Baylor lost 88-72 to Oklahoma on Saturday, dropping its record to 14-9 and all but eliminating the Bears from NCAA Tournament consideration. A team with as much talent in the country, one that beat Kentucky on a neutral floor in December, is now 2-8 in Big 12 play.
However, in the midst of yet another collapse from a Scott Drew-coached team, there was one bright spot. Isaiah Austin, the Bears' incredibly talented but inconsistent sophomore big man, had one of the best games of his college career, with 21 points, six rebounds and two blocks on 8-of-14 shooting.
Austin started the game in the post, with Oklahoma immediately doubling him. Watch how easy it is for a 7'1 guy to see over the defense:
Unfortunately, with point guard Kenny Cherry hobbled by a foot injury, the Bears didn't have another perimeter player who knew how to enter the ball into the post. Read that sentence again and you will start to see why Baylor has underachieved so much over the last few seasons.
Austin gets criticized for floating to the perimeter too much, but that's often the only way he can get the ball. And how could you blame him, when he can do things like this:
The amazing thing about his shooting ability isn't that he's 7'1, it's that he is blind in one eye, the result of an injury he suffered in middle school. More than anything else, that tells me Austin has an incredible work ethic. I'm no doctor, but I'm not sure how it's possible to shoot like that without any depth perception.
Unlike most stretch 4s, Austin can put the ball on the ground and attack a close out:
Austin's 7'3 wingspan makes it nearly impossible to contest his shot.
That combination of length and athleticism makes him a handful on the defensive end as well, as you can see in this sequence when he gets switched on a guard on a pick-and-roll. Look how far back he is when the OU guard starts his shooting motion!
Austin is built like a praying mantis, which makes it hard to get around him off the dribble:
You can see how he averages 2.7 blocks a game from plays like that.
That means that Austin has an incredibly rare combination of shooting (33 percent from three at Baylor) and shot-blocking ability, which is what makes him such an intriguing NBA prospect.
Of course, he is still far from a finished product. Offseason shoulder surgery prevented him from hitting the weights this summer, something he will need to do to bang with grown men at the NBA level. Austin is listed at 7'1 and 225 pounds; if he can fill out to 240+ pounds, he will be a serious problem. He's only 20 years old, so it certainly seems possible.
Baylor is so bad that Austin might stay in school another year, but when you consider how bad his coach is, there may not be much of a point. Non-Big 12 fans might think I'm taking a bunch of unfair potshots at Drew, but I'm not. I could write a book on his many deficiencies as a coach and I might if Austin declares for the draft.
If Austin does go pro, I have no idea what his draft range would be. His stats aren't great, but every once in a while, Austin will do something truly extraordinary that makes you wonder just how good he can be.
Here's my only reaction to that:
He is 7'1 and blind in one eye! That just shouldn't be possible. And if Austin slips far enough in the draft, a smart team that will make sure he develops will reap the benefits.
Three Key Games:
Duke vs. UNC (Wednesday): Roy Williams' team has been under the radar through the first month of ACC play, but that will change this week when the Tar Heels host a rapidly improving Duke squad. Neither team plays all that much defense this season, so we could be looking at an 85-80 shootout. UNC has been very inconsistent, but there's still a ton of talent in Chapel Hill and guys like James McAdoo, Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Marcus Paige will be looking to make a statement on national TV.
Arizona vs. Arizona State (Friday): Arizona, the No. 2 team in the country, is still trying to figure out its identity without Brandon Ashley, a talented 6'8 combo forward who broke his foot two weeks ago. The Wildcats will get a great road test on Friday when they travel to Tempe to face their in-state rivals. The Arizona guards don't play great perimeter defense, so this could be the national coming-out party for Jahii Carson, a 5'10 sophomore guard who will play in the NBA one day. Jahii by himself is worth the price of admission.
Florida vs. Kentucky (Saturday): Despite Kentucky's improved play of late, John Calipari has been giving a lot of ominous-sounding quotes. I think it's because he see Billy Donovan's team looming on the schedule. Florida is a deep, experienced and athletic team that starts four seniors who have played in three Elite Eights and has two future first-round picks (Dorian Finney-Smith and Chris Walker) coming off the bench. The Gators have the horses to run with Kentucky, so if the Wildcats' young players haven't heeded Cal's warnings, this could get ugly.