WACO, Texas — More than 8,500 celebrated Fat Tuesday by watching Brittney Griner and the Baylor women roll to their 54th consecutive home victory.
The men’s team owns a more modest winning streak inside the Ferrell Center — if one game qualifies as a streak — but the Bears are 9-point favorites for Wednesday night’s game against West Virginia. And speaking of streaks, the Mountaineers are 5-0 against the Big 12′s Texas teams, a point of boot-scootin’ pride in an otherwise unsatisfying season.
Can WVU take another jab at the Lone Star State tonight and help its postseason odds in the process? Decide for yourself after moseying through this five-key primer:
1. The long (Isaiah Austin) …
He’s just your run-of-the-mill 7-footer who splashes 3-pointers, dribbles like a Globetrotter and rejects shots with a wingspan that can stretch across all six lanes of I-35.
Austin, a consensus top-five recruit last season coming out of Arlington, Texas, has made good on his game-changing potential during a freshman season that’s likely to represent the beginning and end to his college career. He hasn’t officially declared himself a one-and-done player, but if he’s back at Baylor next season it will take a Billy Graham-sized miracle.
Averaging 14.9 points and league-high 9.7 rebounds, Austin has more double-doubles (nine) than West Virginia’s entire roster (five). His 19-point, 20-rebound performance against Oklahoma on Jan. 30 would have become legendary if not for the inconvenient fact that Baylor lost the game 74-71.
And indirectly he might even be partially responsible for teammate Cory Jefferson leading the Big 12 with a .596 shooting percentage.
“He helped me since he got here” last summer, Jefferson said. “Just going against his height every day, made me better. Having to get a shot off against him is difficult to do.”
2. And the short (Pierre Jackson) …
He’s just your everyday 5-foot-10 guard who leads the Big 12 in scoring (19.1) and assists (6.0) and wasn’t sure he’d even land a major-college offer until he led College of Southern Idaho to a juco national championship as a sophomore.
WVU saw Jackson’s work up-close last season when the point guard scored 23 points, including the game-tying 3 at the end of regulation, to lift the Bears to an 83-81 overtime win in Las Vegas.
“Well, he beat us scoring a year ago,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins. “He’s certainly one of the best players in the league. He can really score the ball and they can really get you spread because they’ve got a number of other guys capable of making shots, as well.”
3. The bunched-up Big 12
Baylor (15-8, 6-4) entered Wednesday at No. 49 in the RPI, well ahead of No. 88 West Virginia (12-11, 5-5), yet the Mountaineers are only a game back in the conference standings.
Picked second in the Big 12 preseason poll, the Bears currently are tied with Iowa State in fifth place, though Jackson predicted Tuesday “we’ll be at the top when it’s all said and done.”
Part of climbing to the top means improving offensive efficiency. Whereas Baylor ranks 45th nationally in points per possession, it ranks only 278th in turnover percentage, giving away the ball on more than 18 percent of its possessions.
“You can’t count us out,” Jackson said. “The Big 12′s been crazy this year. Teams you wouldn’t expect to lose have been losing. It’s wide-open.”
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently projects Baylor as a No. 10 seed in the NCAA tournament, but
4. Depth perception
West Virginia has 11 players averaging 12 minutes per game while Baylor has only eight. Of course, upon factoring in foul problems, WVU needs the extra bodies: The Mountaineers have committed 443 fouls to Baylor’s 364.
“They’re the same physical team you’ve come to know from Coach Huggins,” said Bears coach Scott Drew. “His teams always play really hard and you have to match their physicality.”
And with physicality comes the potential for copious amounts of fouls. Drew said players must make in-game adjustments to the officiating.
“If (officials) tend to be calling more fouls, you have to move your feet more and keep your hands off,” he said. “If they’re not, that’s where the reaching, grabbing and pushing comes in.”
5. WVU hitting its offensive stride
During its three-game winning streak, West Virginia is shooting 51 percent overall and 51 percent from 3-point range. Compare that to the season averages of 40 and 31 percent, respectively, and it begs the question: Has WVU evolved into a solid offensive team or do the past three wins (against teams with a 5-26 combined mark in the league) represent an anomaly?
“The 3-balls they’ve been hitting have really opened up things,” said Drew, primarily in reference to the Mountaineers’ freshman deep threats Eron Harris and Terry Henderson, but also perhaps with a nod to Gary Browne (whose 3-point percentage has creeped above the Mendoza line).
Because these shots aren’t made in a vacuum, there’s typically a causal effect one or two passes away. Huggins credits the re-emergence of senior forward Deniz Kilicli (13-of-21 in his last three games) with helping WVU’s perimeter guys find more space.
“He’s so much more active,” Huggins said. “When Deniz is active, he draws people to him and opens things for other people. Look at his stat line (Saturday vs. TCU): Eight points and he go