Recent reality checks, both physical and mental, have pushed a pair of men's basketball seasons into the danger zone.
How well Baylor and Texas A&M respond this week will go a long way toward determining whether Baylor's dream season can evolve into a Final Four opportunity or whether A&M's ongoing nightmare can be stopped before the Aggies fall short of qualifying for a postseason tournament for the first time in eight years.
The telling feedback begins tonight in Waco, when No. 6 Baylor (21-4, 8-4 in Big 12) seeks to stop a two-game losing streak in a 6 p.m. matchup against Iowa State (18-7, 8-4). The Cyclones threaten to relegate the Bears to fourth place in the Big 12 standings just one week after Baylor players and coaches talked confidently about winning the school's first conference championship in 62 years.
That was before consecutive, double-digit losses to No. 7 Kansas (68-54) and No. 4 Missouri (72-57) dropped the Bears two games behind the co-leaders in the league standings. And, with an 0-4 mark in head-to-head meetings against KU (20-5, 10-2) and Mizzou (23-2, 10-2), it is time for Baylor to concentrate on its NCAA Tournament seeding, rather than its squandered Big 12 regular-season title opportunity, in remaining games.
That begins tonight against Iowa State, a team Baylor will play twice in its final six regular-season games. One loss to the Cyclones, much less two, could drop Baylor -- the No. 5 team in Sunday's latest RPI rankings -- out of the discussion about possible No. 2 seeds when members of the NCAA tournament committee begin bracket brainstorming sessions in March.
And there is no denying the Bears will show up in the Ferrell Center tempted to reflect on what might have been, rather than what lies ahead.
"The disappointing part is we did have an opportunity to do something special," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. But that opportunity disappeared, along with the shooting touch of Bears leading scorer Perry Jones III, in humbling beatdowns administered by Kansas and Missouri.
Jones, a sophomore from Duncanville, scored a combined nine points against Kansas (5) and Missouri (4) by connecting on 3 of 20 shots from the field in the Bears' two biggest games of the season. His ability to bounce back, physically and mentally, against Iowa State will say a lot about where the Bears should be seeded in March.
Despite quality wins over four top 50 opponents in the RPI during non-conference play, the Bears could be greasing the skids for a February freefall if they don't put the brakes on their current skid immediately. Four of Baylor's past six games are against opponents that project as NCAA Tournament participants.
The list includes road games at Texas (16-9, 6-6), which climbed to No. 49 in Sunday's RPI, and at Iowa State (No. 43 in RPI), where Baylor has a career mark of 0-9 in Hilton Coliseum.
The upside, of course, is that Baylor's primary challenge is to maximize its NCAA seed in hope of making an extended tournament run. The Bears' credentials as tournament invitees are unquestioned.
A&M (12-12, 3-9) cannot say that despite beginning the season as a co-favorite with Kansas to win the Big 12 title. But the Aggies will drag a four-game losing streak -- the team's longest of the season -- into Tuesday's game at Texas Tech (8-16, 1-11).
In a season marked by multiple off-court challenges, a victory in Lubbock looms pivotal to A&M's postseason hopes. The Aggies cannot accept an NIT invitation without a winning record. And the remaining schedule includes games against Kansas and Missouri, the league co-leaders, as well as Kansas State (17-7, 6-6).
To maximize its opportunity to post a winning record and secure an NIT bid, A&M cannot afford to fall in remaining league games against Tech, Oklahoma (13-11, 3-9) or Oklahoma State (12-13, 5-7). A&M last fell short of the postseason during the 2003-04 season, when the Aggies posted a 7-21 record under former coach Melvin Watkins.
Every subsequent season has included at least 20 wins and an invitation to either the NCAA Tournament (past six seasons) or the NIT (2004-05). But first-year coach Billy Kennedy has overseen a campaign marked by long-term injuries to three key players (forward Khris Middleton, point guard Dash Harris, forward Kourtney Roberson) as well as the midseason departure of backup point guard Jamal Branch and Kennedy's ongoing battle with Parkinson's disease, diagnosed in October.
Middleton, who has missed 12 games because of a knee ailment, returned to make 2 of 9 shots Saturday in a 69-46 loss to Iowa State. Harris (foot) sat out against ISU, his fifth consecutive absence. Robertson (ankle) has not played since Dec. 22 and is not expected to return.
"These guys are doing everything we ask," Kennedy said of his patchwork lineup. "But those guys who are starting for us have to... be good defenders. We've got to get them better defensively if we want to beat some of these teams."
If not, the Aggies' streak of seven consecutive appearances in either the NCAA or NIT will end this season.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760