TCU needs a signature win, while Baylor needs to keep winning to stay within striking distance of perennial Big 12-leader Kansas.
Those are the stakes as the sixth-ranked Bears travel to Fort Worth, Texas, for a 7 p.m. CT tip on Saturday at Schollmaier Arena.
And the stakes make it the most intriguing basketball game between the two schools in decades. The Horned Frogs joined the Big 12 at the start 2012-13 season and won just eight conference games in four campaigns before this one.
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Even before joining the Big 12, though, TCU didn’t have much of a college basketball footprint. The Horned Frogs last made the NCAA Tournament in 1998 and have just two March Madness appearances since the tourney expanded to 64 teams.
Meanwhile, Baylor only recently become a postseason regular as six of its 10 all-time NCAA Tournament berths have come since 2008. It’s even more rare for Baylor to be in contention for a conference championship. The Bears haven’t won one of those since 1950.
But here we are.
Baylor (17-1, 5-1 Big 12) briefly held the nation’s No. 1 ranking last week and is a game back of Kansas in the Big 12 standings with two games versus the Jayhawks still on the schedule.
TCU (14-4, 3-3) received votes in the Associated Press poll this week despite having no wins against top 25 opponents this season. The Horned Frogs lost at Texas Tech on Wednesday, so they’re in jeopardy of losing momentum if they can’t knock off or at least stay close to Baylor.
Both Baylor and TCU have All-Big 12-level stars that lend credibility to their impressive records.
Horned Frogs forward Vladimir Brodziansky, the reigning Big 12 Player of the Week, is averaging 13.2 points and has upped that stat recently. He is averaging 22 points in the last three contests.
“He’s got good length and great size,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said of Brodziansky. “He hasn’t been bothered by other bigs. He’s a matchup problem and that’s why he’s a successful player.”
But the Bears can counter with forward Johnathan Motley, who already had a monster game this week versus Texas. Motely scored 32 points and pulled down 20 boards in the Bears’ victory over the Longhorns.
The difference between TCU’s frontcourt and Baylor’s is that the Bears have more depth.
While Motley is Baylor’s best offensive player on the interior, 7-foot forward Jo Lual-Acuil provides an even more intimidating defensive presence.
Drew complimented TCU’s backcourt play so far this season, but the Horned Frogs still can’t match Baylor’s talent at the guard position.
Point guard Manu Lecomte and shooting guard Al Freeman are the Bears’ second- and third-leading scorers at 11.9 and 11.2 points per game, respectively.
The Horned Frogs are potentially making a case for their first NCAA Tournament berth in 19 years and they still have plenty of chances for resume-building victories. But to remain in the conversation, TCU needs to win some games when they face a talent and/or experience deficit like they will on Saturday.
To do that, the Horned Frogs probably need to turn that kind of game into a grind, or at least that’s what Drew expects.
“They play more that old Big East style, defensive oriented, physical and tough,” Drew said. “Like everybody, they’ll take transition baskets, but they operate well in the half court offensive and defensively.”