Cory Jefferson

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Big 12 Tournament: Baylor lost, but the Bears are still dangerous

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Baylor’s legs finally gave out on them.

Playing their fourth game in four days after four weeks of what was essentially win-or-go-to-the-NIT-again basketball, you could also see the Bears tire down the stretch of their 74-65 loss to Iowa State in the finals of the Big 12 tournament.

After forcing the Cyclones to miss their first 13 shots of the game and taking a double-digit lead early in the first half, Baylor’s defense became a sieve, allowing the Cyclones to shoot 68.6% from the floor the rest of the way. It goes without saying that, for a team with some issues on the defensive end of the floor already, this was not one of their premier performances.

But that also doesn’t change the fact that Baylor has been playing some of the best basketball in the country over the last four weeks.

RELATED: Fred Hoiberg’s rebuilt Iowa State into a Final Four contender

Remember, this was a team that was 2-8 in the Big 12 heading into a February 12th game at TCU. They had lost eight of their last ten games and were on the wrong side of the bubble, but that win over TCU sparked a run. Baylor won seven of eight to close the regular season before knocking off TCU, Oklahoma and Texas en route to the Big 12 title game.

What has changed?

Well, for starters, Kenny Chery has played like one of the best point guards in the country ever since he snapped a three-game funk with a triple-double in the double-overtime win at Kansas State exactly one month ago. Brady Heslip refound his three-point stroke. Jefferson and Austin are finally playing like everyone expected them to play four months ago.

In other words, this group finally decided to play up to their potential.

And as a result, there is a chance that they could end up getting a No. 5 seed when the brackets are released.

Big 12 Tournament: Baylor advances to title game with sixth straight victory

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The early portion of Big 12 didn’t go well for the Baylor Bears, to say the least. At one point Scott Drew’s team lost five straight and seven of eight Big 12 contests, going from a team some thought to be a contender for the league title to one that looked destined to simply sit above TCU in the standings.

But there’s something to be said for a team that gets hot at the right time, and it’s clear that Baylor fits that description. The Bears have now won six in a a row and ten of their last 11 after whipping Texas 86-69 in a Big 12 semifinal Friday night. Brady Heslip shot 6-for-11 from beyond the arc and scored 24 points, leading four Bears in double figures.

As a team Baylor shot 12-for-24 from deep and 24-for-30 from the foul line, outscoring the Longhorns by 21 points from deep and 22 points from the charity stripe. And with their starting front court outplaying the Texas big men, Baylor led by 15 at the intermission and by as much as 24 in the second half.

Cory Jefferson racked up 20 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks, with both Isaiah Austin (ten points, five rebounds and seven blocks) and Royce O’Neale (eight points, ten rebounds) chipping in.

Another key for Baylor during this run has been the play of point guard Kenny Chery. Chery, the replacement for Pierre Jackson, has averaged 13.7 points, 3.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists during this 11-game stretch with all three averages being higher than his season averages.

One reason for Baylor’s struggles early in conference play was the strength of the Big 12, and when a team isn’t playing well in a conference that difficult issues have the potential to snowball. But instead of getting frustrated and splintering off, thus allowing the season to get away from them, Baylor tightened things up and continued to work. They’ve turned things around as a result, and now Baylor has the look of a team capable of winning multiple games next week.

Big 12 Tournament: Hot first half propels Baylor past Oklahoma

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For the second consecutive night the Baylor Bears got off to a good start at the Big 12 tournament, and they earned a spot in Friday’s Big 12 semifinals as a result. Baylor shot 54.8% from the field and 6-for-10 from beyond the arc in the first half, scoring 47 points on their way to a 78-73 win over two-seed Oklahoma.

Scott Drew’s Bears scored 18 of its 47 points in the paint, and they also converted six Oklahoma turnovers into 12 points. All five starters finished the game in double figures with Isaiah Austin scoring 18 points to lead the way. Cory Jefferson added a 14-point, 11-rebound double-double and Kenny Chery finished the game with 14 points and seven assists.

In some regards the victory was a mirror image of Baylor’s 76-68 win over TCU on Wednesday, with the Bears taking advantage of their ability to score in the paint to establish a solid working margin. Against TCU the Bears scored 18 of their 39 first-half points in the paint, leading by 12 at the intermission as a result.

On Thursday the Bears would lead by as much as 21 early in the second half before the Sooners mounted a rally, cutting the deficit to five points with 2:34 remaining. Baylor would shoot 9-for-12 from the foul line over the final 2:07 to hold on for the win, and they’ll play either West Virginia or Texas on Friday.

It wasn’t long ago that many questioned whether or not Baylor would reach the NCAA tournament. But this is a talented group that’s playing well at the right time. And that could that make the Bears a dangerous draw when the brackets are announced on Sunday.

Unless No. 12 Baylor’s defense improves, they’re not a Big 12 contender

Baylor  v Texas Tech
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Jaye Crockett led five players in double figures with 19 points for Texas Tech as the Red Raiders blew out No. 12 Baylor at home.

The final score was 82-72, but trust me when I tell you, that doesn’t do the beatdown justice. It took 30 minutes for the Bears to show up on Wednesday night, and by then they were already down 20 points. Tech was up 43-22 at the half, having held Baylor to 7-for-27 shooting. Baylor didn’t have an assist in the first 20 minutes.

Tubby Smith’s boys deserve all the credit in the world. They came out and simply out-worked the Bears. Baylor looked half-asleep in the first half, which is something that can happen on the road in league play, and the Red Raiders took advantage.

But the bigger concern for Baylor is that this may not have simply been a bad outing.

The Bears haven’t done much of anything since beating Kentucky on December 6th. Part of that was their schedule. Like any other coach in the country, Scott Drew went ahead and put together a December full of cupcakes. The Bears had beaten Colorado and Kentucky and finished in second place in the Maui Invitational in November, looking every bit the part of a top 15 team that could compete for the Big 12.

But during that month long sabbatical from quality competition, the Bears seem to have lost their rhythm. They were run off the floor at Iowa State last week, with nothing but a blowout home win over TCU in between the two losses.

Here’s the question I have: can their issues actually be corrected? The concerns for Baylor entering the season were in their back court, but Kenny Chery has been a revelation while Brady Heslip is back to being one of the nation’s most fearsome snipers. Throw in the recent performances from Taurean Prince, and the Bears have plenty of weapons on the perimeter.

The issue is that Baylor’s front line was supposed to be one of the best in the country, but it has disappointed all season long. Isaiah Austin is a better shot-blocker than he was as a freshman, but the rest of his numbers are significantly down from a year ago. Cory Jefferson is still doing what he does, but he’s at his best in a complimentary role. He’s not a focal point as a low-post scorer, he’s a rebounder that will throw down a couple of thunderous dunks a night.

What’s worse is that despite having those two — plus one of the nation’s best rebounders in Rico Gathers — the Bears are still getting waxed on the defensive glass. I get it, they play a lot of zone and rebounding is difficult to do out of a zone, but it’s still unacceptable for the nation’s second-best offensive-rebounding team to fail to corral more than 32% of the available defensive rebounds.

In fact, the Bears simply are not a good defensive team. Before giving up 82 points to Texas Tech, they ranked outside the top 100 in defensive efficiency, according to Kenpom. They don’t force turnovers, they can’t end possessions by getting defensive rebounds, and they’re struggling to defend the three this season.

Unless the Bears make some serious strides on the defensive end of the floor, this quite simply is not a team that can be put in the same sentence as Kansas, Oklahoma State and Iowa State.

2013-2014 Season Preview: The Top 20 Big Men

Creighton Bluejays Doug McDermott drives on the Cincinnati Bearcats Justin Jackson during the second half of their second round NCAA tournament game in Philadelphia
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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To see the rest of our preview lists, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Basketball has five positions, but the way that the sport has grown, particularly at the collegiate level, has produced hybrid players, unusual roster makeups and far too many teams with players that don’t fit into a typical positional category. Few teams actually field a traditional starting five, which is why CBT decided to make our positional rankings reflect that.

We will be ranking:

The final installment of our Top 20 player rankings focuses on the big men, and for all the talk of college basketball being a “guard’s game” post presences are a necessity if a team’s going to win a national title. With NBA Draft eligibility rules being what they are, national champions more often than not have at least one elite big man. Some are bruisers who do the majority of their work inside, while others possess the ability to step out on the perimeter and score as well.

Here’s our list of the Top 20 big men in college basketball:

1. Julius Randle (Kentucky): The 6-foot-9 freshman has the build of a pro already, and the talent is there as well. Incredibly difficult to stop around the basket, Randle is also capable of knocking down perimeter shots. Given how difficult it is to match up with Randle, it’ll be interesting to see how John Calipari utilizes the most talented player on his star-studded roster.

2. Doug McDermott (Creighton): The senior forward, who averaged 23.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game last season, will be in the Big East and national Player of the Year discussions in his senior campaign. With range well out beyond the three-point line, McDermott shot 54.8% from the field and 49.0% from three in 2012-13.

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3. Mitch McGary (Michigan): McGary’s (7.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg) played his best basketball at the most important time of the year for the Wolverines, who reached the national title game for the first time since 1993. The 6-foot-10 big man averaged 14.3 points and 10.7 boards in the tournament.

4. Aaron Gordon (Arizona): Gordon’s an elite athlete who finishes above the rim with authority. If Gordon’s able to consistently knock down perimeter looks in addition to his ability to score inside, look out. The key? Gordon needs to embrace being a big man at the college level.

5. Montrezl Harrell (Louisville): Harrell, a role player for last season’s national champions, is expected to play a starring role for the Cardinals as a sophomore. Harrell (5.7, 3.6) is a very physical interior player, and he was dominant at times with the United States Under-19 team in this past summer’s World Championships.

6. Adreian Payne (Michigan State): Payne’s been a tantalizing player for much of his time in East Lansing, and he began to show signs of putting it all together during the latter portion of his junior season. Payne, who averaged 10.5 points and 7.3 boards per game last season, can also knock down perimeter shots when left open. Consistency is the key for Payne.

7. Isaiah Austin (Baylor): The 7-foot-1 Austin may be one of the most skilled players in the country, as he can handle the ball on the perimeter as well as score from just about anywhere on the floor. The question for Austin (13.1 ppg, 8.3 rpg), who’s healthy following offseason shoulder surgery, is whether or not he’s better equipped to handle physical play on a nightly basis in the Big 12.

8. Jarnell Stokes (Tennessee): Pound for pound one of the strongest players in America, Stokes averaged 12.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game without Jeronne Maymon (knee) available to help him out in the paint. With Maymon healthy, look for Stokes to be even better as a junior.

9. Cory Jefferson (Baylor): Jefferson went from being a role player to being an honorable mention All-Big 12 selection. Currently fifth in school history in blocked shots for a career (117), Jefferson (13.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 1.9 bpg) shot 61% from the field as a redshirt junior.

10. Willie Cauley-Stein (Kentucky): Cauley-Stein (8.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.1 bpg) was one of the bright spots in what turned out to be a tough season for the Wildcats. An excellent athlete, the 7-foot big man was an SEC All-Freshman Team selection and he’s expected to play a starring role for Kentucky this season.

TEN MORE NAMES TO KNOW

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  • 11. Le’Bryan Nash (Oklahoma State): It can be argued that Nash should be listed with the wings, but his versatility allows the Cowboys to use him in a variety of ways. He’s already a handful off the dribble and on the block, but he needs to be a better shooter.
  • 12. James Michael McAdoo (North Carolina): Anyone’s guess as to how long P.J. Hairston will be out of the lineup, but regardless of the shooter’s status, McAdoo needs to be a key figure for the Tar Heels this season.
  • 13. Alex Kirk (New Mexico): A good argument could have been made for Kirk winning Mountain West Player of the Year last season over teammate Kendall Williams. Kirk posted averages of 12.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game in 2012-13.
  • 14. Jerrelle Benimon (Towson): The reigning CAA Player of the Year was outstanding for the Tigers in 2012-13, posting averages of 17.1 points and 11.2 rebounds per game.
  • 15. Joel Embiid (Kansas): Embiid’s received high praise from many and he’s yet to play a college game. A bit raw offensively, Embiid will likely do the majority of his damage on the defensive end to start the year.
  • 16. Augustine Rubit (South Alabama): Rubit’s a bit underrated nationally, but the fact of the matter is that he was one of the nation’s most productive big men last season. The Sun Belt Player of the Year averaged 19.4 points and 10.5 rebounds.
  • 17. Dwight Powell (Stanford) : Powell’s expected to have a big year for the Cardinal after averaging 14.9 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. Powell earned first team All-Pac-12 honors and was named the league’s Most Improved Player.
  • 18. Juvonte Reddic (VCU): The last line of defense for the Rams, Reddic emerged as the Atlantic 10’s best big man in 2012-13, averaging 14.6 points and 8.1 rebounds per game.
  • 19. Akil Mitchell (Virginia): Tony Bennett’s big man is one of the most underrated players in the ACC. He averaged 13.1 points and 8.9 boards as a junior and should be a major part in Virginia’s push for an ACC title.
  • 20. Ryan Anderson (Boston College): Anderson is a major reason that BC is expected to surprise a lot of people in the ACC. He averaged 14.9 points and 8.0 boards as a sophomore.