No. 3 seed Baylor (25-7) takes on WAC Champion and No. 14 seed New Mexico State (28-5) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The game is at 11:40 A.M. on Friday in Tulsa and airs on TruTv. That’s the one that had the other pawn show for years.
Baylor is a heavy favorite in this game. The Bears are given an 84% chance to win by KenPom and 90% by FiveThirtyEight. Vegas lists the Bears as a 12 point favorite.
The Aggies are a solid team. They are ranked 20 spots higher than any other 14 seed. They even won 20 games in a row during the season. This is not an automatic victory.
To look at New Mexico State, we’ll break down the offense, defense and offer a prediction.
New Mexico State’s offense is led by senior Ian Baker. Baylor played New Mexico State last season, and Baker dropped 21 points. He’s solid at just about everything this season—ranking in the top 500 nationally in assists, offensive rating, free throw rate and free throw percentage. He does struggle from deep. On the season, he’s shooting just 29% from 3-point range. But that’s a number that could be misleading. He shot 37% last season and 45% as a sophomore. Both of those numbers were on a high number of attempts. Baker’s issue seems to be that he’s had a few horrendous shooting games. Yet, he went 3-for-4 against Cal State Bakersfield in the WAC Championship, and his form shows he can get it going on a moments notice:
New Mexico State is not good from 3-point range. They rank 242nd in 3-point shooting. And they take just 28.7% of shots from deep—a total that ranks 228th in the country. I’d expect Baylor to throw quite a bit of zone at the Aggies and dare them to knock down shots.
The Aggies excel in a few offensive areas. They are good from 2-point range. New Mexico State is 22nd in 2-point offense, and they have just 5% of their shots blocked, which ranks 3rd nationally. That’s an especially good number for a team that has one guy taller than 6’7 in the rotation.
New Mexico State also excels at getting to the line. They have the 10th highest free throw rate in the country. The Bears have had a few games where they’ve gotten in foul trouble. And Baylor’s defensive free throw rate has dropped from top 25 down to 62 in the last month. If you want an example of one troubling trend for Baylor in the last month, that’s a big one.
I’ve mentioned that Baylor will probably play a lot of zone. When they don’t play zone, Baylor will likely be able to defend pick-and-rolls like they normally do. The Aggies are not a great shooting team, so Baylor should be able to have the big man drop back and offer a late contest on 2-point shots.
The Aggies could get hot, but they’d really have to start making some shots to pull away from the Bears. Baylor’s not great at turning over opponents, but the Aggies are terrible at holding onto the ball (254th on KenPom). If Baylor gets behind, there’s hope they can make a comeback.
The Bears will likely stay big for much of this game. New Mexico State does not have great size, and the Bears will take any hit they face in defending the perimeter. It will be vital that they avoid some of the mistakes they’ve made throughout the season in flying by opponents. They should be able to survive a lapse like that against New Mexico State, but those kind of mental mistakes killed them in Allen Fieldhouse and Ames:
New Mexico State’s defense is fairly mediocre across the board. There’s no glaring weakness. But they rank 180th in foul rate. That problem may be especially pronounced against the Bears because New Mexico State’s opponents take 36.3% of their shots at the rim. And the Aggies aren’t playing Johnathan Motley in the WAC.
The Aggies will probably—as most teams do—try to force the Bears to beat them from the perimeter. Baylor basketball usually falls into a formula: they turn it over more than you’d like (311th in the country), Motley dominates, and then the Bears hope to make a sufficient number of 3-points shots to make it so the problems with turnovers don’t overwhelm what Motley does. That’s not how it always works—Kansas State shot out of their minds in the second half in Kansas City, and Iowa State has made about everything for a month—-but Baylor went 7-for-27 in a loss against Texas Tech and just 6-for-23 while surviving a scare against Oklahoma in Waco.
New Mexico State has been excellent with transition defense. They rank in the 99th percentile on Synergy in that category. With quick guards and a smaller lineup, the Aggies get back well. Baylor plays at one of the slowest paces in the country, so they will likely avoid getting into a transition battles with New Mexico State.
Finally, there’s always the potential for things to get weird in the tournament. Georgia State threw a press at Baylor that ended their run. And Sam Houston State dished out a triangle-and-two that nearly derailed the 2010 Elite Eight run in the first round. New Mexico State is well aware there may be a Sunday Truce, but on Friday in the Tournament, the rules are different.
Many are nervous because Baylor has lost in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament the last two years. And like those last two years, Baylor is once again facing a team that is under-seeded. But this year should be different.
First, New Mexico State doesn’t have anyone quite as good as R.J. Hunter or Makai Mason. They have some talent, but Hunter and Mason will both be able to say they played in the NBA. The Aggies don’t quite have that kind of talent.
Second, upsets are rare. Sometimes you get beat two times in a row. I don’t think mid-majors have figured out Scott Drew or the Bears. They turned it over too much against Georgia State in the last four minutes, and Makai Mason went insane. Bill Self lost back-to-back seasons as a No. 3 and No. 4 seed in his second and third years at Kansas. Sometimes you just have a run of bad luck.
Most importantly, Baylor is just better than New Mexico State. They have better players and should finally be healthy again. The Bears also have the best player, a huge size advantage and New Mexico State is not built to take advantage of Baylor’s weaknesses.
From the Super Bowl, to the 2016 Election, to Brexit, low probability events happen. But we remember low probability events because it’s shocking when they happen. I don’t think this Baylor team joins that list. I’ll take Baylor 74-60.