A bear of an opponent
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Unlike most of the Big 12 opponents West Virginia is facing this winter, Baylor presents somewhat of a familiar face.
More specifically, that face belongs to Pierre Jackson.
When the teams meet tonight at the Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas (9 p.m. on ESPN2), many of the principle figures from the Bears' 83-81 overtime win over the Mountaineers last season in Las Vegas will be gone. Kevin Jones had a career game with 28 points and 17 rebounds. Baylor's big two of Quincy Acy and Perry Jones III are gone.
But Jackson is back, and he was as instrumental as anyone in Baylor's win in the championship game of the Las Vegas Classic two days before Christmas 2011. He's one of those prized point guards who is as effective scoring as he is passing the ball and running an offense.
He's also arguably the best player in the league. At least the coaches thought so when they named him the preseason player of the year.
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins was asked this week what concerned him most about the 5-foot-10, 180-pound senior, his scoring or his playmaking.
"Well, he beat us scoring a year ago,'' Huggins said. "He's certainly one of the best players in the league. He can really score the ball and they can really get you spread because they've got a number of other guys capable of making shots, as well.''
If West Virginia (12-11, 5-5 Big 12) is to extend what is now a three-game winning streak in tonight's game against Baylor (15-8, 6-4), chances are the Mountaineers will have to contain Jackson. He's averaging 19.1 points and 6.0 assists, both tops in the Big 12. He's also second in the league in 3-pointers, fourth in 3-point percentage, fourth in steals and third in minutes played.
In that game in Las Vegas last season, Jackson had 23 points, four assists and three steals. He does sometimes have an issue with turnovers (he had five in that game, 11 in a game last week and is averaging 3.7), but what he does offensively is often more than enough to make up for the mistakes.
"Especially when you can pass it to people who are going to make shots,'' Huggins said. "Even [Baylor freshman center Isaiah] Austin can step out and make shots, which makes them more effective.''
Indeed, Jackson's playmaking is helped along by the fact that Baylor can shoot the basketball. The Bears are third in the Big 12 in shooting percentage and second in scoring and five of their top six players can shoot from 3-point range.
That includes the 7-1 Austin, who averages nearly a double-double with 14 points and 9.7 rebounds and has made 19 3-pointers. He and 6-9 junior Cory Jefferson (12.7 points, 8.4 rebounds) rank first and third, respectively, in the Big 12 in rebounding.
And if the Bears aren't strong enough inside with those two, Jackson and Brady Heslip are each in the top four in the conference in both 3-pointers and 3-point percentage. The other starter, A.J. Walton, is second in assist-to-turnover ratio and third in steals.
West Virginia will try to counter all of that with what it does best, which is play aggressive defense. That the Mountaineers are finally showing some scoring punch to go along with it is a big reason for the current three-game win streak.
"I think all year long they've been very solid defensively and very good on the boards,'' Baylor coach Scott Drew said. "I think their offense has picked it up and they've got a couple of guys making more shots and playing more than they did early in the year. And when you add that to good defense and good rebounding, that's what gets you wins.''
Huggins agrees. His team has shot a combined 51.6 percent over the last three games and 51.2 percent from 3-point range.
"Yeah, we've finally made some shots,'' Huggins said. "When we make shots we give ourselves a chance.''
Baylor is coming off a 75-48 rout of Texas Tech in Lubbock Saturday that snapped a three-game losing streak. Austin had his ninth double-double of the season that day, which is more than seven teams in the Big 12 have this season, including West Virginia.
After tonight's game, the Mountaineers begin the longest home-friendly portion of their Big 12 season with three of the next four at the Coliseum. It starts with a Saturday afternoon home game against Texas Tech. There are also home games with Oklahoma State and Baylor following Monday's trip to Kansas State.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.