By Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
The most critical stretch of Northwestern’s nonconference season began with last Tuesday’s visit from Maryland. That didn’t go very well. Getting over the hump with a seamless trouncing of UIC was seen as the logical next step. Not so much. Now Northwestern faces arguably its toughest game of the season, a road test at Big 12 heavyweight Baylor. That statement feels especially true in light of the Bears win at Kentucky Saturday – the first home defeat of John Calipari’s four-year tenure in Lexington – but it’s not as though the Bears have been the sport’s model of winning consistency to date. In fact, just 10 days ago, Baylor fell victim to one of the most surprising nonconference upsets of the season, when Southern conference upstart College of Charleston dropped the Bears in Waco. Northwestern would love nothing more to replicate that blueprint and emerge with a similar result. Whether it can, and how it plans to attack Scott Drew’s zone defense, are open questions. Hopefully this mini-preview offers a helpful guide for the massive challenge NU faces.Coach: Scott Drew 10TH Season, Record at Baylor: 162-126 (56-90 Big 12) Conference: Big 12 Preseason Media Poll Projection: 2nd Season Profile Record: 5-2 Best win: at Kentucky Worst Loss: College of Charleston
Three Players to Watch
Pierre Jackson (Senior, Point guard)
Those who witnessed Baylor’s 28-point demolition at Welsh-Ryan Arena last season remember Jackson quite vividly. He was the short, energy-infused, lightning-quick point guard who was able to dart into the lane, change direction on a pivot and make snap-decisions while flying flying at full speed. That was just Jackson’s first season on campus. He’s elevated his game this year, and is already generating some buzz on All-America watch lists. Few players can guard him in the open floor, much less take away his breathtaking creativity. His 35.2 assist rate ranks 54th nationally, but he’s nearly as effective as a scorer: Through seven games, Jackson, while using 30 percent of available possessions and taking just under 27 percent of his team’s shots, has posted a 117.2 offensive rating and a 52.6 effective field goal percentage. Even if you, like many college basketball fans, hold doubts over the merits of tempo-free statistics, know this: Jackson is one of the best players in the country. He proved it last year against the Wildcats, and he’s only improved since.
Isaiah Austin (Freshman, Center)
The obvious comparison for Austin’s lanky frame, perimeter-happy tendencies and remarkable athleticism is Perry Jones III, a first-round pick in last year’s NBA Draft who left Baylor never having reached the massive expectations he arrived with. It’s early yet in Austin’s college career, but he already looks more well-rounded than Jones ever did throughout his two years in a Baylor uniform. Austin’s talent is undeniable. He’s quick and athletic enough to hang around on the perimeter, but long enough to compete in the low post. Like Jones, his main weakness is his lack of girth – defenders don’t try and jump over him; they go through him. Still, Austin is a special player with obvious first-round potential. It’s unlikely he remains in school beyond this year, because when you find players with Austin’s combination of raw skill and sheer athletic ability, the professional ranks are too enticing to pass up. Austin’s a legitimate pro, and he’s already shown as much in a small sample.
Cory Jefferson (Junior, Forward)
Frontcourt depth is what made Baylor such a frightening matchup last season. With Jones, and fellow NBA draftees Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller manning the low block, no team could match Baylor’s size, talent and athleticism. That Acy, Miller and Jones are all gone and Baylor still has one of the nation’s best batch of bigs is a testament to what this program has become under Scott Drew. It is, for lack of a better term, Kentucky West. The Bears bring in the nation’s top high school players on a yearly basis, with a special emphasis on stretchy, super-athletic, hybridized big men. Case in point: Jefferson, a highly touted prospect out of Killeen, Texas in 2009, redshirted his freshman year then played marginal minutes behind Acy and Jones in 2011-12. Now he’s a huge part of Baylor’s frontcourt rotation. When you watch Jefferson play, it’s hard not to be blown away by his incredible shot-blocking prowess (his 8.1 percent block rate ranks in the top 100 nationally). What might surprise you is that Jefferson is actually one of the most efficient offensive players in the country: His 134.7 offensive rating and 70.2 effective field goal percentage confirm as much.
Key Matchup: Pierre Jackson vs….?
There’s no getting around Baylor’s clear athletic advantages, nor are there many ways to poke holes in the Bears high-powered offense (Baylor’s 111.3 offensive rating ranks 17th nationwide). There is no hard-fast way to shut this team down completely, but any effective Baylor-specific defensive gameplan starts and ends with Jackson. The clearest positional matchup is point guard Dave Sobolewski. I am no master defensive strategist, but I know enough that Sobolewski cannot guard Jackson in the open court. That’s less a statement on Sobolewski’s defensive ability than it is a commendation of Jackson’s imposing blend of quickness, ball handling and facilitative intuition. For Northwestern, the best option to guard Jackson is probably Reggie Hearn. Jackson’s speed disadvantage is well-noted, but there are only a handful of players who can actually corrall Jackson on the perimeter. What Hearn provides is a toughness and focused discipline unrivaled by any of his Wildcats teammates. The height disparity – Hearn is 6-4; Jackson is kindly listed at 5-10 – will frustrate Jackson as he tries to dart into the lane and finish in traffic. It is not an ideal man-to-man matchup, but Hearn will at the very least work like crazy to slow down the Bears’ wily lead guard. However coach Bill Carmody schemes against Jackson, there's little doubt Northwestern will have its hands full.