's like he couldn't see one of the 11 scoreboards and see the score was indeed tied, and he was a senior point guard! Still, credit needs to be given to a Baylor team for fighting through that game when they were essentially playing only for pride.

Both teams have come a long way in that time. From Baylor's current season we have plenty of reasons to be nervous about this game. We share a pair of common opponents in Iowa State and Missouri, both of whom the Bears beat. The Bears did have the luxury of playing both at home while Purdue played both away from Mackey Arena. We are also a much different team now than when we lost to the Tigers and Cyclones. Most people would pick Purdue in a rematch. The Bears gained 15 of their 21 wins in the season's first 17 games and had some impressive wins over Notre Dame, Winthrop (an NCAA Tournament team), and at South Carolina. Since winning an epic 5 overtime game at Texas A&M in January Baylor has gone just 5-8. They lost to some very good teams in that span like Kansas and Texas (twice), but the loss to Colorado was pretty bad. Baylor is here because they had a good non-conference season and beat the bubble teams in its own conference. Against NCAA teams from its own conference Baylor went 2-6, and 5-8 overall. We were 4-3 against NCAA teams this season, so they are probably more tested than us

Who is dangerous for the Bears:

I think the closest opponent on our own schedule to Baylor in terms of style of play is Missouri. The Bears love to get up and down the court and they are certainly capable of scoring. They have four players averaging more than 12 points per game, and two more that throw in more than 8 per game. The Bears get more than 71 points per game from their top six players alone. Junior guard Curtis Jerrells is the leading scorer at 14.9 points per game. He is helped by freshman guard LaceDarius Dunn (13.5 ppg), junior forward Kevin Rogers (12.4 points, 8.6 rebounds), and junior guard Henry Dugat (12.1 ppg). Sophomore guard Tweety Carter has a great name and averages 9.6 per game. Aaron Bruce rounds out the scoring as a fifth guard at 8.7 points per game, and he is the one player who might be familiar to Purdue fans. He was a much bigger cog in the Bear offense as a freshman in 2004-05, averaging 18.2 per game. In the infamous Brandon McKnight game he had 17 points, including the game winning free throw as a result of McKnight's gaffe.

Personally, I think you have to feel good for a guy like Bruce. He has stuck around this program, seen his playing time diminish, and even made it through the "half death penalty" season of his sophomore year. This entire program has benefitted from leaders like him. It is a testament to their character that they are now in the NCAA Tournament just two years removed from a season where they were only allowed to play conference games.

While those six players round out the main rotation, Josh Lomers and Mark Shepherd come in to play some spot duty and offer the others a break. Mamadou Diene and Delbert Simpson will also likely see some minutes. Diene and Lomers are both 7-footers that could present some match-up problems with their size, but combined they only average about 7 points and 5 rebounds per game. This means there is not too much of an inside game. Baylor is a guard-heavy lineup, and as a result they rely heavily on their 3-point shooting. All five of the main guards have attempted over 110 3-pointers each this season, with each hitting at least 33% from long range. Only Rogers of the main six players is an inside presence, but he still shoots about 50% from the field. At 6'9" and 240 he could be a problem for Calasan and Johnson in the paint.

Baylor is also a team we must be wary about fouling. We have committed way too many fouls this season. While it can be a plus against a team like Illinois that struggles from the line, it is a big minus against Baylor. The Bears hit nearly 75% of their free throws as a team, and all six of their main players are at or above that 75% mark. This is a team that loves to shoot and shoots the ball very well from wherever they are on the floor. As a team they are 38% from 3-point land, and they shoot more than 22 of those per game. One in every three shots they throw up is a triple, so we must have a better defensive performance than against Illinois.

What not to fear from Baylor:

As much as Baylor loves to shoot, their defense is not nearly as frustrating as Missouri's. That ends their comparison with the Tigers. Baylor can fill up the basket, but they need to because they give up almost as many points as they score. In Big 12 play they held only two teams under 70 points in 17 games, so we should be able to score some points against them. Since we have a very versatile offense we will need continuous balance while finding the hot hand as we have done all season long. Many teams have had little trouble cracking 80 against these guys, and twice they have surrendered more than 100 points.

Baylor is not a particularly strong rebounding team at just 37.4 per game. If we can dictate our tempo with patient offense and grinding defense we should be able to frustrate them. This will be the key to any long tournament run for us. Both Baylor and our likely second-round opponent in Xavier are guard-oriented teams that rely heavily on their play from the perimeter. If we can stymie these teams with our stifling defense of old we stand a very good chance of winning. Baylor turns the ball over almost 13 times a game. If we can turn up the pressure and cause even more turnovers that will help our cause more.

We are also in the rare situation of having experience. Though we are dominated by freshmen and sophomores, we do have players like Crump, Kramer, Green, and Grant that have been here before and know what the atmosphere of the NCAA Tournament is like. The same is true for coach Painter. Since Baylor hasn't been here in 20 years everyone from the coaching staff on down is getting its first taste of tournament play. This is key since both teams have struggled somewhat down the stretch. Baylor has struggled more with their backslide from lock to bubble on Selection Sunday, while we only lost a game to a rival on their floor and two overtime contests to teams fighting to save their seasons. I like how that benefits us.

General Outlook:

I really like our chances in this game if our defense comes to play. Other than Rogers, who can run wild in the post, Baylor does not really have a proven post presence. Even their 7-footers in Diene and Lomers haven't played in every game. If they were to have big games it would be a departure from the norm for Baylor. We must come ready to play on the perimeter as they have a five guard attack that is not afraid to shoot. If their threes are falling they are dangerous. If they are not we should be able to win.

Conversely, we need to be able to hit our shots as well. I am very concerned that we just let Illinois shoot better than 60% against us. Baylor has multiple Demetri McCamey types, so another poor defensive performance will mean a quick exit from the tournament. We have not lost a first round tournament game since 1992. This tells me that we do come ready to play each year and we will need to be so more this year than ever because of their guards.

The key will be playing the game at our pace. We have a great chance to really get Calasan and Johnson involved in the paint, so why not play them together since Baylor doesn't have much size? If they then counter with their 7-footers we can go with our smaller lineup. We must cut back on our fouls as well. This has been a big problem this season, so it is time for us to play a little bit smarter. We can't afford to send Baylor to the line like we did with Illinois.

As I said previously; I like our chances if our defense comes to play and sets the tone early. If we play our style of basketball by creating turnovers and forcing them into bad shots we can certainly create plenty of offense from the defense. Baylor hasn't really played a shred of defense all season, so we should only be worried if our shots don't start to fall. We just need to be patient, get good looks, and try to avoid our tendency to settle for threes if they aren't falling. We also need to crash the boards and generate some offensive rebounds. This is a game we should be able to win, and if we do it means we can piss off Digger Phelps for two more days. Purdue 75, Baylor 67