Baylor (27-7) battles South Carolina (24-10) for a spot in the Elite Eight. The game is at 6:29 on Friday at Madison Square Garden.
The Bears are a slight favorite across the board. KenPom gives Baylor a 65% chance to win the game. Vegas has the Bears as 3.5 point favorites, and FiveThirtyEight gives Baylor a 56% chance to win.
This will be a battle of two teams primed to exploit the other’s weaknesses. To look at the game, we’ll preview South Carolina’s defense and offense—with a look at how Baylor will play on each of the ball. We’ll close with a prediction.
The Gamecocks defensive numbers resemble the early days of Press Virginia. South Carolina has the No. 4 KenPom defense because they are excellent at turning over opponents. They rank 4th in that category. The Bears rank 305th in offensive turnover rate. The Gamecocks make it tough to complete passes, and the Bears have had some difficulty completing the simplest passes:
And the Gamecocks do a good job pressing teams at halfcourt. If my video editor hadn’t betrayed me, I would have a few clips of South Carolina. But instead, we’ll offer a few more clips of Baylor. The Bears had some trouble earlier in the season with the press at halfcourt:
Baylor can counter that problem in two ways. First, the Bears tend to not leave just one player in the backcourt anymore. In the above clip, Ish Wainright is left without any hope once the Mountaineers bring a double team. But lately Baylor has kept a man back, which allows the Bears to beat the press with a simpler option than a long heave. Second, Baylor has played lineups with better ball-handling. For the fist time all season, Baylor played a lineup with Terry Maston at center and Ish Wainright at power forward. The Bears played that lineup because Johnathan Motley was in foul trouble. But Baylor may use that lineup if Terry Maston keeps making this shot:
South Carolina is also good at defending shots. They rank 16th in effective field goal defense. Sometimes teams can turn you over, but once a shot goes up, the hope is gone. South Carolina doesn’t fit that mold.
But South Carolina fouls a ton. They rank 336th in free throw rate. Motley is among the best at finishing around the rim, and he has the skillset to beat teams that are elite at not fouling. Imagine what he’ll do when a team is in the way:
South Carolina is not a good defensive rebounding squad. They rank 268th in defensive rebounding percentage. Baylor ranks 3rd in offensive rebounding. Even if Baylor has to downsize and plays just one big man, Jo Lual-Acuil is in the top 150 in offensive rebounding rate, and Terry Maston collects offensive rebounds at an even higher clip. Ish Wainright isn’t normally tasked with offensive rebounding, but he’s 6’5 with a 7’2 wingspan. If he plays power forward, then he should get plenty of opportunities too. But when Motley is in, the Bears will have a huge advantage on the glass:
Baylor’s task on offense will be limiting turnovers because any possession that does not end in a turnover is a huge advantage for the Bears. South Carolina fouls too much and struggles to rebound. Alabama ranks 37th in offensive rebounding and they collected 37% of their misses in their win over South Carolina in the SEC Tournament. That mark is still lower than Baylor’s adjusted offensive rebound rate of 40%, but Alabama performed over their average. This is a game where Baylor should be fine taking a pretty good shot, instead of waiting for a great shot. When passing in the lane, a good shot from 5 feet is better than hoping for a wrap-around dunk. South Carolina’s defense is good enough—and Baylor is often sloppy enough with the ball—that they don’t have to hunt for a great shot. Better to get a shot and have a chance to rebound than turn it over.
South Carolina does not have a great offense. They rank just 121st in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom. That total ranks below Oklahoma. But South Carolina has come alive the last two games. Against Marquette, South Carolina scored 1.29 points per possession. And against Duke, South Carolina scored 1.19 points per possession. The former would be the #1 offense over the course of a full season, and the latter would be #15. The Gamecocks are capable of big offensive days.
The Gamecock’s biggest weapon is Sindarius Thornwell. He’s the best player in the SEC, and shoots 40% from 3-point range. He’s a 6’5 point guard and ranks 9th in KenPom’s player of the year rankings. Baylor had some trouble defending Donovan Mitchell, Louisville’s 6’3 point guard, earlier in the season. But that’s partially because everybody struggles to defend those two.
Baylor may play a decent bit of zone when Manu Lecomte is playing point guard. The Bears slowed Louisville down at the end of the game switching to zone because they were able to have big men come out and contest shots late. Thornwell should be able to get into the lane a decent bit, but when he does, Lual-Acuil can contest his shot:
The above clip displays the end of Baylor’s usual pick-and-roll defense. Lual-Acuil or another big can come up and contest the shot. South Carolina ranks in the 1st percentile (otherwise known as nearly as bad as possible) in pick-and-roll offense finished by the ball handler. The way Baylor plays pick-and-rolls the ball handler almost always finishes the play. The Gamecocks don’t run too many pick-and-rolls, but if they’re beating Baylor running those, it’s a sign it might be a long night for the Bears. Baylor is perfectly positioned to defend South Carolina’s pick-and-roll attack. Frank Martin will find other ways for his offense to attack.
South Carolina has a bad 3-point offense, and they don’t attempt too many shots from the perimeter. They rank 247th in 3-point percentage and rank the same in percentage of points scored from distance. But the last two games, Baylor’s opponents have shot of their minds from 3-point land. And per Synergy, South Carolina has been a little bit better against zone than man. So, it’s understandable if the Bears are a little reluctant to play too much zone.
That said, given the size of Thornwell, I think Baylor should probably play zone when Manu Lecomte plays point guard. Lecomte was one of the best on ball defenders in the country before his ankle injury. If he’s fully healthy, Baylor can see how long he can keep up with Thornwell. But a 6’5 guy like Thornwell can suddenly make anybody realize their ankle and body are playing a different force than they confronted in shoot around. The Bears may have another opponent shoot them out of the zone, and per Synergy, South Carolina has been a little better against zone than man. Still, the Bears have built the best defense in the Scott Drew era by playing a lot of zone. The Gamecocks are not a fantastic shooting team, and the Bears should be able to shift the zone’s focus to Thornwell’s 3-point shots. Basketball is about deciding how you’d be willing to let your opponent beat you. I’d be okay letting South Carolina prove they can shoot out of their minds. And if they do, Baylor has shown they can play man-to-man defense too.
South Carolina does a good job offensive rebounding—they rank 40th in that category—and Frank Martin is a phenomenal coach. That’s why this is a game where the Bears will probably mix and match defenses. Baylor has not used as much of the token full court pressure to zone defense. The Bears have also not trapped as much in the zone. But South Carolina plays at a slightly slower temp and turns it over quite a bit. In a game that will come down to a few possessions, stealing a few possessions with a surprising defensive wrinkle could be the difference.
Baylor has the better team. They have the best player, and they have a combination of size that should give South Carolina trouble. If the Bears play close to their best, they should win this game.
Anything can happen in the NCAA Tournament, and a lot of people are offering terrible takes on this game. The Gamecocks could turn the Bears over 25 times and hit a few shots. If that happens, Baylor is done. But the Bears have won a lot while turning it over enough to drive fans crazy.
My guess is that Johnathan Motley has a big game, and somebody else hits a few 3-point shots. South Carolina won’t be able to match their offensive explosion of the first weekend, and Baylor wins 68-60. That sets up Baylor’s best chance at a Final Four since 1950. And they’ll have the chance to do it with the best team in school history.