Win over West Virginia a Reminder of How Dangerous Baylor Will Be in March

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterFebruary 28, 2017

WACO, TX - FEBRUARY 27:  Johnathan Motley #5 of the Baylor Bears passes the ball in front of Sagaba Konate #50 of the West Virginia Mountaineers in the second half at Ferrell Center on February 27, 2017 in Waco, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Momentum is a dangerous word when it comes to the NCAA tournament, because it fools us into writing off some teams that had stumbled late in the season.

Last year, Syracuse lost five of six games entering the tourney and made the Final Four. National champ Villanova entered the tourney coming off a loss to Seton Hall in the Big East championship game.

Baylor, ranked No. 1 seven weeks ago, has lost some of its sheen during a recent funk. The No. 11 Bears had dropped five of eight games before they knocked off No. 10 West Virginia 71-62 on Monday night.

While the losing skid ruined the chance Baylor had to contend with Kansas for the Big 12 title, a premise that at least seemed possible early this season, it's still reasonable to consider the Bears as a team equipped to make a Final Four run.

Most teams struggling this time of year are searching.

Baylor is different. The Bears know who they are and what makes them successful, and it's a formula that should play well in March.

They play through big man Johnathan Motley, who put up 19 of his 23 points in the second half Monday—another superb outing on a big stage that should help land him on All-Americans lists in the next few weeks.

Feb 27, 2017; Waco, TX, USA; Baylor Bears forward Johnathan Motley (5) dunks the ball in the second half against West Virginia Mountaineers at Ferrell Center. Mandatory Credit: Sean Pokorny-USA TODAY Sports
Sean Pokorny-USA TODAY Sports

Motley is one of the best big men in the country, and Baylor coach Scott Drew is creative in finding ways to get him the ball. He averages 12.5 shots per game despite scouting reports that tout how to stop him.

The Bears are also reliant on their defense, which includes a heavy dose of zone that is more dangerous out of conference than in it.

Baylor climbed from unranked in the preseason to No. 1 on the backs of wins against Oregon, Michigan State, Louisville and Xavier.

The Bears held those four opponents to 0.89 points per possession, according to KenPom.com. (To put that in perspective, Wichita State has the best per-possession defense in college basketball and has held its opponents to 0.89 points per possession.)

The Baylor defense in conference play has been the league's second best, holding opponents to a point per possession. The reason it's easier for Big 12 teams to go against the Bears' zone is familiarity. They face it twice every season and start to figure out the best way to attack it.

But it's rare to face teams from other leagues that play mostly zone, and that's why Baylor, like Syracuse, is difficult to prep for in March. This is also the best group Drew has had to play the zone, thanks to the length of Motley (6'10") and Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. (7'0"), who is the best shot-blocker Drew has had since Ekpe Udoh.

In 2010, Udoh led the Bears to the Elite Eight.

That's one of two Elite Eights Drew has reached. He's also been to a Sweet 16.

Baylor has struggled in recent NCAA tournaments, losing in the first round in each of the last two years. Those teams had talent, but the pieces didn't fit together as well as they do this year.

So why the recent skid?

Well, the metrics say the Big 12 is the toughest league in America, and there have been a ton of close games across the league. The top-ranked Jayhawks, for instance, have won nine conference games by six points or fewer.

And the Bears have been on the wrong side of close losses lately, losing all five of those games by six points or fewer.

One issue has been the lack of consistent perimeter scoring from anyone besides point guard Manu Lecomte.

Baylor's best wing scorer is Al Freeman, who averaged 11.7 points per contest in nonconference play but just 6.1 in league games heading into this past weekend. Freeman, who recently served a three-game suspension for a violation of team rules, appears to be returning to his nonconference form. He scored 17 points at Iowa State on Saturday and 12 points against West Virginia.

Baylor guard Manu Lecomte, center, did not play Monday because of an ankle injury.
Baylor guard Manu Lecomte, center, did not play Monday because of an ankle injury.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Monday also had to provide a confidence boost for Drew's guards because the team won without Lecomte. Playing without your starting point guard against the Mountaineers' press is like heading to the beach without sunscreen.

The Bears didn't exactly handle the pressure well—they had 18 turnovers—but they force-fed Motley in the second half, and their defense put the clamps.

"We weren't leaving this place without a win," Motley told ESPNU's Kris Budden after the game.

Baylor, tied for third in the Big 12 with West Virginia, has a winnable game at Texas on Saturday and a chance to finish tied for second. Iowa State, currently alone in second, has a tough finish with red-hot Oklahoma State visiting Ames on Tuesday and then a trip to West Virginia set for Friday.

Last year, the third-place finisher in the Big 12 (Oklahoma) made the Final Four. Those Sooners lost four times in a seven-game stretch in February.

If you're not buying the Bears, it should be because you're not sure they have the perimeter scoring punch needed to win in March. That's still a concern.

But do not be fooled by momentum. I'm still high on Baylor. Drew has had tourney success before, he's never had a player as dominant as Motley, and his zone's never been better.

    

C.J. Moore covers college basketball and football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @CJMooreBR.

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