Gonzaga’s minitour of the Big 12 Conference resumes with Baylor visiting the McCarthey Athletic Center for a men’s basketball game tonight.
The 13th-ranked Bulldogs (11-1) have wins by a combined 75 points over West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kansas State, teams predicted to finish in the middle tier of the Big 12. Baylor (8-3) was picked second in the conference’s preseason poll and No. 22 Oklahoma State, Monday’s opponent in Stillwater, was third.
Add in a Jan. 19 visit to No. 18 Butler and the Bulldogs close their nonconference schedule with three difficult assignments.
“We probably won’t play a whole lot of teams this year that are more talented than we are, but this is one of them,” coach Mark Few said of Baylor, which was ranked No. 19 in the Associated Press preseason poll. “These guys have been recruiting on the highest level for several years.”
Coach Scott Drew’s last five recruiting classes have been ranked in the top 22 nationally. The program has signed 10 top-50 recruits in the last seven years, including Deuce Bello, Isaiah Austin and Rico Gathers on the current team.
Baylor ended Kentucky’s nation-leading 55-game home winning streak with a 64-55 victory at Rupp Arena. The Bears thumped BYU by 15 points a week ago, but they also dropped home games to College of Charleston and Northwestern.
“I think a win would be really important for us,” Drew said. “A win will help you RPI-wise. Strength of schedule, it will help you either way. This is one of those wins that are great for a resume and an opportunity for us.”
Senior guard Pierre Jackson leads the Big 12 in scoring (19 ppg), ranks second in assists (6.3) and minutes (34.2), third in steals (2.4) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.0) and fourth in 3-pointers made (2.3).
“He can take you off the dribble, he plays with a lot of freedom and tons of confidence and they have a knockdown shooter in (Brady) Heslip,” Few said.
Heslip is well-known to several Zags. The Burlington, Ontario, product joined GU’s Kelly Olynyk and Kevin Pangos at the Canadian senior team’s five-day training camp in late August. Heslip hit nine 3-pointers against Colorado in a 2012 NCAA tournament game and eight against St. John’s earlier this season. He’s made 43.4 percent of 288 career 3-point tries.
“His family is really involved in basketball, just like mine. His uncle Jay Triano is the national team coach,” Pangos said. “Drew (Barham) played with him on a team last summer. I knew of him but didn’t really meet him until this summer (at training camp).”
Baylor’s frontcourt includes 7-foot-1, 220-pound Austin (13.9 ppg, 8.7 rebounds) and 6-9, 210-pound Cory Jefferson (13.2 points, 8.7 rebounds). Senior guard A.J. Walton, who has played in 115 career games, joins Jackson and Heslip in the backcourt.
“They play a really extended zone,” Few said. “This is an extremely talented and athletically gifted squad with veteran guards that can really play.”