MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Baylor ascended to No. 1 in the AP poll Monday, quite a climb for a team that began the season unranked.
One of two unbeatens remaining in Division I, the Bears (15-0, 3-0) realize staying on top won’t be easy. They’ll be six-point underdogs for Tuesday night’s visit to No. 10 West Virginia (13-2, 2-1).
“Not many people get a chance to be ranked No. 1, and that’s a great honor,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “Baylor Nation deserves it, because they helped us get here. We’re glad to make them proud and happy and give them something to be excited about.
“Big picture, though, we know no one is going to remember who is ranked No. 1 the first week of January.”
Last January, in fact, top-ranked Kansas came to Morgantown and lost 74-63. Now the Mountaineers want a repeat against the Big 12’s most surprising team. The Bears were picked fifth in the league’s preseason poll after losing NBA first-round pick Taurean Prince and top rebounder Rico Gathers.
“From what they got back from last year, I knew they were going to be a solid team,” said West Virginia forward Nate Adrian. “Did I think they were going to be No. 1? No, but I’m glad they are.”
Baylor’s 6-foot-10 All-American candidate Johnathan Motley (15.8 points, 9.4 rebounds) forms a lengthy component next to 7-foot center Jo Lual-Acuil (10.8 points, 7.1 rebounds). They are among four starters who previously redshirted — along with guards Manu Lecomte and Al Freeman — helping Drew restock a mature lineup.
Lecomte, a transfer from Miami, averages 11.8 points and 4.9 assists and tops the team in 3-point attempts (26-of-68), while Freeman shoots 43 percent from 3 and scores 11.1 points.
The talk from West Virginia’s side, however, has focused on Baylor’s defense and, specifically, the 1-1-3 zone Drew favors.
“You can’t simulate their length,” Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins said. “When you can pretty much touch hands across the floor, you’re going to cover some ground.
“They can make mistakes and compensate for it with their length. You don’t get anything easy or unchallenged around the rim.”
No. 6 nationally in field-goal defense and No, 4 in scoring defense, the Bears yield only 58.3 points per game while ranking 13th in blocks — most of those by Lual-Acuil and Motley.
After facing Baylor seven times the past three seasons, Adrian is familiar with the trapping zone and the passing needed to beat it.
“You’ve got to get them on the same side of the court, so you can get numbers on the other side,” he said. “Their length makes it difficult, and now they’ve got two almost 7-footers playing the back of their zone.”
While Adrian’s offense has slipped of late — he’s now below double-digit scoring for the first time this season at 9.9 per game — Daxter Miles (11.1 points) has gained traction from outside and Jevon Carter (10.5 points, 4.7 assists) looks more comfortable at point guard.
Forward Esa Ahmad (12.9 points, 4.9 rebounds) has become more attack-minded and the 6-9 Brandon Watkins (7.5 points, 4.3 rebounds) is making 67 percent of his shots while showing nice touch from midrange.
Despite the Mountaineers’ home-and-home sweep last season, Baylor owns a 6-3 edge in the Big 12 series.
No. 1 Baylor at No. 10 West Virginia
Tipoff: Tuesday 7 p.m. in Morgantown (ESPN2)
RPIs: Baylor 2, West Virginia 40
Quoting WVU: “I’m playing Nate too much. I fully understand that, and I think that’s why he hasn’t made as many shots as I think he can. But he’s so hard to get out of there.” — Huggins on Adrian, who’s 9-of-44 from 3-point range this season but leads the team in rebounds and assist-to-turnover ratio.
Quoting Baylor: “I fell in love with the color of the shirts at Baylor.” — The Belgium native Lecomte describing his teenage affinity for the Bears
Line: West Virginia -6
Prediction: West Virginia 70-68