Baylor Bears Show Final 4 Potential by Dominating Northwestern

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Baylor Bears Show Final 4 Potential by Dominating Northwestern
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Both the Baylor Bears and the Northwestern Wildcats came into the game undefeated, at 7-0.  Neither had faced an overly difficult schedule at this point.  

For Northwestern, this was a rare opportunity to play a highly ranked non-conference team at Welsh-Ryan Arena.  This was a chance for Northwestern to make its biggest statement yet in its quest for the school’s first-ever NCAA tournament bid.

This game helped clarify things about both teams. Baylor used it to clarify just how good the team can be.

In their first game away from home this season, the No. 8 Baylor Bears went up to Evanston and defeated Northwestern 69-41.  As impressive as that score looks, Baylor could have won this game by 40, maybe more.

I attended the game in person.  While not quite a sellout, there was a very good crowd for this one, and the fans had plenty of energy early on.  The Wildcats stayed tight with Baylor—thanks to some second-chance opportunities off missed shots.  They had six points from offensive boards in the first 11 minutes. 

About midway through the first half, leading by only three, Baylor kicked its game into high gear.  All of a sudden, Northwestern could not get any good looks from outside. That was after having several early on.  The Bears’ zone defense was extended a few feet beyond the three-point line, daring the Wildcats’ guards to put the ball on the floor and drive past them. 

This spelled disaster for Northwestern.  The length and quickness of Baylor's defense prevented the Wildcats from getting anything easily outside or on the offensive boards.  Over a 10 minute period going into the second half, Baylor held the Wildcats to just one field goal.  By then, the Bears were up 18, and would cruise from there.

On offense, Baylor repeatedly challenged Northwestern by getting the ball right under the basket.  Whether it was their frontcourt—led by Perry Jones III, Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller—or with the dynamic guard Pierre Jackson, the Bears played with the supreme confidence that they could not be stopped at the rim.  Most of the time, they were not.

Baylor made this game look too easy—Northwestern is a solid, if not outstanding, team.  The Wildcats have the ability to score and average 75 points a game thus far.  They scored 88 against LSU and 80 against Seton Hall in their run to the Charleston Classic championship.  Baylor was able to hold them to 34 points below that average—19 less than the Wildcats’ previous season low of 60.

Baylor easily passed what was the team's toughest test so far this season.  They beat a solid San Diego State team early on, but that was at home and the Aztecs were still finding their footing after losing four starters off last year’s Sweet 16 team. 

Of any team currently in the Top 10, there were more unknowns with Baylor than with anyone else—thanks in part to a soft schedule.  Their performance today in Evanston will help indicate what they’re capable of going forward.     

As good as they looked today, there’s still room for Baylor to get even better.  Jackson, Miller—recruited out of Chicago—and Cory Jefferson each are freshmen just getting comfortable with both this team and with coach Scott Drew’s zone defense. 

Miller and Jefferson will be crucial pieces and will give Drew one of the deepest and most athletic frontcourts in the country.  That will make this team very difficult to beat in March.

Baylor will have some potentially tough games before they start Big 12 play.  The Bears travel to BYU, before playing St. Mary’s, West Virginia and Mississippi State.  The last of those will likely be the toughest. 

If what I saw today is any indication, Baylor should handle each of those tests. The team should head into Big 12 play as the favorite to unseat Kansas as Big 12 champs.  From there, a trip to New Orleans for the Final Four is also a real possibility.

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