Baylor’s carryover momentum from breaking a five-game losing streak proved to be short-lived Tuesday at the Ferrell Center.
So did concerns that No. 8 Kansas would watch its first league loss morph into a midseason swoon against Big 12 opponents, like the Jayhawks endured a year ago.
Instead, the Jayhawks reinforced their position as Big 12 pacesetters with a 69-52 win over the Bears. Baylor (14-8, 2-7 Big 12), on the other hand, moved another step closer to bursting its own bubble in efforts to return to the NCAA Tournament after winning the NIT last season.
Kansas (17-5, 8-1) rediscovered its shooting touch, burying 46.3 percent of its shots. The Jayhawks, who have connected at a 50.3 percent clip during conference play, managed only a 38.5 percent performance in Saturday’s 81-69 loss to No. 15 Texas.
All of that changed Tuesday when the Jayhawks riddled the Bears’ 1-3-1 zone defense with some timely perimeter strikes from guard Naadir Tharpe (22 points, 9-of-13 shooting) and the inside work of forward Perry Ellis (14 points, 10 rebounds).
Defensively, Kansas held Baylor to only two field goals in the final 13:20 while handing the Bears their worst home loss since falling to the Jayhawks 85-65 on Jan. 17, 2011.
“Naadir was great the whole game. I thought he probably played better than his stat line,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, who benched Tharpe for much of the second half during Saturday’s loss in Austin. “He needed that and we needed him to be good, especially playing against a zone.
“But this was more about defending and rebounding than it was about any offensive things.”
For Baylor, it was about being unable to build on Saturday’s 76-70 victory over then-No. 8 Oklahoma State and put together a momentum-building win streak. Baylor shot just 29.1 percent from the field (16-of-55) and was outrebounded 45-31.
“You can’t beat anyone shooting 29 percent,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew, who found a ray of hope in the Bears’ 2-7 mark at the midpoint of the conference season. “Illinois went 2-7 and made the NCAA tournament last year. There aren’t a lot of teams we can’t beat on our schedule.
“The good thing is I believe we can win every game. But with the Big 12 being like it is, we can lose every game.”
Especially on nights when the Bears’ primary inside players, 7-foot-1 Isaiah Austin and 6-foot-9 Cory Jefferson, combine for only seven rebounds. Jefferson had only one in 32 minutes.
“We’ve just got to get more production on the boards from Isaiah and Corey,” said forward Rico Gathers, who came off the bench to grab a team-high eight rebounds. “When you have nights like that when your starting big only gets one rebound, that’s a problem.”
Also a problem: A scoreless final 26:34 by Baylor guard Brady Heslip (12 points), who was hot in the first half but missed his final eight shots after the Jayhawks tweaked their defensive approach. Heslip said Baylor players have “no doubt” they can turn things around and reach the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s hard. But what else can we control, really?” Heslip said. “We’ve got to stay positive. This team still believes.”
Despite posting a 6-14 mark in the team’s last 20 games against Big 12 opponents, Gathers said these Bears are “looking forward to getting into the tournament” and envision winning “at least six” of the team’s nine remaining conference games.
“I feel like this team has still got something special. We’ve just got to start going out, when we get a win, and build on it instead of regressing,” Gathers said. “As long as we keep our heads high, we’ll be just fine.”
Based on Tuesday’s effort, more rebounds and better shooting would be useful, too.