Kenny Chery

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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.

Baylor drops home game to West Virginia, falls to 1-6 in Big 12

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Baylor entered Tuesday night’s game at home, needing a win. The Bears had been dropped from the rankings, in the midst of a four-game conference losing streak.

A matchup with West Virginia seemed like the opportune moment for the Bears to right the ship. Juwan Staten had different ideas, when his reverse layup put the Mountaineers up two with 3.1 seconds left. Kenny Chery’s banked 3-pointer came after time had expired, as the Mountaineers escaped Waco, Texas with a 66-64 road win, burying the Bears in the Big 12 standings in the process.

Baylor is now 1-6, a game ahead of winless TCU; the only team Baylor has defeated in conference play this season.

With its upcoming schedule, and Baylor’s conference record could easily be 1-9 in less than two weeks.

The Bears begin the month of February on the road in Stillwater to face Marcus Smart and the No. 8 Oklahoma State Cowboys. That’s followed by a quick trip home to host No. 6 Kansas. Baylor plays its third ranked team in a little over a week at Norman against No. 23 Oklahoma on Feb. 8. Even after that three-game slate, games against Oklahoma State, Texas, Iowa State and Kansas State remain on Baylor’s Big 12 schedule.

Baylor began the season with neutral floor wins against Colorado and then-No. 3 while also making an appearance in the Maui Invitational title game against Syracuse.

The latest edition of College Basketball Talk’s Bracketology had Baylor as a No. 11 seed, but at this rate, the Bears might as well prepare to defend its NIT title from a season ago.

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.

Late Night Snacks: Baylor beats Kentucky, UC Santa Barbara proves they are legit

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GAME OF THE NIGHT: Baylor 67, Kentucky 62

It didn’t have the atmosphere of a game that was one of the season’s biggest to date since it was played at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas, but Baylor announced themselves to the country as a top team. They did it with Kenny Chery, a Junior College transfer in his first season with the program — leading the way. As good as Baylor looked as a team, Kentucky revealed more flaws that need correcting. John Calipari knows this and sees this. It is why he continues to make mention of the work that needs to be done with this Kentucky team. He has his hands full, especially with the tough stretch of games upcoming.

IMPORTANT OUTCOMES:

1) On the surface, many will think UC Santa Barbara beating California is an upset. When a team from the Big West knocks off a Pac-12 program, it almost always is one. But, make no mistake about it, this was an upset in name only. The Gauchos are really good, and they have one of the best forwards in the country you may have never heard of — read more here.

2) Pittsburgh continues their dominant ways by handily beating Loyola Marymount, 85-68. The Panthers stay perfect on the season, moving to 9-0. Pittsburgh is good, but when will Jamie Dixon put together a competitive non-conference schedule? Until they face an opponent that truly challenges them — either Stanford or Penn State has been their best opponent — it’s hard to know just how good Pittsburgh is.

3) In an underrated good game of what was otherwise a quiet night, Stephen F. Austin beat Towson, 79-69. The Lumberjacks are now 7-2 on the season; they and Oral Roberts are looking like the two top teams in the Southland Conference.

STARRED

1) If not for Kenny Chery, Baylor loses to Kentucky. He tallied 18 points and five assists, along with hitting a critical shot in the final minute to make it a two-possession game.

2) Alan Williams for UC Santa Barbara missed consecutive games earlier this season due to back spasms. Tonight, against Cal, he was in his usual form beasting opposing frontcourts as he went off for 24 points and 12 rebounds in the win.

3) Conference play in the MAAC has officially begun, and Canisius’ center Jordan Heath had a big night against St. Peter’s totaling 28 point and 10 rebounds in an 82-67 victory.

4) Oklahoma State and Connecticut barely broke a sweat tonight as each cruised to wins over their opponents. The Huskies handled Maine, 95-68, and the Cowboys beat South Carolina, 79-52.

STRUGGLED

1) Jeff Bower hasn’t exactly gotten off to the best start in his second stint as a coach at Marist — nine games and nine losses. The latest one tonight came against Manhattan as the Red Foxes lost 70-59.

2) Fresh off of their 93-81 win over Oregon State, DePaul came out and laid an egg against visiting Arizona State, losing 78-56. As a team, they shot worse than 30% from the field with Cleveland Melvin — hands down their best player — going 2-12.

3) Alex Poythress is an enigma. The 6-foot-8 sophomore received a lot of hype, but hasn’t lived up to it. Once projected to be a surefire lottery pick in the NBA Draft who would most likely leave Kentucky after a year or two, Poythress is no longer going down that road. In the loss to Baylor, he played just six minutes and committed three fouls, while going 0-1 from the field and 0-2 from the line.

Baylor bests Kentucky for second straight season

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After graduation claimed do-it-all point guard Pierre Jackson from last year’s Baylor team, many wondered if Kenny Chery– a Junior College transfer from State Fair Community College in Missouri — could fill the void. Scott Drew was going to give Chery the keys to the car, but could he drive it?

Chery answered that question in Baylor’s season-opening win against Colorado, and his performance tonight in a 67-62 win over Kentucky confirmed he’s more than capable to lead Baylor.

He led all scorers with 18 points on 8-15 shooting from the field, to go along with five assists to two turnovers. Moreover, he picked his spots well — nothing was ever forced. In the final minute, with Baylor clinging to a 63-61 lead, the Kentucky defensed sagged on Chery, and he drilled a 15-footer to make it a two-possession game and all but put the Wildcats away.

Chery aside, who would have thought Baylor could have realistically come away with a win tonight if Brady Heslip and Royce O’Neale would combine for a mere eight points on five shots? Heslip looked like he was in a funk the entire night. The cast up front consisting of Isaiah Austin, Cory Jefferson, and Rico Gathers were instrumental in the win, and neutralized Kentucky’s frontcourt.

The trio tallied 32 points and 27 rebounds between each other, and Austin turned aside five shots by himself. Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress were dominated by Gathers on the boards as he had 13 total rebounds, eight of which were offensive. For Kentucky to get out-rebounded 41-25 is simply inexcusable. For Alex Poythress to barely even show up — he picked up three fouls in six minutes — and John Calipari to receive all of two points from his bench is of serious concern.

Baylor will seemingly always have their skeptics. There is a stigma surrounding Scott Drew that he is a first-class recruiter, but still very much developing as a game coach. Things looked bleak for Drew and Baylor midway through the second half as Kentucky had a 50-41 lead after a Julius Randle dunk, but the Bears closed the game on a 26-12 run to earn the win.

Things don’t get much easier for Kentucky as their final four game of the non-conference portion of their schedule come against Boise State, North Carolina, Belmont, and Louisville. It’s hard to say Kentucky is in trouble, but there are holes in this team that Cal needs to fill — he has made this known several times during the first month of the season.

As for Baylor — a team that was a fringe Top 25 team in the preseason — they are looking like a legitimate Top 15 team with their only blemish a 74-67 loss to Syracuse at the Maui Invitational. They have the pieces with Chery running the show, and Isaiah Austin seemingly coming into his own as a force on the defensive end and improved offensive player.

While Drew has had considerable success at Baylor — he did make it to the Elite Eight in 2010 and 2012, this is arguably the best win in Drew’s career. There have always been questions about his in-game abilities, but he had Baylor more ready and prepared for the game tonight than Kentucky, and it showed. With wins over Kentucky, Dayton, and Colorado; that’s a pretty good looking resume for early December.

Baylor earns an important, hard fought win against Colorado, 72-60

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It’s games like these between two fringe Top 25 teams — Baylor is ranked No. 25 in the AP Poll, while Colorado received 83 votes — that make or break resumes come March. In Dallas on Friday evening, Baylor grinded out a 72-60 victory against Colorado. The Bears led for much of the game, and fended off a late Buffaloes rally to earn the win.

An aggressive statement to make in November on opening night already discussing tournament resumes? Yes, without question. But, how often do coaches and teams analyze their own resumes in March and stare at a game that is the difference between earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and being one of the last teams out, or even between a No. 5 seed and No. 8 seed? Colorado is going to have a good season, and this win will be a feather in Baylor’s cap.

Colorado wasn’t at their best tonight. Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker — two of Colorado’s top players — combined to shoot 7-28 from the field; a performance like that from these two may not happen again this season. Nevertheless, this is a solid win for a Scott Drew and his Baylor squad looking to get back to the NCAA Tournament after missing out last year.

The much maligned Baylor defense over the past few seasons stood tall against Colorado allowing just 60 points on 31.8% shooting. Ironically enough, it was the defense and toughness — how often can you say that about Baylor? — that willed the Bears’ way to a win. Furthermore, Baylor found their point guard in the form of Kenny Chery who will fill the void Pierre Jackson left. Chery spent two seasons at State Fair Community College in Sedalia, MO prior to transferring to Baylor. Against Colorado, Chery stuffed the stat sheet with 14 points, four rebounds, and four assists.

Colorado is a good basketball team — a Top 25 caliber team. They didn’t look it tonight, but Dinwiddie and Booker are much better than they showed. It was an off night for the two — and really for the entire team as a whole with the exception of Josh Scott — but they will be fine going forward.