Tramel: Is Baylor even No. 1 in Big 12 basketball after COVID layoff?
Baylor is on the verge of the Big 12 basketball championship. That’s right. The Bears have not yet secured the title.
A 2021 hoops flag flying in Waco has been a foregone conclusion for more than a month. Early in this season, Baylor showed itself to be not just the class of the conference, but with Gonzaga the runaway best teams in the college game.
Then COVID struck Baylor. The Bears went three weeks without playing, due to some positive cases and contact tracing. And when Baylor returned to the court, last Tuesday against Iowa State, the Bears weren’t the same.
Baylor had to scratch out a 77-72 home victory over winless-in-the-conference Iowa State, then lost 71-58 at Kansas on Saturday.
Now West Virginia has a longshot hope at the Big 12 title. If Baylor wins one more game, the Bears are the champs. They are 10-1 in the league; with three games left on the schedule, the worst Baylor could be with a win is 11-3, which is a winning percentage better than West Virginia’s best possible record, 13-4.
But Baylor had its eye on a far bigger fish than the conference title. Baylor was a legitimate contender for the NCAA championship. Now the sluggish return from COVID calls into question whether the Bears can recover in time to make a run in March Madness.
"We were the No. 1-shooting team in the country, and we'll get back to that," Baylor coach Scott Drew said Saturday after losing to Kansas. "But even Superman has kryptonite. And I guess COVID protocols is ours."
The Bears were shooting over 44% from 3-point range when they took the hiatus. In the two games since, Baylor has made just 14 of 51 on deep balls. That’s what happens when teams not only don’t play, but don’t practice. The Bears had a nearly-three-week break from even practicing.
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"Anyone that's had COVID would know when you come back, you're probably not 100%," Drew said. "For people that didn't (have COVID) and weren't able to practice or work out, I would think that's rust or other areas of that.”
Whatever the case, Baylor’s domination – of the rest of the conference schedule, the Big 12 Tournament and the NCAA Tournament – now is in question.
So much question, that Baylor no longer is No. 1 in my Big 12 rankings. I’ve ranked teams all season using a variety of metrics. Pure standings. NCAA Tournament projections. Strength of schedule.
Today, I’m ranking them solely on who I think is playing the best:
1. Kansas (12-6 Big 12, 18-8 overall): Three weeks ago, the Jayhawks were 6-5 in the Big 12, had lost six of 10 and had fallen out of the top 25 poll. Now KU has won six of seven, and the only loss was in overtime at Texas last Tuesday. “We finished 12-6 in a ridiculously hard league (and) we sucked for three weeks," Kansas coach Bill Self said.
2. West Virginia (10-4, 17-6): The Mountaineers were 6-1 in February, including victories over Kansas, Texas Tech and Texas. WVU’s only loss was double overtime to the Sooners.
3. Oklahoma State (9-6, 16-6): The Cowboys have won seven of nine, including four in a row. They finish this week with OU (Monday in Stillwater), Baylor (Thursday in Waco) and West Virginia (Saturday in Morgantown). The Cowboys could be zooming even more up the polls and the NCAA Tournament projections.
4. Baylor (10-1, 18-1): Shooting isn’t the only worry for the Bears. Their ferocious defense has been off in the two games back — KU shot 51% against Baylor.
5. Oklahoma (9-6, 14-7): The Sooners played better Saturday but still lost Bedlam. OU could be looking at a second-division finish, considering its final two games are Bedlam in Stillwater and home against Texas.
6. Texas Tech (7-7, 15-8): What a league. The Red Raiders, beloved by the metrics (15th nationally in the NCAA’s NET rankings), are in seventh place in the conference.
7. Texas (8-6, 14-7): The Longhorns are hot and cold. But they could finish hot. Their last three games are at Iowa State, at OU, home against Texas Christian.
8. TCU (5-8, 12-10): Can the Horned Frogs play spoiler – they finish at Tech, at West Virginia, home against Texas.
9. Kansas State (3-14, 7-19): KSU’s victory over OU is the only win by either the Wildcats or Iowa State over one of the top seven teams in the league.
10. Iowa State (0-15, 2-18): The Cyclones’ last hope for a Big 12 victory might be Saturday at K-State.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.