|No. 17/18 Baylor (17-4, 6-2) vs. -/rv Texas (14-7, 5-3)|
Feb. 1, 2016 | 8:00 p.m. CT
Waco, Texas | Ferrell Center (10,284)
TV: ESPN and WatchESPN
Radio: ESPN Central Texas
Texas is a team that is hard for me to pin down. They began the season 2-3 before going on a 6 game win streak, including one over North Carolina in Austin. Then they went 1-3 with loses to Texas Tech (okay) and to TCU (um). Since then, Texas is 5-1 with an overtime win against Iowa State and a horrifyingly ugly win in Morgantown. Their loss in that stretch was against Kansas, whom they played close for about 3/4ths of the game before the Jayhawks pulled away. Texas has yet to be ranked in the AP Poll, but they also have four victories over teams that have been, including two top ten wins. On a macro level, Texas has been all over the place.
There is one notable inflection point, however. Junior center Cameron Ridley hasn't played since a December 29th game against Stanford. Up through that game, the Longhorns averaged just over 12 offensive rebounds per game. Since then, Texas is averaging just 8 per game, which would tie Southern Utah's 334th ranked average if stretched over the season.
Shaka Smart has decided that running back on defense is more important than crashing the offensive glass. This could be trouble for Baylor. A good portion of Baylor's offense comes in transition. If Texas limits these quick baskets, Baylor will have to rely on its half court offense to generate good looks, something that has failed the Bears for long stretches of games this season.
Texas also limits its opponents transition opportunities by taking care of the ball. In conference play, the Longhorns have only turned the ball over on 13% of their possessions. That's the best rate in the league. Texas' lead guards Isaiah Taylor (15.5 points, 4.8 assists) and Javon Felix (10.6 points, 2 assists) combine to turn the ball over just 2.8 times per game. Neither have tallied more than 4 turnovers in a game so far this season. Those low numbers are, in part, due to the slow pace at which they play. The Horns play at the 9th slowest pace in the Big XII, slower even than Baylor. Every possession will have added importance in a game where so few possessions are played.
Another key to Texas' defensive success has been their three-point defense. Not only have the Horns forced the lowest 3P% in the Big XII (29.9%), but they have done a good job of limiting the number of attempts teams have taken from deep. Baylor already ranks last in conference in three point attempts. If Texas can stymy Baylor's long shots even more, it's hard to see where the Bears will find points in this game.
Expect Baylor to play plenty of zone defense tonight. Senior forward Connor Lammert likes to stretch out to the three-point line. While Scott Drew might not mind Taurean Prince covering a player like that, it's doubtful that he would want Johnathan Motley or Terry Maston to stray too far from the paint. The zone will allow Baylor's wing defenders to stay at home and take some of the guess work out of how to cover potential Taylor-Lammert pick-and-pops. A play to watch out for, however, would be a Taylor-Lammert pick-and-pop on the wing with a baseline cutter. When the wing comes up to help one of Baylor's guards defend the two-man action, Texas could take advantage by having a player fill the empty space left behind. If Rico Gathers is at center, the rim could be vulnerable to this sort of attack.
Offensively, how Baylor attacks Prince Ibeh will be important. He has the girth to bang with Motley and Gathers inside. He's not the best conditioned big, though, so having Motley and Maston pop out for short jumpers could be an effective way to neutralize his size. Prince could be in for a rough night, though, as his drives to the basket will frequently be met by one or two help defenders.
Expect this game to be a low-scoring affair. Baylor is a 4.5 point favorite with an over/under of 140.5. Don't be surprised if this game fails to hit that over. Baylor has only failed to reach 70 points three times this season, but I would guess tonight is the fourth. Texas has yet to lose a game by double digits, so I'll guess a score around BU 68 -- UT 65.