The Big 12 is a hotbed of March Madness drama, and the latest chapter begins very shortly as the West Virginia Mountaineers take on the Baylor Bears in the quarterfinal of the Big 12 Conference Tournament, live from Kansas City, Missouri’s Sprint Center.
Both teams are a lock to make the national tournament, but we’re at a point now where every game played is all about seeding. Given how close these two teams are in the rankings, this game is going to be a dog fight from start to finish.
Let’s start with their regular season performances. Both teams went 23-8 overall and 11-7 in conference, finishing tied for third in the Big 12. That may indicate that today’s game will be constantly close, but let’s wait for the other shoe to drop.
Despite identical records, Baylor actually swept the season series. On February 7, the Bears marched into Morgantown and used a strong and quick scoring attack to beat the Mountaineers 87-69. Using the man-to-man defense that West Virginia coach Bob Huggins stresses so hard, Baylor forced 16 turnovers and held the opposition to 36 percent shooting. 17 points and 16 rebounds from forward Rico Gathers also didn’t hurt.
Then, three weeks later in Waco, Baylor won AGAIN, this time by a 78-66 margin. Granted, West Virginia was without star senior Juwan Staten (14.5 PPG, 4.6 APG) for this game due to injury, but they still committed 13 turnovers and shot just 40 percent from the field. Once again, Baylor beat Huggins at his own game.
Speaking of Huggins, let’s talk about the coaching matchup. Huggins is a college hoops veteran, having accumulated an overall record of 763-310 in over 30 years of experience, and he has enjoyed some of his greatest success with the Mountaineers. Since taking over for current Michigan Wolverines coach John Beilein in 2007, Huggins has turned West Virginia into a middle of the pack squad that got hot at the right time to a perennial front-runner.
In just his first season, a year after the team were the NIT champions under Beilein, he led them to the Sweet Sixteen. Two years later, they were Big East champions and had a spot in the Final Four. Now, in the team’s third season in the Big 12 and after a couple of rough seasons, Huggins is set to bring the Mountaineers back to the big dance and make a lot of noise in doing so.
But he has to outcoach Baylor’s Scott Drew first. Drew employs a strong interior game, which helped Baylor rank eighth in the nation in rebounding, and also has a knack for finding remarkably clutch shooters that can get open when opposing teams least expect it. Since taking over Baylor in the midst of the scandal following player Patrick Dennehy’s murder, Drew has turned the Bears from perennial laughers into consistent contenders, with two trips to the Elite Eight under his belt.
Both squads have the talent to get that far this year, but it all depends on the chess match that is sure to happen between the coaches, among other things. West Virginia must play man-to-man defense even more intensely, given how Baylor outmatched them in that area during the regular season. Baylor must stay hungry as the hunt is far from over. These conference tournaments are sometimes more important than the big dance itself, as regular season performance is meaningless and ability to be clutch becomes key.
With Juwan Staten healthy again and the Mountaineers surely set to be out for blood, this game is going to be an absolute barn burner. If Baylor’s balanced attack and strong paint game gels from the get-go, then West Virginia will have a hard time saying “third time’s the charm.”
Either way, tune into ESPN2 at 12:30 pm for what’s sure to be a hardwood classic!
*Section Photo credit to Ronald Martinez, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to AP Photo