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Baylor-Kansas Preview and Prediction

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The Bears look for their first win in Lawrence

NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Conference Tournament-Baylor vs Kansas Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Baylor (20-1, 7-1) travels to Lawrence to take on Kansas (19-2, 7-1) at 8:00 on Wednesday. The game airs on ESPN2.

This game is the biggest challenge of Baylor’s season. With a win, Baylor would not only nab the school’s first win in Allen Fieldhouse, but the Bears would also have an excellent shot to end Kansas’ run of 12 straight Big 12 titles.

Both of these teams are different than they are most seasons. Baylor is normally excellent offensively and mediocre defensively. Baylor has been ranked in the top 20 of KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency eight of the last nine seasons. Duke is the only other team to do that. Yet, this season Baylor ranks 23rd in adjusted offensive efficiency.

The Jayhawks normally play elite defense. Bill Self prides himself on his squads effort and skilled post play. The Jayhawks were ranked 3rd in defense on KenPom last season. But this season, KU ranks just 29th.

The Bears and Jayhawks have overcome being less stellar on one side of the ball by dominating on the other end. Baylor has the 5th ranked KenPom defense, which is led by a strong effective field goal defense and ability to avoid fouling opponents. The Jayhawks offense is ranked 5th, led by senior point guard Frank Mason and likely top five pick, Josh Jackson, on the wing.

This matchup offers some interesting wrinkles. KU is down to a six man rotation (plus survival minutes with Mitch Lightfoot and Dwight Coleby on the floor) with the indefinite suspension of Carlton Bragg. The Jayhawks won in Rupp Arena with limited roster flexibility, so the loss of Bragg is not fatal. Still, there is no a large sample size of KU playing with such a small roster. If Landen Lucas gets in foul trouble, will Bill Self just roll the dice and play without any traditional big men? Or will he play Lightfoot and Coleby major minutes?

Before offering a prediction, it’s worthwhile to explore how Baylor can defend Kansas and how Baylor can try and take advantages of the Jayhawk’s defense.

Defending KU’s Offense

Bill Self plays a four guard lineup this season. With Mason, reigning Big 12 tournament MVP Devonte Graham, Jackson, and potential first round pick Svi Mykhailiuk, KU has one of the best collection of guards and wings in the country. You can see how well they break Texas Tech’s press here:

KU is fantastic at making 3-point shots. Mason is shooting 52% from deep and has hit 48 shots. Svi is shooting 42% and Graham has made 39% of his looks. And if that’s not enough, Lagerald Vick is nailing 40% of his 3-point attempts.

There are two cardinal sins defending the Jayhawks. The first is not coming out on Mason in ball screens. Teams do this way more than you could imagine. Give Mason credit for his skilled work in transition and how it might make some people think they can either have the big man sag back or have their guard just go under the screen. But going under against Mason is so egregious it almost warrants an immediate benching:

I consider going under a big man in zone to be the same kind of unforgivable sin:

The second cardinal sin is closing out hard on Jackson at the perimeter. Jackson is a terrible 3-point shooter. He’s gotten hot lately, but even with that improvement, he shoots 33% from deep on just 52 attempts. And as that second number shows, Jackson does not want to take a 3-point shot. But he’s a shooting guard that’s going to be a top five pick with a terrible 3-point shot. That tells you how good he is at everything else. He’s one of the ten best players in the country because he has an excellent handle, good defensive instincts, and is a superb passer. You can close hard on Matt Thomas and worry about providing late help at the rim. If you close late on Jackson, good luck defending a man who is this good with space:

While I’m cognizant that we have a Young Pope now and the rules may be different, this is still a Bill Self team. KU doesn’t run the high-low offense they ran for so many seasons, but they still look to hit their big man, Landen Lucas, for easy looks:

Baylor’s best bet is to probably play man-to-man. As mentioned, Kansas is an exceptional 3-point shooting team. In the zone, Baylor often rotates pretty late, which can leave shooters open. The Bears have been excellent at effective field goal defense, but KU is in a different category for what is necessary to contest shots. If a team is even a little late recovering, goodnight:

My other concern with Baylor playing zone against KU is dealing with offensive rebounding. Zones are always in danger of giving up offensive rebounds, and the Bear’s zone is no different. They rank 218th in defensive rebounding percentage, which is often a reflection of the struggles the Bears have when they aren’t boxing someone out. KU is ranked 30th in the country in offensive rebounding, and they’ve done well with second and third chances against zone defenses:

Playing man-to-man should minimize those concerns, but it sets up two challenges. First, Baylor would be put in some tough pick and roll spots. In this clip, Texas Tech screens off the ball, which leads to a Baylor switch where Nuni Omot is left high with no help defense at the rim. KU moves off the ball as well as just about anybody, so they’re going to try and get Baylor into these kinds of spots:

Second, Baylor will be put in a weird defensive matchups. With two traditional big men, Jo Lual-Acuil or Motley will have to play a lot on the perimeter. My preference would be to have Lual-Acuil matchup with Svi because he’s less likely to take someone off the dribble, but that also leaves Lual-Acuil on the perimeter and unable to offer help defense at the rim. But Motley seems to play a little bit better post defense, and my concern with having Lual-Acuil matchup with Lucas would be how Lucas might get deep position and then lay the ball in.

If this section shows anything, it is how incredibly difficult KU is to defend. Mason might be the best point guard in the country. Graham is a second point guard on the floor and an excellent shooter, and Jackson was listed by Jerry Meyer of 247 as the best shooting guard he’s seen in 12 years. I think Jackson is a decent clip better than Andrew Wiggins was as a freshmen, so he’s enough of a headache for the Bears, without even considering everything else KU has. Add in Svi’s 3-point awakening and Lucas figuring it out down low, and KU is nearly impossible to stop. The real goal is to contain KU somewhat and then explode against a KU defense that has its share of problems.

Attacking KU’s Offense

KU has been largely awful defending skilled big men. 6’8 Mante Yaten from Georgia scored 30 points, 6’8 Reid Travis from Stanford added 29, 6’10 Vladimir Brodziansky from TCU dropped 28, 6’10 Dean Wade from Kansas State notched 20, and 6’11 Jarrett Allen of Texas scored 22 points.

When you play four perimeter players, it’s tough to defend good big men. Lucas is a good rim protector, but he’s not a speed demon matching guys up from 10 feet. KU often hard hedges or traps on ball screens. That leaves this shot open a lot too:

And Motley can certainly make it from that area of the court:

If KU goes with two big men, they’re unlikely to slow down Motley. KU played Lightfoot against Texas, and the freshman may have a bright future, but Allen didn’t have much trouble eviscerating him. If Allen can do this, Motley can do a lot worse:

KU might try and double Motley, but he’s shown he can hit open shooters out of double teams:

Baylor also needs a big game from Lual-Acuil. Lual-Acuil returned to his offensive form against Ole Miss with 16 points and nine rebounds. Lual-Acuil gets to the rim well, and he collects this pass on the way to a dunk:

The Jayhawks could play an aggresive man-to-man defense, attack the ball handler on screens, and gamble that the number of turnovers they can force will be enough to outweigh Motley and Lual-Acuil’s opportunities. Baylor ranks last in the Big 12 in adjusted turnover rate and is 273rd in the country, according to KenPom. As I detailed in this post on Baylor’s pick and roll offense against Iowa State, the Bears can struggle with teams that pressure Baylor’s guards up high.

But I’m not sure KU will want to gamble that Motley won’t just go crazy against their man-to-man defense. Motley is a level better than the big men that have crushed KU. KU might survive Motley dropping 35 and limiting the rest of the Bear’s attack, but that’s a dicey proposition.

KU could play a lot of zone. 2017 truly is a crazy year when Baylor may play man-to-man and KU may play zone. Jesse Newell, KU’s beat writer for the Kansas City Star, detailed the advantages for the Jayhawks in this wonderful article:

Self explained this part of it well after the game.

“I thought our zone won the game for us for one reason: It allowed Frank (Mason) and Devonté (Graham) to play 37 minutes and not be totally gassed.”

KU is great in transition with its four-guard look. Yet, it’s difficult to ask the guards to continue playing at their fastest gear while knowing they have to play a lot of minutes because of a short bench.

Zone defenses could help. No more chasing shooters on the defensive end or running unnecessary miles. Mason and Graham can set up in their spots and catch a tiny breather in-game instead of going to the bench to do that.

KU’s zone would also leave Baylor wondering if they should take decent 3-point shots or work to get the ball to Motley. Baylor has raised their 3-point percentage lately, but the Bears are still just 169th in 3-point offense on KenPom. If KU goes to zone, Baylor will need to make plays like this:

Additional Wrinkles

Baylor and KU both know what the other team likes to do, but both teams are constantly evolving. KU has a smaller rotation and a number of defenses. Baylor has started playing Nuni Omot more, but Baylor still has Terry Maston ready to make 2-point jumpers, if KU leave an opening in pick and roll spots:

King McClure has also returned after recovering from his knee injury. McClure hit a big shot against Ole Miss and was active on defense. McClure and Lindsey won Baylor the game against Louisville, and McClure’s shot could be vital, especially if the rest of the Bears struggle from 3-point range:

And I’m 1,800 words into this piece, and I haven’t mentioned Ish Wainright. The Bears have not slid Wainright to the four much because Lual-Acuil has been the biggest surprise in college basketball. Instead, Wainright has remained at small forward and helped the Bears make the awesome play nearly unstoppable. KU’s smaller lineup could really struggle to defend this:

Finally, Baylor has been superb in close games. KenPom ranks them 24th in luck right now, which may tell you they are due to lose a close contest. I generally think over time those things even out, but Lecomte has been able to make big shots for Baylor all season, including this one against Iowa State:

One final obstacle is winning at Allen Fieldhouse. KU gets a ton of calls in that building. KU fans feel the need to attack this premise, which baffles me. The Jayhawks get calls in that building because their arena is designed in a manner that puts 16,000+ people right on top of the officials. Their fans are passionate, and they cause refs to give the Jayhawks a favorable whistle. This is not me saying KU is a good team that is only great because of their home arena, but it’s me saying that you get a few more steps in Lawrence than you do in Waco:

Prediction

This is a game where both teams should be able to score a lot. Baylor does have an excellent defense, but the Bears are not as strong defending a team that can plays so many perimeter players. At the same time, Motley is a class above any big man KU has played, and KU has made a number of big men look like lottery picks.

I expect both teams will mix defenses and throw a few new wrinkles into the game. Baylor may move away from their starting five a little earlier, and KU may go to a zone faster than Bill Self has in years. This one really could come down to which gambles pay off. If the Bears ignore Josh Jackson on the perimeter, can he make 3-point shots at his recent clip or does he clank them? If KU pressures the ball, do the Bears turn it over like they have far too often, or do the Bears end up having even easier opportunities for Motley to score in those spots? And does either team do something totally wild we haven’t expected? These are the big questions that will determine this top five game.

I think KU proves to be a little too much on the perimeter, and Motley fails to get the calls he needs inside. I think we’re looking at a split regular season series between these two teams, but you can’t pick against KU in Allen Fieldhouse. I’ll take KU 74-69.