Baylor faces uphill battle in Big 12

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

A Bears team expected to contend for a conference championship is reeling after losing three of their first four games in Big 12 play.

Just a few games into the Big 12 schedule, Kansas and Oklahoma State have already given us a classic. Both are off to good starts. Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas State are playing well too.

But what is happening in Waco?

The Baylor Bears are just 1-3 in conference play with their lone win coming over expected cellar-dweller TCU. They lost a home game on Saturday to Oklahoma after an embarrassing second half in which they allowed the Sooners to shoot nearly 60 percent from the field.

After the game, players were only able to blame themselves. Kenny Chery summed it up:

"First of all, we played with the intensity we wanted in the first half. When we came out in the second half, we didn't have the same passion. That cost us."

The Bears have had a knack for the inexplicable over the last couple weeks. They also allowed Texas Tech to shoot over 60 percent in a half -- the Red Raiders were 18-29 from the field in the first half on Jan. 15, allowing them to take a 21-point lead into the locker room. Baylor shot just 26 percent in that half.

Chery after that game:

"We just felt like they (were) hungrier than us," said Chery, who was 8 of 15 from the field. "We didn't come out with the composure to win the basketball game and they came out like it was the last game of their life."

Oklahoma is a good team. And while Texas Tech is a middle-of-the-pack Big 12 team at best, it's never easy to win on the road. But focus, energy and composure are all within a team's control. Bad stretches happen. Even bad halves happen.

But great teams -- teams that have serious Final Four aspirations -- learn how to minimize those stretches before they get out of hand. They have a go-to player who can pull the team together with a big shot or a few choice words in a huddle.

The Bears' three leading scorers -- Chery, Cory Jefferson and Brady Heslip -- are all upperclassmen. Leadership should not be a problem on the team, and maybe it's not. Only those in the locker room, the huddle and the practices truly know that. But while Oklahoma was unreeling a 16-0 run early in the second half, someone needed to say that enough is enough.

Maybe Baylor should have switched out of its 1-3-1 zone when Oklahoma seemed to have it figured out. But any defense only works if the players execute. Too often, Oklahoma was able to push the ball and get a good look before Baylor had a chance to set up. Or the Sooners were able to drive and kick to the open shooter in transition when the Bears did not bother to find the open man. Too often, it took the Bears too long to figure out where they were supposed to be.

Fortunately for Baylor, it's still early. A 1-3 start in the Big 12 is disastrous when you consider what could have been -- and the daunting schedule that remains, with the Bears visiting the Phog next -- but the Big 12 provides plenty of opportunities for statement wins.

Baylor will have to weather runs at Kansas and at Oklahoma State, but those two teams are good enough to blow anyone out of the building if given the chance. It's up to the Baylor upperclassmen to put a stop to it.

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