KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- When it arrived in Kansas City earlier this week, the Baylor basketball team noticed advertisements around town hyping a potential meeting between Kansas and Missouri in the Big 12 tournament title game.
It was talked about on television, on the Internet and in the hotel lobby. Everyone, the Bears said, assumed the Jayhawks and Tigers would be playing in tonight’s championship.
“It definitely caught our attention,” guard Brady Heslip said. “We used it as motivation.”
Instead of Kansas, the Bears will be the team facing Missouri in tonight’s championship bout. If the two squads are as crisp and sharp as they’ve been all week, the game could actually turn out to be better than the one so many people had originally hoped for.
Missouri is 29-4 and ranked No. 5 in the country. Eleventh-ranked Baylor climbed to No. 3 in the polls earlier this season. The Bears advanced to tonight’s title game by upsetting Kansas 81-72 in the semifinals Friday.
The Tigers defeated Baylor twice this season, but they said they’ll hardly be complacent after seeing how well the Bears have played in their past two games.
“Just because we’re not playing Kansas doesn’t mean we’re not playing a great team,” Missouri guard Phil Pressey said. “Baylor has so much talent and they’re playing so well. We’re going to have to be at our best to beat them.”
Rare has been the night when the Tigers weren’t at the top of their game. Missouri’s field goal percentage (50.3) ranks third in the nation. The Tigers rely heavily on their outside shooting, but their patience on offense and the pride they take in sharing the ball usually lead to high-percentage shots.
Baylor coach Scott Drew said earlier this season that Missouri was the top offensive team in the nation.
“They do two things extremely well,” Drew said Friday. “They can shoot it from the outside, and they can penetrate on anybody. So it’s pick your poison with them. You take away one thing, you get the other. That’s what great teams do. They have multiple options.”
Drew’s players seem to agree.
“If they get hot, it’s over,” said forward Quincy Miller, who is averaging 24.5 points in two games against Missouri. “They’re very good shooters. They know how to get to the paint and they know how to offensive rebound, which is a little surprising for a smaller team.
“Ricardo Ratliffe is definitely one of the best big men in the NCAA. They’ve got so much chemistry. They’re just a great team overall.”
Missouri has been especially good in Kansas City’s Sprint Center, where it's 4-0 this season with an average victory margin of 25 points. And get this stat: Guard Kim English is shooting 75.5 percent this season at the Sprint Center.
English, who averages 14.7 points, hopes to have another good game against Baylor, but he knows it won’t be easy.
Baylor surprised Kansas State and Kansas this week by playing man-to-man defense the majority of the game. The Bears are spending a lot of time in a three-guard lineup with point guard Pierre Jackson, 3-point specialist Heslip and defensive standout A.J. Walton. All three are solid ball-handlers -- Baylor committed just nine turnovers against Kansas -- who usually maintain their poise. And their presence has given more room and freedom for versatile forwards such as Jones and Miller, who combined for 31 points against Kansas on Friday.
The biggest difference, though, has been the play of forward Perry Jones III, who is averaging 24.5 points in two Big 12 tournament games. A projected lottery pick, Jones has had an up-and-down regular season and has struggled against top competition.
Or at least he had until this week.
“Perry Jones ... ever since the [ESPN.com article] about him came out, he’s been picking it up,” English said late Friday night. “He’s been playing really well. It’s good to see him playing that well. He seems like a really good kid. I love him, but I hope he doesn’t have a good night tomorrow.”
Both teams have plenty to play for.
There’s still an outside chance Missouri could earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and nothing would please the Tigers more than to strut out of the Sprint Center with a championship trophy from their final Big 12 tournament ever. Missouri is leaving the league after the season for the SEC.
Even though he knows the rest of the Big 12 will be pulling for his team to keep the title out of the Tigers’ claws, Drew said Baylor won’t be distracted by outside storylines.
“Right now we’re pretty focused on what we want to do as a team,” Drew said. “That’s why we’ve been successful the first two games.”
A victory by Baylor today would mark the first time in history that a team from Texas has won the Big 12 tournament. Making the achievement even more impressive would be that Baylor defeated Kansas State, Kansas and Missouri on their home turf at Kansas City’s Sprint Center, which doesn’t exactly feel like a neutral court when 90 percent of the 18,000-plus fans are either Wildcats, Jayhawks or Tigers.
“When we had that tough stretch in the Big 12, I was like, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to be able to beat the top teams,’” Heslip said. “But when you get a little momentum and then you win a game against a great team like Kansas, you definitely have to feel good.”
“If we keep playing like this,” he said, “there’s nowhere to go but up.”