Motley, No. 9 Baylor brace for pivotal tilt vs. Iowa St.

As the Big 12 regular-season race heads toward the finish line, Iowa State is closing fast and No. 9 Baylor is fighting to hold on to its spot right behind league-leading Kansas.

The Bears (23-5, 10-5 Big 12) have a tough run of two games in three days beginning with their trip to play the Cyclones in Hilton Coliseum on Saturday. Then Baylor hosts No. 12 West Virginia on Monday.

Because Baylor is tied with Iowa State (18-9, 10-5) and the Mountaineers for second place in the Big 12, this promises to be a decisive period in the Bears’ schedule. Win both and Baylor will likely grasp the second seed in the Big 12 tournament. Lose both and the Bears quickly could drop to fourth.

Forward Johnathan Motley said the key for Baylor is to stay loose and embrace playing basketball.

“Playing games is the best part for me, so I look forward to it,” Motley said. “As many games as we have, I love it. It’s playing basketball, you know, it’s fun. If it’s not fun, then you usually don’t play as well. I think we’ve just got to go out there and have as much fun as possible.”

And even with a resume full of wins against ranked opponents and a top 10 ranking, Baylor figures to have a steep challenge versus Iowa State.

The Cyclones’ current surge of five wins in their last six games includes a win over No. 3 Kansas and road victories at Kansas State and Texas Tech.

Iowa State is playing by far its best basketball of the season, something that’s obvious to Cyclones coach Steve Prohm.

“We’ve come a long way,” Prohm said. “If you go through the second half of the season, you go dissect these games prior, you’re like, ‘Man, we looked bad,’ and we did. That’s part of a process of building a team and coaching and guys getting better and understanding their roles.”

Prohm said his team was as connected as it has been all season after guards Monte Morris and Matt Thomas scored 23 and 20 points, respectively, to defeat the Red Raiders on Monday.

Iowa State’s guard-heavy lineup is thriving, but it will have to be extremely focused to score against Baylor’s notorious long, shot-blocking zone defense.

“You’ve got to be smart,” Prohm said. “You’ve got to get angles. You’ve got to get downhill. You’ve got to get space. You can’t just drive in there carelessly and recklessly, because, if you do that, they’re waiting on you. It’s like turnovers because Motley or (forward Jo Lual-Acuil) or one of those guys are just going to block it.”

That’s exactly how Baylor fended off Oklahoma earlier this week.

The Bears led the Sooners by 15 early in the second half. Baylor failed to make a field goal in the last six minutes, but held Oklahoma to 33 percent shooting and the Bears blocked 10 shots to help preserve a 60-54 victory.

Even so, when Baylor’s offense has been clicking this season, the Bears have shown the ability to fill up the basket with the inside-outside combination of Motley (16.9 points, 9.7 rebounds per game) and point guard Manu Lecomte (12.8 points, 4.8 assists).

“We’ve got to score,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “We can’t score 50 or 60 and probably beat them. Hopefully we can make some shots, and the big thing is make sure we get shots. They’re third in the conference in causing turnovers. We’ve got to make sure we take care of the ball.”