For the second straight game, Bill Self's famous freshmen failed to deliver. Luckily, mainstays Naadir Tharpe and Perry Ellis were there to pick up the slack.
Tharpe scored 22 points and Ellis added 14 more, as the No. 8 Kansas Jayhawks came back from their first Big 12 loss of the season on Tuesday to defeat Baylor, 69-52, at the Ferrell Center.
The Bears (14-8, 2-7 Big 12) have dropped four straight games in Waco, their longest streak in nearly a decade. It's been a stark dichotomy between these two teams in conference play, as Baylor has collapsed following a strong start and Kansas looks to be running toward its 10th straight season with at least a share of the regular-season Big 12 title.
Tuesday night's contest exemplified these teams' divergent paths. Kansas held Baylor to just 29.1 percent from the field, out-rebounded the Bears, 45-31, and answered Scott Drew's zone defense by dishing out 20 assists. The Jayhawks never trailed after the 4:12 mark in the first half and took advantage of a Bears squad desperately searching for answers.
Guard Kenny Chery, who sat out in Baylor's victory over Oklahoma State on Saturday due to turf toe, could muster up only three points in limited action. Gary Franklin did his best to carry the load as a primary ball-handler, but almost nothing the Bears did worked. All of Brady Heslip's 12 points came in the first half, and Chery was the only Baylor player who hit half of his shots (he was 1-of-2).
No one seemed willing to step up.
Meanwhile, a polar-opposite scenario played itself out for Kansas.
After floundering over the weekend against the big, athletic bodies in Texas, Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins again struggled with their consistency on Tuesday. Wiggins had a marvelous second-half stretch in which he scored 11 of 14 Kansas points to help the Jayhawks take control, 56-44, but he was almost entirely absent offensively otherwise. His only bucket of the first half was a halfcourt heave as time expired, nearly going scoreless for the second straight first half.
Embiid showed that there is still plenty of rawness between the helpings of praise. The Cameroonian center had just five points and seven rebounds, as Baylor was able to render him mostly ineffective on both ends of the floor. The Bears zone prevented most entry passes and allowed for easy traps, and their ability to stretch the floor pushed Embiid away from the rim more often than usual.
Wiggins and Embiid are just 10-of-40 from the field over their last two games. But while that would cripple plenty of other teams around the nation, it merely allowed for Kansas to flash its talent and depth elsewhere.
Tharpe, who had taken more than 10 shots just once all season, set a season high with 13 attempts and narrowly missed out on setting a career high in points. Baylor's guards were unable to stop the swift junior, as Tharpe drove to the basket early and then knocked down long-range shots when the zone broke down. He's scored 20 or more points in three league games after doing it exactly once in his two-plus seasons prior.
Ellis was a workhorse underneath the basket. He scored 10 of his 14 points in the first half, getting to the free-throw line and flashing his mid-range jumper early before making his presence felt down low. The second half wasn't as kind to the sophomore forward, but he still helped Kansas win the battle in a game that often felt like more of a blowout than the final score would indicate.
Like many young teams, the Jayhawks need to find consistency. Their talent has won out eight of nine times against Big 12 teams, but the propensity for these freshmen to turn in nondescript performances won't fly in March. Ellis and Tharpe are the only two consistent contributors who returned from last season's NCAA-tournament run, so it will be up to them to be leaders.
That said, Tharpe and Ellis are secondary stars. This team ultimately belongs to Wiggins, Embiid and Wayne Selden, who had just four points a game after dropping 21 versus the Longhorns. Kansas can survive against Baylor if the veterans take the reins.
It can't against the Arizonas and Syracuses of the world.
|Perry Ellis, F||B|
|Joel Embiid, C||C|
|Andrew Wiggins, G||C+|
|Wayne Selden Jr., G||C-|
|Naadir Tharpe, G||A|
|Jamari Traylor, F||C+|
|Tarik Black, F||C+|
|Frank Mason, G||C|
|Brannen Greene, G||C|
|Cory Jefferson, F||B-|
|Royce O'Neale, F||C-|
|Isaiah Austin, C||D|
|Brady Heslip, G||B-|
|Gary Franklin, G||C+|
|Rico Gathers, F||C|
|Taurean Prince, F||C|
|Kenny Chery, G||C|
Players of the Game: Brady Heslip (G, Baylor), Naadir Tharpe (G, Kansas)
Brady Heslip does one thing well: He shoots. On a game-to-game basis, nearly all of Heslip's shots come from beyond the three-point arc. Coming into Tuesday night, he was averaging just 1.3 two-point shots per game compared to more than six beyond the arc.
Leave it to a senior to know what he does well and focus on doing just that. Heslip hit four three-pointers in a first half that saw Baylor look borderline lost offensively when he wasn't chucking up long-range bombs. Whether Kansas' defense was air-tight or got tangled in a series of off-ball screens, Heslip seemed unaffected by the opposition's presence.
One could criticize Heslip for being one-dimensional, and that's somewhat of a fair assessment. He's not a plus defender, doesn't rebound well and Baylor is just fine if he never put the ball on the floor whatsoever. But the Bears offense steadies when Heslip is on the court; he's a leader and nearly everyone's job gets easier when he's there to space the floor.
You need players like Brady Heslip to win. Unfortunately, Heslip was rendered ineffective in the second half as the Jayhawks rejiggered their defense in response to his hot streak.
Kansas' veteran guard had himself a better overall evening to push the Jayhawks to victory despite some notable underachievers.
Tharpe, long the picker of his spots, seemed to know from the opening tip that he would have to step up. He took nine shots in the first half, one fewer than his season high for a full game, and looked totally comfortable with his long-range shot.
This is nothing new for Tharpe, who has stepped up throughout conference play. This 22-point effort stands alongside his 23-point display against Iowa State and his 21-point outing against Oklahoma State. The sign of a great veteran is one willing to pick and choose his spots when needed.
Heslip and Tharpe exemplified that trait in Waco.
After the game, coach Self talked about how his team doesn't depend on just one player (via the Associated Press): "We've just got to be a team that it's going to be a different guy most every night. And (Tharpe) stepped up when we needed him to step up."
Kansas' run through the bottom rung of the Big 12 continues Saturday, when the Jayhawks host West Virginia. Baylor, meanwhile, will try to atone for one of its early conference losses later that evening when it travels to Norman to take on Oklahoma.