In what may have been the best overall game of the 2019-20 college basketball season to date, No. 3 Kansas toppled No. 1 Baylor, 64-61, Saturday afternoon in Waco. The win was sweet revenge for a Jayhawk team that lost to the Bears at home by 12 on Jan. 11.
For Baylor, the loss was more than just their first setback since the opening week of the season. The Bears lost, at least temporarily, the inside track to both an outright Big 12 regular season title and the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
Baylor and Kansas now sit tied atop the Big 12 standings with identical league records of 13-1. Both also seem like more than safe bets to grace the top line when the big bracket is unveiled in three Sundays. The Jayhawks should be fairly heavy favorites in each of their final four regular season games, while the Bears will a face a monster test at West Virginia in its regular season finale.
Before we shift our focus to any of that, let’s take a second to look back at the three biggest takeaways from a tremendous game Saturday afternoon in Waco.
1. Udoka Azubuike exploited Baylor’s biggest weakness
For as good as Baylor is defensively — No. 3 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency — the Bears are unquestionably undersized on the interior. Scott Drew starts four guards, and his only true reliable post presence is 6’9 senior forward Freddie Gillespie. That’s not a major problem against 95 percent of the teams in the country. Against a member of the other five percent that has a 7’1, 270-pound monster manning the middle, well, it’s a little bit different.
This was Udoka Azubuike’s game from start to finish. Double teams made no difference, and neither did Baylor’s attempts to attack the big man on the other end of the floor and get him in foul trouble. When the dust had settled, Azubuike had scored 23 points, grabbed 19 rebounds, and (probably) done irreparable damage to both of the rims inside the Ferrell Center. Of his 11 made field goals, nine were dunks.
In the first game between these two, Baylor limited Azubuike to six points on just six shots by fronting the post and always having a second defender within arm’s length of the big man. Kansas combated this on Saturday by creating opportunities for Azubuike not through traditional post ups, but off of high ball screens and feeds from driving guards.
Azubuike is hoopin! Guy has 4 dunks already #Kansas pic.twitter.com/WPt9lF4sVf— Evan Anderson (@Jordainian21) February 22, 2020
Azubuike also created his own opportunities, scoring on four of the five offensive rebounds he was able to pull down.
Another day.— Stadium (@Stadium) February 22, 2020
Another unreal performance from @KUHoops' Udoka Azubuike. pic.twitter.com/Yyzq1A3LWh
The common thread in both of Baylor’s losses now has been the lack of an answer for a talented opposing big man or big men. In the Bears’ November loss to Washington, the highly-skilled freshman duo of 6’9 Isaiah Stewart and 6’9 Jaden McDaniels combined for 33 points and 15 rebounds.
Again, the vast majority of teams Baylor will run into between now and whenever its season ends won’t present this type of problem. But if the Bears want to win six games over three weeks in the NCAA tournament, it’s more likely than not that they’re going to have to find a way to beat at least one of those few teams that does.
2. Kansas is going to be everyone’s pick to win the national championship
Despite owning the longest winning streak in the history of the Big 12 (23 games), Baylor has been a team that, for weeks now, the basketball world has seemed desperate to find fault with. Finally taking a loss and having it happen on its home floor should do the trick.
Of the teams that would be the four No. 1 seeds if the tournament began today, Kansas is the only one that has previously won a national championship. It also probably has the two most recognizable names out of any roster from that quartet in Azubuike and point guard Devon Dotson. For these reasons as well as the simpler fact that anyone with functioning eyes can see that the team is awesome, expect the Jayhawks to be the public’s overwhelming pick to cut down the nets after the full bracket is released on Selection Sunday.
The other thing that helped Kansas’ cause in this department is that it proved on Saturday that it doesn’t need to shoot the ball all that well to take down one of the best teams in the country. Everyone pointed to KU’s 4-of-15 three-point shooting and 14 turnovers as the factors that doomed them in the first meeting against Baylor and the areas that had to be improved for Bill Self’s team to have any shot in round two. The Jayhawks won on Saturday despite turning the ball over 12 times and making only three of their 13 attempts from beyond the arc.
Because of the way it defends, because of the way its guards can get to the basket, and because it has Udoka Azubuike, Kansas can survive a woeful outside shooting game against a quality opponent. That just isn’t the case for pretty much any other team in the sport.
3. The nation demands a rubber match
The Big 12 is, as always, one of the deepest conferences in college basketball. With that being the case, it wouldn’t be overly shocking if Kansas or Baylor (or both) lost before the championship game of the Big 12 tournament. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be extremely disappointing for the rest of the college hoops world.
Kansas and Baylor currently sit at No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, on Ken Pom. There’s a very solid chance that they’re going to tie for the Big 12 regular season title with matching 17-1 records and a win over the other on its home floor. If that’s the case, they’ll both head to Kansas City as a virtual lock to be a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance. It could also set up a situation where the Big 12 championship game could decide not only the conference’s current king, but the NCAA tournament’s overall No. 1 seed.
We must have a round three.