This should be a very interesting game for both teams.
Take Mark Few’s Gonzaga Bulldogs: they’ve played a gauntlet of a schedule (as usual) losing to five good teams (San Diego State was their only home loss; Kansas State, Illinois, Washington State and Notre Dame either came on the road or at neutral sites). Other than Washington State, all of those teams currently reside in both top 25’s (and Washington State received votes in both polls). But despite the murderous schedule, the only remotely marquee win came against Marquette (who is probably fairly close to the bubble). Mark Few’s squad has struggled with replacing Matt Bouldin, Steven Gray has been inconsistent, and Elias Harris has been hampered with achilles injuries for much of the year. The bottom line is Few scheduled too tough, and they would not sniff an at-large bid if Selection Sunday was this weekend. That said this is still a really talented team, and they should be out for a big win this weekend.
Now take a look at Scott Drew’s Baylor Bears: they’ve played a cupcake schedule in every sense of the word (rocking a Virginia Tech-esque 315th strength of schedule so far according to Ken Pomeroy). Really Gonzaga is the only remotely legitimate team the Bears play until conference play unless you count a rebuilding Arizona State team (where they start out with Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Iowa State). The easy warm up was probably for the best, as Baylor was without star LaceDarius Dunn for their first three games.
Keys to the game for Baylor:
- Come to play. It can be difficult to match up with a tough opponent, but this test won’t be anything compared to the January 17th showdown with Kansas that follows their cupcake run. The Bears need to prove they can play with the best, and beating Gonzaga is close to a "must," as this team lacks any other nonconference games to bolster their confidence and resume.
- Dominate the paint. Baylor’s strength this year will be from their ridiculously long, tall, athletic frontcourt headlined by Perry Jones III and Quincy Acy. If they want a shot to contend for the Big 12, those two guys will have to be active on offense, and show that their production will continue against better teams. Gonzaga might not be the powerhouse preseason polls predicted, but they’re still miles ahead of the Bears’ previous competition.
- Take care of the ball. A.J. Walton is Baylor’s biggest question mark this season. He’s done a decent job distributing the ball so far, but he’s turning the ball over at an alarming rate (over 35% of his possessions). The worst way to end a possession is with a turnover, and he’ll need to reduce that percentage significantly going forward.
Gonzaga is in a really tough place right now, and I expect them to come out swinging. They need this win. Baylor also needs this win to legitimize their high rankings.
I think Baylor will struggle in the first half, but LaceDarius Dunn will take over in the second to lead the Bears to a relatively close victory.
The game is at 3:30 CST on ESPN2.