OK, it's now reckoning time for Baylor, a team gifted with ample size and skill yet plagued by softness and inconsistency. Saturday's 72-57 setback at Missouri dropped the Bears to 0-4 against the Tigers and Kansas this season, and the manner in which they lost their two games this week -- in we-can't-do-anything-to-stop-this-game-deciding-run fashion -- means the issue cannot be avoided any longer.
Unless something changes quickly, the Bears are finished as a legitimate Final Four threat.
The rationalist in me understands how much decent work Baylor did in nonconference play, and that losing only to top-10 teams is no reason in a vacuum to bail. This isn't a vacuum, though. This is a vortex into which the Bears are quickly spiraling, their bouts of offensive inconsistency outstripped by a passive, disorganized defense that Big 12 teams are now chewing up with regularity.
After Saturday's defeat, Baylor has allowed eight of its last 10 conference opponents to score at least a point per possession (a mark just below the national average for all games this season). Kansas and Missouri devoured the Bears' (predominantly) sloppy zone defense in all four matchups. But so did Oklahoma (1.09 PPP). And Kansas State (1.07). And Texas scored readily, enough, too (1.04).
Baylor's zone defense has bothered me all season. It seems like such a waste of length and athleticism, but beyond that, it's just not very effective against good teams. SI.com contributor Rob Dauster, on his blog Ballin' Is A Habit, went into some detail this week about some specific weaknesses in Baylor's zone, but beyond some possible structural flaws and/or execution breakdowns, there's collateral damage. Big 12 teams are also hurting the Bears on the offensive glass and/or consistently getting to the free-throw line as Baylor's zone leaves it consistently out of position.
The primary concern entering the season was whether the Bears had a competent point guard on the roster. It was the reason I had Baylor third in my preseason predictions (although those picks of Texas A&M second and Oklahoma State fourth look stellar). Pierre Jackson has answered that to a certain extent, although he's much more a slashing scorer than a quarterback that can bring all of Baylor's potential together.
But for all the teeth-gnashing about Baylor's free-form-but-not-free-flowing attack or why Perry Jones III doesn't impart his will more often on games -- the assumed lottery pick did not shoot a free throw in either of the losses to undersized Missouri -- the Bears' offense, globally speaking, hasn't been the problem. In fact, it has kept the Bears from dropping several more league games, as they basically outlasted their own defensive frailties against Kansas State (a two-point win), Texas A&M (won by three) and Oklahoma State (four).
Last year, we saw a team tear through nonconference play, struggle to a .500 mark in a top league, and then rip off 11 straight wins in March to take conference tournament and national championships. But Pierre Jackson is no Kemba Walker, and UConn was a much stauncher defensive team, even with similar levels of youth on its roster. Baylor's quality from three-point range hearkens up some 2011 VCU-type potential, but most teams simply aren't capable of flipping that kind of switch, not after 30-plus games.
Simply put, Baylor probably won't be able to simply score enough to outlast multiple teams of the quality it will meet in the round of 32 and beyond. Any change in projection is going to come down to the defense, although its lack of ability this week to stop huge, crippling runs may speak more to Baylor's will than its ways.
For two years, the Bears have been described as talented. Last season featured significant underachievement. This season, it appeared they were translating that into production. Now that talent is once again looking rudderless, and there's not all that much time left to turn it around.