As Baylor prepares for Wednesday’s game at West Virginia, forward Jalen Bridges has been the Bears’ go-to guy for insight and detailed information.
Bridges started for Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers for the last two seasons before transferring to Baylor.
“Obviously, I was there so I know a good amount,” Bridges said. “But they’re going to put in new things. But I still know all the actions, all the calls out. It’s a little bit of an advantage, but at the same time they know what I do, they know what I’m capable of, and it’s just going to be a dogfight.”
There will likely be an air of desperation for the Bears and Mountaineers since they’ve both opened the Big 12 with three straight losses coming into the 6 p.m. tipoff at WVU Coliseum.
After 65 straight weeks in the Associated Press Top 25, the Bears fell out of the poll Monday following last Wednesday’s 88-87 loss to No. 17 TCU and Saturday’s 97-95 overtime loss to No. 11 Kansas State at the Ferrell Center.
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There’s been a lot of soul searching for the Bears, now 10-5 for the season. But the key will be playing better defense and executing offensively in critical situations down the stretch.
Baylor coach Scott Drew hopes his team can build a large enough lead where every late possession won’t be as crucial.
“Anything can happen,” Drew said. “You look at UCLA, you look at Gonzaga, we’re on the winning side of those. You look at TCU, you look at Kansas State, we’re on the losing side. So the moral of the story is have a two- or three-possession advantage so you can win those games. If not, you’re going to win some, you’re going to lose some, because nobody wins every close game.”
West Virginia is also 10-5 overall, and like Baylor hasn’t been able to finish off Big 12 games to pull out wins. After opening conference with an 82-76 loss at Kansas State, the Mountaineers dropped a 67-60 decision at Oklahoma State and a 76-62 home loss to No. 2 Kansas.
The Mountaineers haven’t played defense up to their usual standards as they rank ninth in the Big 12 for the season by allowing 68 points per game, standing ahead of only Baylor’s 69.8 points per game allowed.
Huggins’ roster has undergone a lot of changes since last season. South Carolina transfer guard Erik Stephenson leads the Mountaineers with 14 points per game and a 41.7 3-point percentage.
Former Texas forward Tre Mitchell is averaging 13.4 points and 5.4 rebounds while Washington transfer guard Emmitt Matthews Jr. is averaging 10.7 points and shooting 41 percent from 3-point range. Iowa transfer guard Joe Toussaint is averaging 9.7 points while returning guard Kedrian Johnson is averaging 9.1 points but missed the last game due to concussion protocol and is listed as day to day.
“I see a lot of toughness, a lot of strength, a lot of size, a lot of seniors, upperclassmen, what you see across the Big 12,” Drew said. “And that’s why all the teams are top-40 NET ratings. West Virginia and us, we were ranked and doing well, and now both of us are 0-3, both need a win, want a win and it’s going to be a fight to see who gets one.”
The Bears have won four of their last five games at WVU Coliseum, including a 77-68 decision last season. Mountaineer fans are passionate about basketball, so it’s always a tough place to play.
“It will be interesting to be on the other side of the home crowd because it gets loud in there,” Bridges said. “I feel they’re closer to a Bob Huggins’ team than last year’s team. They’re back to his offense, playing tough hard-nosed basketball. It’s as close as you can get to a Bob Huggins basketball team.”
A native of Fairmont, West Virginia, Bridges said he has secured 19 tickets for family and friends. Baylor guard Dale Bonner will also have some family on hand after he transferred last season from Fairmont State, where he averaged 17.8 points in 2019-20 and 21.2 points in 2020-21.
“It will be more so just my immediate family,” Bonner said. “I don’t have 19 people for sure.”
Though the Bears haven’t won a Big 12 game, Bridges told his teammates they’re always a big target because of their recent high-level success, including the 2021 national championship.
“I feel like I kind of gave them a little bit of perspective from being on the other side that everybody looks at Baylor like top dog,” Bridges said. “So everybody’s going to come out with their best punch and we’ve got to be ready for that and punch first.”