On Jan. 30, Baylor basketball was in a much different position. The Bears sat at 2-7 in the Big 12 and at the bottom of the conference standings. Baylor lost four games by three or fewer points in January.
That was enough to swing the Bears from Big 12 contention to out of the NCAA tournament. But for Baylor coach Scott Drew, it was far from an unfamiliar position.
Four years ago, Baylor basketball fell to 2-8 in Big 12 play and were almost certainly out of the NCAA tournament. But after guard Brady Heslip nailed a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to send a game against Kansas State to double-overtime, everything changed.
The Bears stormed back to a 7-1 finish in Big 12 play to finish 9-9. In the Big 12 tournament, the Bears won three straight games and led Iowa State at halftime in the championship game. They leveraged the streak into a run to the Sweet 16.
“I think anytime you have positive experiences, you can use those as motivation and encouragement,” Drew said. “The big thing is that some of our past players who have lived it have been able to pass on that information to our players as well.”
Since January 30, Baylor basketball has won five of six games. The five wins came during a winning streak, which was the longest in the Big 12 at the time.
Over the streak, Baylor held opponents to just 37.2 percent from the field and 63.4 points per game. Every single opponent was held under 40 percent shooting. The only rival to score more than 70 points in a game was Texas; it took them double-overtime.
But easily the biggest difference has been closing out games. In January, Baylor lost four one-possession games. In February, the Bears are 2-0 in such games. Sometimes, just a little luck can swing those results in college basketball.
“Someone banks in a three, that could be the difference between winning and losing a game,” Drew said. “We’ve executed better in the games we’ve won down the stretch. Either made free throws or gotten offensive rebounds. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.”
By far the breakout star of this streak was Baylor forward Terry Maston. Over the streak, Maston averaged 16.6 points per game and shot a blazing 63.2 percent from the field. He reached 20 points in three of the five games. In the other two, he posted just 10 combined field goal attempts.
Maston missed virtually the entire month of January after breaking his hand. Finally, he seems to be finding his rhythm.
“It takes time to get back in the groove,” Drew said. “Just because you’re able to play doesn’t mean you’ll be 100 percent effective.”
Playing their way in
Over this streak, Baylor has moved to 17-11 on the season and 7-8 in Big 12 play. The Bears are firmly entrenched on the bubble of the NCAA tournament. ESPN’s Bracketology projects Baylor as an 11-seed and one of the last four byes.
Baylor did lose a bad game to West Virginia on Tuesday. The Bears were never competitive in an 11-point loss. However, Baylor also lost a game in the middle of the 2014 streak. That did not ultimately affect their trajectory.
There are still regular season games left against Oklahoma, Kansas State and TCU. Then, it’s onto the Big 12 tournament. Baylor probably needs to win at least two games to stay in good standing for the NCAA tournament.
The good news is that the schedule is favorable. Baylor is streaking at a time when the rest of the Big 12 seems to be faltering. The Bears took advantage of struggles by several teams to put together this winning streak.
Like 2014, the Bears could make a run in the NCAA tournament. If they can earn a first round bye, there’s even a small chance Baylor could bring home a Big 12 tournament title.
But even though there are parallels, Drew is reluctant to compare this year’s squad to one that eventually beat Creighton and earned a Sweet 16 berth.
“If you ask me in a few weeks, I’ll hopefully have a better idea,” Drew said with a laugh.
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