As the winter doldrums here in the Midwest continue, a new kind of grey has enveloped the BU basketball season. While January has predictably brought shorter days, freezing temps and a constant yearning for `what's next,' the current basketball campaign has been, unexpectedly, every bit as tough to swallow.
It seems that the new year's forecasts are not the only things staying cold this time of year.
Let's be frank, the hoopsters are struggling. This Bears team is sloppy, inconsistent and not clutch. In six conference games this season, they've been out rebounded by a smaller team, lit up from behind the arc by an-otherwise winless in conference squad and have shown a national TV audience on back-to-back Mondays a whole lot of nothing.
Yet, we have only dropped three of those aforementioned six.
While it may seem obvious that the Bears are in need of a `spark' or an attitude adjustment, or heck maybe even a restructuring of the depth chart, there simply is no quick fix to this team's shortcomings.
Not only does this Bears team struggle to score in transition, they seem destined to be scored on after each turnover they commit. Not only do they, on average, shoot at a lower percentage than their opponent, Baylor is also consistently taking fewer shots than their opponent because of those turnovers.
The loss to Kansas State last night is certainly a microcosm of their season thus far. Despite playing unspeakably poor in the first half, BU picked themselves up after halftime, made some plays and eventually even held the lead. K State was able to punch back, take advantage of a few 50/50 calls by officials and then establish a comfortable lead while BU went into another four to five minute offensive funk.
The comparisons between the two schools Monday night were spot-on. Both K State and Baylor had huge, perhaps undeserved, expectations heading into this season. For as high as our projections were this summer K State was predicted to be every bit as elite in our conference.
Both teams are coping with the loss of instrumental point guards, both teams are struggling to get the ball to their team's prolific scorers and both are feeling the burden of unmet expectations from fan bases that have come to expect more.
K-State won the only scheduled meeting between the two teams Monday night in their home gym. If the two teams square off again, it will be just down the road in Kansas City.
If the Bears want their names called on Selection Sunday this year, a win that late in the season on a neutral court might be what it will take.
The week we needed as Baylor faithful arrived as we hoped just as the calendar turned to 2011.
Art Briles did more than simply adding a `component' to his coaching staff, he made a huge splash by landing defensive guru Phil Bennett, the Bears new defensive coordinator. Bennett returns to Texas where he has a plethora of coaching experience, memories and most importantly, contacts.
Bennett said himself that seeing the school's turnout at the Texas Bowl in Houston last month was an influence on his decision to leave Pittsburgh.
It's amazing what the power of a fan base's enthusiasm can do.
Bennett has already begun putting together his position coaches and it's safe to say that this year's spring scrimmage will be the most anticipated of its kind in quite some time.
Added to that, (and switching gears) the bad taste of our men's hoop team's recent struggles in Hawaii may finally be leaving the mouth. Our hoopsters have, since returning to the mainland, won four straight including their first two conference clashes.
I was and continue to be skeptic of the non-conference schedule we played this year in the sense that I don't think it will have done the proper job in preparing us for the conference slate. However, in their first true road game of the season, BU showed some grit in pulling away from Texas Tech in the waning moments last Saturday. As we always say, a conference road win is a conference road win.
Duke, for instance, was in a similar position last night in Tallahassee. As of today, Baylor has one more road win than the defending champs.
At 12-3, BU's season will now quickly begin to take shape as the eight week Big 12 Conference gauntlet is underway. Week after week will bring more projections, more bracketology and of course, more neuroticism from yours truly.
What we're learning about this team is again, its sheer athletic aptitude is nearly incomparable with most all teams we'll face this year. We can look sloppy, careless and not capable of running a fast break, but our guys are once again going to be good enough to win every game they play this season.
As a reminder, we still have yet to lose a game by more than seven points since early March of 2009. A stretch like this can no longer be considered a `trend', but rather proof that Drew's recruiting has produced multiple squads immune to being run out of the gym. Any night, any time, any place.
For a team that still has plenty to prove both to the naysayers and to the number crunching Sagarin and RPI polls, this is good news.
Perhaps having Tech and OU on the front end of our conference slate is precisely what this still developing team needed.
Perhaps having KU coming to town in the week ahead, it's time for this team to re-emerge as one of the conference's best.
There may not be many positives to take away from Baylor's first bowl game appearance since 1994. The Bears were rocked by Illinois in the Texas Bowl. Despite playing in familiar territory and Houston being a convenient commute for thousands of alumni, the Bears looked uncomfortable, unprepated and rusty. 40 thousand Baylor fans sat waiting to explode, but had nothing to cheer for until the Illini had seized control on both sides of the ball.
The final act of the 2010 season will dampen the optimism for many, sure. That's understandable after Baylor seemingly played one good half of football after their Halloween night win in Austin. The much-discussed pass defense continued to struggle, RG3 came back to earth as defenses pressured him endlessly and the parallels between this team and our 2008 Men's hoops team continued.
Remember, it was those 2008 Bears who, upon finally turning the corner and making the Big Dance, looked seemingly comfortable with being the team that was 'just happy to be there' in getting trounced by another Big Ten team, Purdue, just hours after the start of that year's tourney.
And similar to those hoopsters, this Baylor team folded towards the end of the season, surviving the post-season 'cut' based on its performance in the season's first half. It may be a matter of conditioning, game preparation or possibly the stage being too big, but the national audience watching last Wednesday certainly did not see BU's best effort.
What should be taken away from this season is obvious, yet still may warrant mention: Baylor produced a winning season when it mattered most. When the conference threatened to implode and the stakes were immediately raised, BU won seven times, four times in conference including a monumental win in Austin and gave us all a season to remember and cherish.
And a bowl berth, let's not forget that.
Like many of you, I made the voyage to Houston last week. I had said for years that a bowl berth, regardless of location or perceived prestige, would mean a second 'christmas' for me. It certainly had all the elements of a memorable football experience, going into the day anyway, but along with an unforeseen performance between the sidelines, the monsoon that enveloped Houston last Wednesday added another element to the 'bowl experience.'
Clearly my visions of tailgating in the Texas sun while reuniting with an army of friends before watching my Bears triumph to victory did not come to fruition...nor close to it.
As we left Reliant Stadium Wednesday night, I realized that this was a familiar feeling. All the hype, all the pageantry, all the planning and preparation was put forth and the Bears couldn't deliver. It felt a lot like March of 2008 when the Bears were unceremoniously bounced from the first round of the tournament in the morning of the tourney's first day.
It stung then and this loss stings for many of us still. It will be a long off season. There will be plenty of theories relating to how we can better ready this team and program for the new Big 12. Coach Briles will need to address the needs of our aching defense. The Bears next opponent eight months from now is Rose Bowl champ TCU.
There was plenty of reason to feel sick to your stomach Wednesday night. Given the outcome, the rain and the cost of my trip back to Texas, it would have been easy to feel low.
And for those of you still in that predicament, just remember what happened to Baylor basketball after that first round loss three years ago this March.
For the first time in a while, there's no looking back for this program.