Why Baylor must beat UConn on Thursday

Anytime UConn comes to town, it’s an event.

When the Huskies invade the Ferrell Center in Waco on Thursday (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET), Baylor must make a statement. The Lady Bears need a victory.

The last time UConn visited Waco (November 2016), the Huskies’ 11-point victory ended Baylor’s 69-game home win streak, but the Lady Bears still entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed. Getting to the 1 line this season will be far more challenging — if not impossible — without a win Thursday.

This is the opportunity for Baylor. There won’t be another one.

The loss at Stanford 10 days before Christmas is the reason this game nine days after the holiday is so crucial. A potential win over UConn is the only opportunity left on Baylor’s schedule that could trump losing at Maples. Without a win, Baylor likely won’t be able to overcome the likes of Stanford, Louisville, Oregon, Mississippi State, Notre Dame and UConn for a No. 1 seed. The schedule ahead doesn’t provide Baylor with the chances for marquee wins like those schools have.

For a second consecutive season, the Lady Bears aren’t getting much help from their conference compatriots in building their resume. The Big 12 put just four teams in this week’s bracketology, the same number of Big 12 teams that made the tournament last March. Only three, including Baylor, are sure-fire selections. Kansas is in the field for the time being, and West Virginia and Oklahoma State have much work to do to be seriously considered.

The Lady Bears have six total games remaining against Texas, Iowa State and Kansas, but the Longhorns don’t measure as highly as in recent years (outside the top 70 in the RPI as of Sunday), and Kansas remains unproven.

That doesn’t look like enough with Baylor’s best nonconference win being Arizona State on a neutral court. Even a clean sweep of the Big 12 wouldn’t do the trick.

Being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament sometimes isn’t vital as long as the matchups are to a team’s liking. It could be a big deal to Baylor this year, though, because it could be the difference of being a No. 2 seed in a region with the likes of Notre Dame, as the Lady Bears are in this week’s projection.

UConn-Baylor isn’t the only game over the next five days that could have big bracket implications. Here are a few more.

South Carolina at Texas A&M, Thursday (SEC Network, 9 p.m. ET): The start of the SEC season is the Gamecocks’ chance to put a disappointing first two months behind them. With an RPI north of 60 and its best win coming at Purdue, South Carolina is no lock to make the tournament, let alone discuss seeding. Both teams need a good start to league play, and the Gamecocks just need a big win.

Arizona State at Utah, Friday (9 p.m. ET): The Sun Devils will want to quickly move past the 39-point performance in a home loss to Arizona. The Utes have begun Pac-12 play 1-0 and are unbeaten at 12-0. They also have a nonconference schedule strength of 322. Utah still has plenty to prove.

Iowa State at Kansas, Saturday (2 p.m. ET): The Jayhawks are 10-1, but like Utah, they don’t have a marquee win. Are they really tournament-worthy, or was the nonconference success solely due to a schedule that didn’t include one top-50 opponent? The Cyclones, who want to show that they are a true threat to Baylor and Texas atop the Big 12, are a huge step up.

South Dakota State at South Dakota, Sunday (ESPN+, 2 p.m. ET): The Summit League comes out firing with a matchup of the conference’s marquee teams in just their third league game. The winner will carry the upper hand in the standings until they meet again on Feb. 24. They both are contenders for an at-large bid, so this is a resume-building game for whoever prevails.

Michigan State and Indiana, Sunday (2 p.m. ET): The Hoosiers are another team that is undefeated but still has something to show. They have beaten South Dakota and Butler, two teams in the field this week, but nothing says “we are for real” like beating a Spartans team that twice on national television (Oregon and Iowa) has announced to the world that it was severely undervalued at the start of the season. A victory, and Indiana will remain in the tournament conversation all winter. A lopsided loss, and the questions will start.

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