The Bears, in their last tune-up game before the stretch run (unless you count Tech and TCU) is upon us this Saturday afternoon at 2pm against the Hardin-Simmons Cowboys. A Division III school, they have played a "who's who" of opponents this year including Williamette, Ozarks, Mississippi College and LeTourneau. They lost 106-69 to Mary Hardin-Baylor this year, so the other Baylor in Texas should have a pretty easy time with them.
I will give you a quick primer on what to watch for against Hardin-Simmons, other than walk-ons getting some minutes, but the main bulk of this article will be three keys to what the Bears need to improve on to make 2013 a great season for them.
The Cowboys are 10-5 on the season, with a 6-3 record in the Southwest Conference. They are led by guards Eric Taylor and Darius Singeltary, their two leading scorers that are playing. Both are junior transfers by way of Junior Colleges. Singeltary comes off the bench, as their primary bench player. In fact, they only had 6 players get more than 10 minutes with Charles Sam, another junior college transfer guard getting 9 minutes off the bench.
They have two players taller than 6-7, with center Jeff Holland at 6-7 and senior Andy Spears at 6-10. Both start for the Cowboys, but if either get in foul trouble, they have a bunch of 6-3 guys to take over in the post.
Alright, so now that the Hardin-Simmons breakdown is out of the way, what do the Bears need to do not only in this game but the coming weeks to prepare themselves for the stretch run of the 2013 season? Baylor has another Big Monday came coming up against one of the top teams in the Big 12 this year, Oklahoma State. With the game being in Waco, this isn't a must-win game, but it would be a very important victory for their overall NCAA tournament profile.
Keys to the Season:
-Find that long-range – The Bears are still struggling when it comes to shooting the ball, especially from 3-point range. Most of their struggles can be traced back to the inability of Brady Heslip to be an effective option this year. In 2012, Brady had the #1 Offensive Rating in the country according to KenPom. This year, he has fallen to 276th in the country. 74% of Brady's shot attempts have been 3-pointers this year, and a stunning 100% of those have been off of assist passes. That means, not a single one of his 3-pointers have been off the dribble, or something that he has created.
Baylor has to get more out of their junior sharp-shooter, who is making only 35.3% of his 3-point shots. Against Kansas, he was 0-3 from the field, missing his only 3-point shot, a late attempt that was wide open in a secondary transition play.
Currently, the Bears run pick and roll plays with Pierre Jackson and A.J. Walton as the primary ball handler. I would like to see them try it with Brady and Isaiah Austin. With Brady being the ball handler, the defense will have to pop out on him and make sure that he does not get a good look. He is one of our better interior passers right now, and with Austin being the screener, he can either hit the jump shot or try and take it into the interior. While Brady has struggled, some of that is with the defenses taking him away, and this would give them a tough choice to make.
If Brady can't get the job done, the Bears need to turn to Gary Franklin, a player that is starting to get much better in the all-around game and is a better option on the defensive end (though still not a good option). Franklin is getting 11 minutes less per game, but has been a nice option off the bench. He is a better ball handler, defender and rebounder and is getting better as a passer. Though he has not shot great from long range either, we have to see if he is having one of those hot nights, like we saw against BYU and Gonzaga.
-Get stronger off the ball – Another aspect that will help the Bears offense is their off the ball play. This can be discussed in several different ways, but the main thing I want to see here is just better movement. Too many times against Kansas or TCU, we were caught up in a stagnant offense waiting for Pierre Jackson to do something. The Bears would stand still and not move, as if they were attacking a zone defense, except without the ball movement.
Part of the reason for the lack of movement is our inability to set good screens. An advantage of having a bigger small forward on the court along with some experienced post players was the ability to set good screens. Quincy Miller, purely due to size, is a better baseline screener than AJ Walton or one of the other guards when the Bears go to a 3-man set. A staple of the offense last year, with Pierre Jackson being the only man above the free throw line and 2 screeners along the baseline for Brady Heslip to run through, has not been nearly effective this year. While he has gotten some good looks, those looks are not as wide open as in the past. True, Brady has not converted on some of those chances as well, but he is being asked to make tougher shots.
Along with the lack of screen setting, our interior movement is not nearly as good. Last year, with Perry Jones III and Quincy Acy, two experienced players who played together the year before, they did a good job of keeping their spacing good. Perry was at his best near the free throw line, while Acy was excellent at working closer to the rim. This year, both Austin and Jefferson kind of mirror each other a bit too much. Both are better about 10-15 away from the basket facing up. Personally, I think Austin should be in the role of Jones, while Jefferson is a much more natural player down low. I expect to see more plays called with Austin at the top of the paint or key area with Jefferson working lower in the block. The Bears ran this set a few times against Kansas, but the passes were sloppy.
-Convert those open looks – I am a man that likes to harp on things. In football season it was all about the turnovers. Well, this year in basketball, it is all about the simple execution of knocking down an open shot. When the Bears have lost or struggled, they have missed a large amount of open jumpers or even layups that quite simply have to go in. Against Kansas, we didn't miss many open shots simply because they weren't there against one of the best defensive teams in the country.
You have to believe in the laws of averages in sports. Everything should work its way to the mean, over a large enough sample size. Right now, the Bears have been pretty unlucky when it comes to converting those open looks. I don't know if the Bears need to go into the gym to shoot more, or just relax and play a little slower, or sacrifice a whole chicken. They need to do something to simply turn the tide on their shooting. Just look at some of the shooting percentages from last year to this year for our two lead guards.
Pierre Jackson – 3.7 more shots per game in 2012
2011: 46% Field Goal / 40.0% 3-pt
2012: 41.9% Field Goal / 35.3% 3-pt
Brady Heslip – 0.02 more shots per game in 2012
2011: 45.5% Field Goal / 45.5% 3-pt
2012: 36.3% Field Goal / 35.3% 3-pt
With Pierre, it could be due to the volume of shots that he is taking. Almost 4 shots more per game is a pretty large increase, which coincidentally is almost the exact amount of difference in # of shots from last year's small forward (Quincy Miller with 8.4) versus this year small forward (AJ Walton with 6.2) when you adjust for 4.7 more minutes of action for Walton.
Last year, the scoring burden was much more balanced, with 5 players averaging between 13.8 and 10.2 points per game. This year, it is just Pierre and his two post men in double figures, with Jackson at 18.6 points per game. We really need another scorer to emerge, be it AJ Walton or Brady Heslip or one of the other guards. The guards have had chances to knock down shots; they just have to do it now.
Look, all of this isn't to say that the Bears are not playing good. They are playing really well defensively and their rebounding has been good this year, primarily due to avoiding the zone defense that plagued their defensive rebounding at times last year. They are also still a pretty good offense, mainly due to the excellent work of Austin and Jefferson most nights, as they give them a very efficient post attack. Even if the Bears keep playing like this, they are an NCAA tournament caliber team. Probably not a great seed (I think they are anywhere from an 8 to a 10 seed right now), but they are in the dance.
But just getting there is not the goal of this team, nor should it be. This is a better team than that, and one that should be able to play on the second weekend of the tournament. The Bears right now have a lot of room to grow, and they need to start doing it sooner rather than later.