Jayhawks might be catching No. 2 Baylor at perfect time to pull off an upset

photo by: Associated Press

Baylor guard Jared Butler (12) and Kansas guard Marcus Garrett (0) reach for the ball in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021, in Waco, Texas. (AP Photo/Jerry Larson)

If everything had gone according to plan, it would be hard to talk yourself into the idea that this Kansas team could beat this year’s Baylor team anywhere, including at Allen Fieldhouse.

As it turns out, though, the Jayhawks just might be catching BU at an opportune time for an upset.

Few scenarios are foolproof in these pandemic times. Not even playing basketball it turns out. The Bears looked to be on par with Gonzaga throughout December and January, making them one of two obvious favorites to win the 2021 national championship. Then came February and a slew of postponements for Baylor, some of which have since become cancellations.

The No. 2-ranked Bears, still undefeated heading into Saturday’s marquee battle with the No. 17 Jayhawks, went a full three weeks without playing a game as they dealt with COVID-19 protocols within the program. Prior to the pause, it was business as usual, with BU winning 83-69 at Texas. But when the Bears finally returned to action this week in Waco, Texas, they had to fight their way back from a 17-point hole in the first half to defeat lowly Iowa State (2-17 overall, 0-14 Big 12).

Surely the Bears will regain most, if not all, of their offensive and defensive powers before long, despite the layoff. But have they yet?

KU’s second shot at acquiring its most impressive victory of the season could come easier this time around, with the Bears rounding their way back into form. Still, easier is a relative term. Even if the Bears remain without high energy reserve big man Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, who missed the ISU game due to COVID protocols, and they’re some watered down version of their former selves, they still were so clearly superior to KU before their pause that nothing about this game will be trouble-free for the Jayhawks.

There’s too much to like about how Baylor (18-0 overall, 10-0 Big 12) has performed all season to think this game will be anything other than a grind. KU coach Bill Self identified a few of the things the Bears do best, all of which should have the Jayhawks wary about the task at hand.

“We’ve got to be able to run offense without turning the ball over, because they do force a ton of turnovers. And we certainly don’t need live ball turnovers, because they’re so good in transition,” Self said Friday during his video press conference.

Per KenPom.com, the Bears rank third in the nation in opponent turnover percentage (25.9%), as well as third in steal percentage (13.6%).

Veteran KU guard Marcus Garrett, who is about to play his eighth career game against Baylor, brought up the Bears’ defense (10th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom) when describing what impresses him about the Bears this season.

“They defend as a unit. They talk,” Garrett said, adding the Bears are “connected” on that end of the floor, which makes them particularly difficult to score against.

“It seems like their switches are so together,” the KU senior said. “They talk on defense and you can just tell they’ve been together for a while.”

Garrett, no doubt, will spend much of Saturday night doing all he can to keep BU junior guard Jared Butler in check, after the 6-foot-3 Butler lit up the Jayhawks for 30 points on 7-for-9 3-point shooting in the first meeting this season.

Self said KU will have to defend the arc to be successful, and called Baylor (42.1% on 3-pointers in Big 12 play, 43.2% on the season) “the best 3-point shooting team, maybe in America.”

The Bears were only 8-fo-25 from 3-point range against ISU in their return. And they barely won the battle of the boards, 36-35, out of character for a team that is averaging a +4.1 rebound margin in Big 12 play.

Just because the Bears have unpaused or rebooted and returned to actually playing games again doesn’t necessarily mean they’re back to performing at the same level. Maybe the tuneup versus ISU will be all they needed. But if multiple players had COVID, that also potentially complicates the team’s re-acclimation. Some professional athletes who have contracted the virus, including the Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum and the Washington Wizards’ Russell Westbrook, have said publicly that they still dealt with the effects of COVID after recovering and returning to play. It’s awful that such a thing would happen to any athlete or team at any point, let alone during a season, but the virus’ impact on the Bears might still be lingering.

The point is a Bears victory over KU is no longer inevitable. There is some mystery to Baylor right now. BU is still the favorite, a rare feat for a visiting team entering Allen Fieldhouse. But KU has a clear advantage in the continuity department. The Jayhawks have been playing basketball without a pause all season — a key to their recent resurgence, especially in how they’ve progressed defensively.

No one could see it coming back in January, but a lot has changed for both teams since then, and the Jayhawks now have a realistic shot at toppling one of the two best teams in the country.

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