Tell me if this sounds familiar -- a talented but underachieving Baylor team is reeling in conference play.
Following an impressive two-game homestand against Iowa and Kansas State, a surging Texas team has a chance to put the dagger in one of our old friends on Saturday, when they head up to Waco to face Baylor. The Bears are in the midst of a three-game losing streak - road losses to Texas Tech and Kansas and a home loss to OU.
I have no idea how bad a loss the one in Lubbock really is, because I haven't watched the Red Raiders play basketball since Bob Knight left and have no intention of watching them again anytime soon, but that home loss to the Sooners really stings. If you want to be a top-flight team in the Big 12, you must protect home-court.
Baylor certainly has the talent to be a Top 3 seed in the Big 12 tournament and a shoe-in to the Big Dance. That's what they looked like at the end of the non-conference season, when they had a 12-1 record with wins over Kentucky, Colorado and Dayton and a loss to Syracuse in the championship of the Maui Invitational.
Their problem is Scott Drew thinks he's some kind of master tactician and he really isn't. Just about any coach in the Big 12 whose been around the block a few times can see right through him and his schemes. Drew has more than enough talent to win straight up, but he insists on using gimmick defenses like the 1-3-1 hybrid zone.
Kenny Cherry -- 5'11 180 juco transfer and Baylor's first "true PG" since Tweety Carter. He's a professional basketball player, and not just in the sense that he plays for Scott Drew. He runs sets correctly, he doesn't get sped up and he won't turn it over. Cherry is averaging 5.2 assists on 1.9 turnovers a game and he's deadly on the pick-and-roll with the Bears big men.
Royce O'Neal -- 6'6 220 forward who transferred from Denver. He has been more efficient in a smaller role in the Big 12, averaging 6 points, 4 bounds and 3 assists on 55% shooting. O'Neal is a solid player who fits easily into a team concept, but he isn't going to beat you, one way or the other.
Taurean Prince -- Athletic 6'7 210 forward. A sophomore with the chance to be an NBA. At the very least, he projects as a 3-and-D player at the next level. However, he's still young, raw and figuring out the game. If you force him to make a lot of decisions with the ball, good things won't necessarily happen for Baylor.
Cory Jefferson -- Extremely athletic 6'9 220 big man. Jefferson is one of the most underrated players in country, a fifth-year senior whose painstakingly turned himself into a legit first-round talent. He can shoot, defend, crash the glass and post up smaller players. I will begrudgingly give Drew some credit for his development, but lord forbid he learned to maximize the talents of his players.
Isaiah Austin -- 7'1 225 alien with no ceiling for how good he can be. Austin is just as long, just as athletic and just as skilled as Joel Embiid Da God. The good news is that Drew wouldn't know a gift horse if it looked him in the mouth -- he couldn't win a Big 12 title with Perry Jones 3 and Quincy Miller on his roster and he won't win one with Austin. The fact that Austin is this good while being blind in one eye is absolutely mind-boggling.
** Isaiah went to Arlington Grace Prep. He is the kind of prospect the right coach at Texas could get pretty easily -- so is Marcus Smart (Flower Mound Marcus). Think Charlie Strong, folks -- you think the basketball equivalent of that guy in a place like Austin is going to consistently lose prospects to [expletives] like Scott Drew and Travis Ford?
Rick Barnes has been here so long the job description has completely changed during his tenure. Forget Kevin Durant, the model for this program should be LaMarcus Aldridge. JC can correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe LMA is the last big get we've gotten out of DFW.
Brady Heislip -- Token Canadian shooter. He doesn't do much else, but he shoots the shit out of the ball. He has to be picked up at half-court; if you give him an open 3 in transition, that's 3 points. If he comes off a screen, I'd trap him and force him to make the right pass under pressure.
Rico Gathers -- "6'8" 270 PF/C. Rico isn't the most skilled big man in the world, but he's a live body who throws his weight around and has no problem mixing it up. A sophomore who works well with Jefferson or Austin and gives Baylor one of the best big men rotations in the country.
Gary Franklin -- 6'2 senior guard who doesn't do much else but shoot 3's. He's gone 1-12 in his last four games, so the last thing you want to do is give him confidence by letting him get a few easy baskets.
Ish Wainright -- An interesting player, if only because you don't see too many 6'5 240 wings playing big-time basketball. He seems like he has some talent, but he's a freshman who looks nowhere near ready to put it all together. Ish is coming off a 5 fouls in 7 minute performance against Kansas.
If you go through their roster 1-9, the amount of talent Baylor has jumps off the page. I'm fairly certain Bill Self could get these guys into the Top 10. The good news is there's only one Bill Self in the Big 12 and he damn sure isn't in Waco.
To me, the obvious solution is to dump the 1-3-1 hybrid zone, which became Drew's safety blanket when it helped turn around the program with a deep run in the Big 12 Tournament and then the NIT in 2009. This pretty much sums up Drew's career in Waco -- he lost in the NIT championship game in 2009 and won the NIT in 2013.
The problem is the 1-3-1 puts a ceiling on your team because it's such a conceptually weak defense.
The obvious contrast is with the 2-3 zone Jim Boeheim runs at Syracuse. That zone presses out on three-point shooters and concedes the middle of the paint, which very few college big man have the chops to exploit. The 1-3-1 does the exact opposite -- as long as you are comfortable with Baylor's length and where they will trap you (i.e you see them 2x a year in conference play), it lets guys walk into open 3's constantly.
If Drew junks the zone and lets his elite athletes man up the Texas players, it could be a very interesting game on Saturday. If he doesn't, all the Longhorns guards need to do is take their time and they will get wide-open shots for themselves and their big men.
If there's any way to get Cherry in foul trouble, this game is over. No matter what Drew ends up doing, Cherry is a smart enough player that he should be able to keep it close all the way through -- he gets guys easy points and he controls the tempo of the game, keeping the other team's transition game in check.
For the most part, Texas is the known commodity coming into this game. Rick Barnes, for all his flaws as a coach, is not an idiot. He'll have this team prepared and it ain't like Waco is Lawrence, Manhattan, Ames or Stillwater, so the young guys should be OK in the road environment.
Drew is famously stubborn when it comes to making adjustments, so we'll see if this latest losing streak has humbled him.