Coming into the season, there was a lot of discrepancy on how good people expected Baylor to be. The raw talent and athleticism was undeniable. However, the previous year’s team was similarly talented and athletic, yet failed to live up to even the most conservative of expectations.
The 2011-12 Baylor Bears are a very good team. While their record may reflect a bit of luck given their record in close games (7-1 in games decided by 5 points or less), even the advanced statistics over at kenpom.com have Baylor rated as the 10th best team in the country. With the team having racked up 21 wins and having beat every non-Top 10 team they’ve faced, including a fair number of Top 25 and equivalent teams, there is no way that this team can be called a disappointment. Perry Jones III has not reached his potentially prolific ceiling consistently yet, but he has been the best player on the floor most of the time that Baylor takes the court. Around the improved PJIII, the newcomers have all stepped in to be valuable contributors to make this a very good team instead of a mediocre team with a very good player.
Perhaps I’m alone in this, but despite the new heights of this season, I can’t help but feel a tinge of disappointment because of Baylor’s two losses and because of a lack of improvement in two key areas over the course of the year. Certainly, losses at Kansas and against Mizzou are nothing to be ashamed of, but it was the manner in which those losses occurred. Baylor was systematically taken apart in Lawrence and did not play Mizzou as close as the final 1 point margin indicated.
Fortunately, Baylor has a chance to make amends over the next 4 days. Starting tonight, Baylor will play these same top 10 teams knowing that they need to win at least one to have a realistic shot at the Big 12 Championship and the probable #1 seed that comes with it. Losing both would relegate Baylor to #2/#3 status even if they win the rest of their Big 12 games, solidifying the impression that they are clearly the 3rd of the Big 12’s top trifecta.
Before the game in Lawrence, I pointed out that while Baylor was ranked #3 in the polls going into the matchup, kenpom’s stats had Kansas not only rated better than Baylor, but as one of the best teams in the country. In large part because of the complete shellacking that followed, Kansas has spent much of the time since then ranked much closer to their elite kenpom ranking. Recent losses have seen them drop to #10, but this feels like an overreaction to a loss to a good Iowa State team(that currently ranks 4th in the Big 12 and looks like a tournament lock) and in last Saturday’s thriller at Mizzou. Kansas is a great team. Let’s not underestimate them (again). Analysis from the Monday night massacre and potential remedies after the jump…
On that fateful night in Lawrence 3 weeks ago, Bill Self developed a game plan that exploited every weakness that we knew Baylor had and a few that we didn’t even know that we had. Grantland addresses many of the isssues here and I encourage you to read it if you have the time (and the instestinal fortitude/a handy trashcan). One of the key points that he stresses is how badly Kansas outrebounded Baylor, particularly on the(ir) offensive glass. Sure, it’s true that Baylor is always going to give up offensive rebounds as long as they play so much zone defense (more on this in a minute), but Kansas got an absurd 14 offensive rebounds. This means that Baylor was giving up an offensive rebound on more than half of Kansas’ misses. Even for a team that manages to win giving up a lot of rebounds, this is simply too high.
The other huge problem that Baylor’s defense had that night is that their zone defenses were simply worthless at stopping Kansas. (One assumes that this was their intended goal as opposed to, say, helping make Thomas Robinson a leading Player of the Year Candidate; if this assumption is wrong, then please forgive me and see Mark for a full refund on this column.) They started in their common 2-3 zone. In addition to Kansas exploiting the traditional weakness in making shots from the free throw area, Bill Self also devised plays that allowed the Thomas Robinson – Tyshawn Taylor duo to play the inside-outside game. From the 2-3, Scott Drew switched the 1-3-1 to cover up the hole in the free throw area, only to see that Self had a series of plays designed to combat this as well. By running players through the zone to one side, Kansas was able to consistently overload one side and get players open near the basket.
Finally/mercifully, Scott Drew switched to man defense. Kansas was able to break this down, though this seemed to be more because of breakdowns by certain players rather than an ineffective scheme. If there is one change I would like to see Scott Drew make tonight [outside of his horrifically boring tie selections], it would be to start in man defense and use it a much greater percentage of the time. Other adjustments will obviously have to be made, but Baylor has been fairly effective in man defense this year. With 4 days and some practices since the last game, I am holding out hope that this scheme can get tightened up to help counteract the predictable pick and rolls that they are likely to see.
Baylor is favored by 1.5 points tonight. This reflects their recent win/loss record, but not their previous matchup. Considering that the game is in Waco, I understand the line, but I am going to need to see Baylor play better on offense and much better on defense against a Top 10 team before I could consider this game anything more favorable than a tossup.