Most seasons Baylor fans are fascinated by a few questions. Should the team play faster? Will the Bears new point guard be able to step in? Will the team play smaller? While all those questions are important, the biggest thing that has separated the most successful Baylor teams from those that have missed the tournament has been their defense.
Since Baylor made the tournament for the first time in 20 years in 2008, the Bears have have had a remarkable offensive run. Over those nine seasons, the Bears have been in the top 20 in KenPom’s offensive efficiency metric eight times. Baylor and Duke are the only teams to have done that.
But on the defensive end, the Bears have been inconsistent. When making the tournament, the Bears have averaged being the 60th best defense on KenPom. In 2009 and 2013, two seasons where the Bears had the offense to go dancing(and they probably should have made the field in 2013 anyway) Baylor finished 112 and 77 on defense, respectively.
To understand how Baylor has fared on defense, running through the last several seasons is paramount.
Baylor has oscillated between playing man-to-man and zone since 2009. After making the finals of the Big 12 tournament in 2009 and the N.I.T. final as well, the Bears found a lot of success with the 2-3 zone in 2010. The team finished top 10 in adjusted two point field goal percentage and second in blocks. Largely because the Bears rolled out Ekpe Udoh, who set a Big 12 single season blocks record, Josh Lomers and Quincy Acy. When you can build around this, watch out:
The 2012 team played both man-to-man and zone. After struggling against Kansas earlier in the season while playing zone, the Bears switched to man-to-man defense in the Big 12 tournament and came up with some big stops on the way to beating the Jayhawks at a “neutral” site game in Kansas City to advance to the Big 12 tournament final.
But the 2012 team demonstrated, at times, the difficulty teams face switching between man-to-man and zone defenses. The Bears particularly struggled against Missouri that season. To be fair, many teams did as the Tigers finished with the best offense in the country in 2012. This GIF shows the difficulty the Bears have faced playing man, as Acy and Deuce Bello both went for a weaker trap of Phil Pressey leaving him open to hit Kim English for three. I remember where I was watching that game, and I feel old writing that sentence, so just watch the GIF:
The 2014 team actually had a worse defensive rating than the 2013 team, but the 2014 team figured it out by the end of the season. The Bears relied on a 1-3-1 defense anchored by Isaiah Austin, who made the All-Big 12 defensive team. In their blowout win against Creighton, the Bears played the 1-3-1 to perfection. In this sequence, the team rotated well, and as Steve Kerr notes in the clip—before blowing a 3-1 lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers—the Bears did not miss any rotations:
The 2015 and 2016 teams were the tale of three point defense. The 2015 team finished 8th in three point defense, while the 2016 team finished 291st. A decent portion of this is the natural variance that happens in basketball, or what some hate to call luck. Three point shooting, as some have detailed is largely controlled by how well the offense plays. The Bears probably got lucky a little more in 2015 than they did in 2016. But two point defense and other factors matter. Too often last season, Baylor’s zone struggled to rotate and left men wide open. That remains a big challenge for this season.
The Bears predominantly play a 1-3-1 zone now, but the 2-3 zone might reappear a few times this season. The Bears can roll out lineups similar to the 2010 lineup. This is not me saying anyone on the 2017 team will defend as well as Ekpe Udoh. The Bears will probably rely on Jo Acuil to anchor the zone with Motley also available as a strong shot blocker. If the Bears use this defense, they will probably elect to use it with 6’9 junior college transfer Nuni Omot on the floor. The 2-3 zone can work well if a team can intercept passing lanes and ensure late contests on the wing. The 2010 team had 6’11 Anthony Jones, this team could hope 6’9 Omot can get the job done.
I would expect Baylor’s primary zone defense to once again be the 1-3-1 zone. The 1-3-1 has allowed the Bears provide some on ball pressure up the floor to add a turnover or two a game for the defense and still recover in time to get set in the half court. The 1-3-1 also allows Baylor to trap the ball handler and force turnovers. The Bears finished in the top 20 in steal percentage the last two seasons.
The Bears challenge in the 1-3-1 zone will be the difficult spots it could place Johnathan Motley if he anchors the zone. The Bears could elect to play Motley in the middle while tasking Ish Wainright down low to rebound or pair Motley with Acuil and alleviate this concern. If they don’t, the Bears will have to watch Motley’s foul rate. Last season, Motley averaged 5.7 fouls per 40 minutes. That has to change, and I think it will as he figures out how to find the right balance to pick his spots to avoid fouling out as he plays 30+ minutes each night.
Another key defensive question will be how much Baylor works in some variations within different base defenses this year. With such a deep lineup, the Bears may elect to trap more at times, and other times may drop back. When Acuil is on the floor, I expect the Bears will feel more confident playing aggressively on the ball because Acuil should be able to provide help defense with his excellent shot blocking. When Motley and Wainright are playing the four and the five, I expect the Bears will focus on playing less aggressively on the ball and seek to contest jump shots because those players do a good job when switched onto a smaller defender.
The Bears have played some box and one and triangle and two the last couple of seasons too. In those defenses, the Bears are able to focus on defending the best players while providing help on a few shooters. Against Iowa State, the Bears used both looks to slow down Monte Morris and Georges Niang. At the same time, the Bears were also able to rotate onto outside shooter Matt Thomas. If Jake Lindsey starts playing small forward more often, the Bears could roll this look out. Ish Wainright could also play this role against Josh Jackson of Kansas if the Bears want to throw something wild out there to slow down the Jayhawks. In the last minutes of the Iowa State game, Lindsey shut down Georges Niang as the Bears won in Ames for the second seasons in a row. In this clip, Lindsey sticks with Niang, and the Cylones Abdel Nader ends up settling for a three:
Baylor’s best man-to-man defense possibility appears to be playing a lineup with Wainright at power forward. In those lineups, the Bears can switch a ton of screens. I would expect the Bears to play a lot of man-to-man when Lindsey plays point guard because the Bears can switch Lindsey onto power forwards, and Ish Wainright can defend point guards.
The Bears challenge in man-to-man will be stopping a number of talented Big 12 guards. The league loses a ton of talent, but the Big 12 returns Monte Morris, Devonte Graham, Frank Mason, Jawun Evans, Phil Forte, Wesley Iwundu, a host of good guards at Texas, and Jordan Woodard. That will present a strong test for Manu Lecomte and Al Freeman in the back court. How comfortable the Bears feel about those two stopping dribble penetration will go a long way to determining how often Baylor plays man-to-man defense.
The Bears may play a lot of man-to-man defense though because they will not need to provide much help in the post. For as strong as the Big 12’s guard play will be, the big men in the Big 12 are as weak as they have been in years. Johnathan Motley is very deserving of his All-Big 12 selection, but after that, the offensive big men in the Big 12 get a lot worse. Carlton Bragg of Kansas has a nice face up game, but he will not post up the Bears. Jarrett Allen at Texas is a fantastic defender, as is Khadeem Lattin of Oklahoma. Still, none of those guys are likely to force the Bears to have their guards provide help defense.
I’d expect the Bears to mix up their defenses this season. As we’ll detail in the run up to the season, the Bears have a number of different lineups and possibilities. The Bears have not been a defensive powerhouse, but as one of the best offensive teams this decade, the Bears have the pieces to build a solid defense and confront the talented offenses they’ll face.