Baylor’s Final Four Dreams Died Yesterday

For a team that hasn’t lost a game to a team not ranked in the top 10, things sure are looking gloomy for the Baylor Bears. Yesterday the Bears lost in Columbia, Missouri to the fourth ranked Tigers, dropping them to 8-4 in conference play.

Baylor now is two full games behind both Kansas and Missouri in the Big 12 standings, and both teams hold the tiebreaker over them. Translation: their conference title dreams are dead.

That is disappointing enough, especially since there is probably only three or four more talented teams in the entire country. To make matters worse though, Baylor looks like a team destined for an early exit in the NCAA tournament.

At the end of an impressive, and unbeaten, non-conference season that statement wouldn’t have made much sense. Baylor boasted (still does) an army of long, athletic, skilled big men. Perry Jones could have been conference player of the year. Quincy Miller was arguably the best freshman in the conference. Quincy Acy the most fearsome dunker.

If Scott Drew could just squeeze some competent point guard play out of Pierre Jackson and AJ Walton, Baylor was going to be unstoppable.

Jackson has delivered, for the most part. Miller has been up and down, but has probably become Baylor’s best player.

So what has done Baylor in? Two things: Perry Jones and zone defense.

Jones is one of those special basketball talents. He’s super tall, super athletic, and has the skills to play both inside and outside. He would have been a top 5 pick in the draft last season, he might have been a top 5 pick this year as well.

His recent play, however, has raised a ton of questions and red flags. In his last two games, against the two best teams in the conference, Jones has shot 3-20 from the field. He didn’t even attempt a free throw against Missouri, despite the fact that he was being defended by a guard the whole game.

Jones has been exposed as a timid player, unwilling to bang inside with anyone. He drifts outside, content with jump shots that should be the secondary part of his offensive game. He shows flashes of brilliant post moves, only to shy away on the next possession. Jones is still probably going to leave school after this season, but his stock has taken a major hit, and his lackluster play is probably the biggest individual reason why Baylor won’t live up to expectations this season.

Drew has continued to ride his zone defense in big games, even as it blows the game right in front of his face. Against Kansas, the zone was exploited inside, center Jeff Withey essentially stood under the basket and waited for a pass, he wasn’t guarded the entire first half. Against Missouri, one of the best shooting teams in the nation, Baylor dared them to make three pointers. The Tigers did, made 14 in fact, and waltzed away with a 15 point win.

It is a point that has been beaten to death on this blog, but it remains painfully true. Baylor has the talent and the players to play an aggressive, strong man defense. Falling back in zone, especially when it is being exploited, is just lazy and dumb.

It’s too late to fix the zone defense problem, not that Drew has shown any interest in fixing it anyway. If Baylor wants to try to salvage its season, try to make a run to the Final Four, they need Perry Jones to become a new player. Need him to become an aggressive monster. That is what makes them a special team.

Short of that, Baylor won’t make it out of the first weekend in March, and 2011-12 will be just another season of underachievement in Baylor basketball.

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