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Baylor-USC Preview and Prediction

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Baylor seeks a fourth Sweet 16 this decade

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Baylor vs New Mexico State Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Baylor (26-7) battles USC (26-9) for a spot in the Sweet 16. The Bears are favored across the board. KenPom and FiveThirtyEight give the Bears a 76% chance to win, while Vegas has the Bears listed as 6.5 point favorites.

We’ll take a look at USC’s offense, defense and offer a prediction.

Offense:

The Trojan’s offense ranks 39th on KenPom. They are pretty good in many areas, but not excellent in any category. USC rarely turns it over. They are 19th in adjusted turnover rate. But Baylor doesn’t win by turning opponents over. The Bears are just 279th in turnover percentage. Instead, the Bears contest shots:

The Trojans don’t run too many pick-and-rolls, and they should struggle when they do against the Bears. According to Synergy, USC scores just .71 points per possession on plays finished by the ball handler. That mark ranks in the 25th percentile nationally. The Bears generally ice or mush pick-and-rolls. In that defensive alignment, a Baylor big man drops back and can offer a late contest on a 2-point shot. The Bears have long big men, and Johnathan Motley and Jo Lual-Acuil are quick. Baylor gambles those two can offer a late contest of the shooter. The way an offense beats that defense is by making long 2-point shots or forcing their way into the paint. But few teams can do that, and USC’s numbers show they’re likely not among the few.

USC has solid 3-point shooting. Jordan McLaughlin hits 40% of his triples, and Elijah Stewart and Beanie Boatright both shoot at least 36% on a high number of 3-point attempts. The Trojans are only 186th in percentage of shots taken from the perimeter, but that may change against the Bears. USC has attempted 47 3-point shots in their last two games. And they made 14-of-34 in their upset of UCLA. The Trojans are always capable of making shots like this:

Baylor will likely play a lot of zone. According to Synergy, USC scores .93 points per possession against the zone. That puts them in the 55th percentile. And USC played a much weaker schedule than many power five opponents (Synergy data is not opponent adjusted). They just don’t have a great 2-point offense, and they get blocked on a fair number of attempts. But the Tournament is a time where teams can get hot. New Mexico State is an awful 3-point shooting team. They got hot in the first half and led. Then, the Bears switched to man-to-man and ran them off the 3-point line. My guess is that Baylor will open in zone but be ready to switch to man-to-man.

USC is good in transition. They are in the 88th percentile in transition offense. The Trojans will likely try to pick the pace up against a Baylor team that plays at one of the slowest marks in the country. Baylor showed it could win a faster game with their performance in the second half against New Mexico State. Still, the Bears will prefer to play at a slower tempo.

Defense:

Baylor has a big advantage against USC’s defense. The Bear’s offensive formula is to get a strong game from Johnathan Motley, collect offensive rebounds and hope they hit enough 3-point shots to overwhelm their turnovers. USC has problems in all those areas.

The Bears rank 3rd in offensive rebounding percentage. The Trojans rank 250th in defensive rebounding percentage. While there are big differences between Baylor and PAC-12 teams, the Bear’s front-court is a magnitude better on the offensive glass than the Duck’s. Yet, Oregon managed to grab 27 offensive rebounds in their two games against USC. I’d expect Baylor to do well offensive rebounding.

USC is not good at turning over opponents. Baylor ranks 306th in turnover percentage, and even when they began their run against New Mexico State, they had a few awful turnovers. But the Trojans are 213th in turnover rate. They rank just 5th in foul rate. What those two numbers indicate—and the games bear out—-is that the Trojans do not play an aggressive on ball defense. They could try something different. When you walk into a game knowing you’re a little worse than your opponent, you absolutely should. Yet, it’s hard to do change your identity when your life is at stake. The Trojans may just hope their normal game is good enough.

Baylor also brought back “the awesome play” in the New Mexico State game. It could return on Sunday. That’s a play where Ish Wainright collects the ball high on the right side of the court. He then either fires the ball to Motley or Lual-Acuil, or he can kick it out to a 3-point shooter freed off a screen in the post. That play worked well in non-conference, but the Bears weren’t able to get that play to work as well in Big 12 play. But in the Tournament a team has just a few days to prepare. The Trojans are playing their third game in five days. There’s only so much your team can be ready to confront in that time. Good luck stopping a man that can fire a pass this fast to a man this big:

USC plays some zone. They play about 66% of their possession in man-to-man (though I’ll note sometimes calculating that figure can be tough because you can miss several possessions and classifications can get a little difficult). The Trojans will play a 2-3 zone. Their zone will likely be designed with the same goal most defenses are against Baylor: make somebody other than Motley or Manu Lecomte at the 3-point line beat us. Somebody else can beat USC. Al Freeman had 21 points on Friday, and Terry Maston nailed 9-of-12 shots. I think USC will likely give Maston the long 2-point shot, and as Jake Lindsey plays more minutes while Baylor runs Manu Lecomte off the ball, this shot should be there:

The one concern I have is that the Trojan’s defense is decent enough the Bears could go on a long drought. USC doesn’t do much to overwhelm opponents, but that still requires something from the offense.

Prediction:

By KenPom ranking, USC is the worst team left. They rank 55th. And the Trojans went 1-6 against the PAC-12’s three best teams. FiveThirtyEight noted how much better Baylor’s odds of making the Sweet 16 were after USC knocked off SMU:

Given those rankings and performances, it makes sense Baylor would be a 75% favorite. I said on Facebook live that I thought Baylor would win this game 8 or 9 out of 10 times. My rationale is that Baylor has significant matchup advantages and as a result, is better positioned than the normal team would be in a contest between teams ranked 13th and 55th.

I think somebody besides Johnathan Motley steps up, and the Trojans can’t hit enough 3-point shots to make the run last another weekend. I’ll take Baylor 72-64.