Best teams show why

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Way back on Nov. 8, Washington freshman Isaiah Stewart drove the lane to score the decisive bucket as the Huskies rallied to upset then-No. 16 Baylor, 67-64, in Anchorage, Alaska. 

The Bears led 63-53 after a MaCio Teague layup with 5:38 left and then suddenly couldn’t score. They missed their final 12 field-goal attempts as Washington closed the game with a 14-1 run. 

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Pretty much nothing has gone wrong for Baylor since. The Bears have won 22 straight games, been the No. 1 team in the nation for five straight weeks and are locked with third-ranked Kansas in a two-team battle for the Big 12 regular-season title. 

Baylor took Round 1 of that battle (67-55 at Kansas on Jan. 11) and hosts the Jayhawks in Saturday’s rematch. 

It looks like the game of the year. 

The top rung of the AP Poll was a shaky place to be earlier this season. Five different teams were No. 1 over the first seven weeks of the season before Gonzaga took over in Week 8. The Zags stayed at No. 1 for four weeks until Baylor’s win in Lawrence, Kan., convinced enough voters to bump up the Bears. 

The early season volatility led many to suggest that this was a season without dominant teams — “There is a parity party in college basketball this season unlike any in recent memory,” The Associated Press’ Dave Skretta wrote in early January. 

But, as March approaches, a glance at the top six teams suggests otherwise. 

Baylor, Gonzaga, Kansas, San Diego State, Dayton and Duke have combined to lose just 10 games. The Aztecs are just three games from completing a perfect regular season; Gonzaga hasn’t lost nor been held under 83 points in a game since November; the Jayhawks have won 10 straight since the Baylor loss; the Flyers’ only losses came in overtime, to Colorado and Kansas; and Duke has won seven in a row and climbed to No. 2 at KenPom.com. 

The Bears currently are No. 2 in the NCAA’s NET rankings and were No. 1 overall in the NCAA Tournament committee’s February reveal of the top 16 seeds. 

They’re 9-0 in Quadrant 1 wins; San Diego State (4-0) is the only other team perfect in Quad 1 games, and Kansas (10-3) is the only team with more Quad 1 wins. 

Baylor is 5-1 in Quad 2 because the wheels came off in Seattle: Washington is 2-11 in Pac-12 play and has dropped eight straight games to fall to 12-14 on the season. 

Jared Butler (15.3 points per game) leads three double-digit scorers for the Bears. But it’s on defense where the Bears are strongest. 

Big 12 opponents are averaging just 56 points per game against Baylor. The Bears give up just 42.4 percent shooting from inside the arc (fourth best nationally) and have the No. 3 overall defense, according to KenPom. 

If Baylor has a weakness, it’s size: 6-foot-9 senior Freddie Gillespie is the Bears’ only major contributor over 6-5. Head coach Scott Drew employs a four-guard lineup for long stretches, and the Bears get blocked on 12.9 percent of shots, the fourth-worst rate in the nation. 

Despite their frequent size deficiencies, the Bears are No. 4 nationally in offensive rebound percentage. 

“The type of people on the team aren’t the usual five-star highly recruited athletes,” Drew told CBS Sports in January. “We’ve got all these guys who did not have anything given to them. And now these guys are looking for blood. When I say people are in the gym constantly, it’s one of the most competitive things I’ve ever been around.” 

If Drew’s team can complete the season sweep of Kansas on Saturday, it will likely have nailed down the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. 

Here are this week’s picks. The numbers for the spreads are based on game predictions at KenPom.com. 

Wednesday 

Boston College at Virginia, Total 109: These offenses are bad. The Eagles are 312th in KenPom’s effective field goal percentage ratings, two spots ahead of Virginia. 

The Cavaliers don’t make a lot of unforced errors, but they give up 11.5 steals per game, a strength of the Boston College defense. UNDER

Thursday 

North Florida at Liberty -11, Total 135: North Florida lives by the 3-point shot. 

The Ospreys are one of three teams that attempt more than 50 percent of their field goals from long range.  

And they’re good at making them: The Ospreys are 19th in the country in 3-point shooting percentage and get a nation-leading 44.4 percent of their points from deep. 

North Florida has won 11 of 13, including a one-point home win over the Flames a month ago. NORTH FLORIDA and UNDER 

Saturday 

Gonzaga at BYU, Total 162: If Virginia-Boston College isn’t your cup of tea, this probably will be. 

The Bulldogs and Cougars are both elite on offense — No. 1 and No. 5, respectively, according to KenPom. And while the Zags have the better defense, it hasn’t been as strong as some recent units out of Spokane, Wash. 

BYU hasn’t lost at home since Nov. 9 against San Diego State; Gonzaga has won 18 in a row on the road and 39 consecutive regular-season conference games. 

Something has got to give, but it probably won’t be scoring. OVER 

Last week: 2-1

Season: 29-28-1

About the Author

Ched Whitney

Ched Whitney has been a journalist in Las Vegas since 1994. He worked for the Las Vegas Review-Journal for 18 years, where he was the paper’s art director for 12. Since becoming a freelancer in 2012, his work has appeared at ESPN.com, AOL, The Seattle Times and UNLV Magazine, among others. ​

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