After a second half offensive renaissance against Oklahoma State, Baylor (12-6, 2-4) takes on Kansas (15-3, 5-1) at 5:00 on Saturday. The game is at Allen Fieldhouse and airs on ESPN.
Baylor has lost the last 10 games against Kansas. They last won on the final day of the regular season in 2013. In that time, I have graduated from Baylor and Kansas. I’ve had six addresses and been in three weddings. The most recent wedding I was in, I didn’t know the person the last time Baylor beat Kansas. I’d really like the Bears to beat the Jayhawks.
As always, we’ll look at playing offense against the opponent. Then we’ll turn to defending the opponent. Finally, we’ll close with a prediction.
The Jayhawks have the nation’s No. 31 defense. With 5-star freshman big man Billy Preston still in NCAA limbo after questions about the financing of a vehicle he drove, Kansas only plays one traditional big man at a time. Even with a smaller defense, KU does a nice job defending without fouling. The Jayhawks are 31st in effective field goal defense and 24th in free throw rate.
With just one traditional big man on the court at a time, the Jayhawks can really struggle to defensive rebound. When Udoka Azubuike sits, Kansas turns to Mitch Lightfoot, a 6-foot-8 sophomore. He had a superb game against TCU, but there’s still a massive decline from Azubuike to Lightfoot. Bill Self sat Azubuike after he picked up his second foul against West Virginia, and the Mountaineers built a giant lead. Mo Bamba of Texas also destroyed him on the offensive glass. Overall, Kansas ranks 253rd in defensive rebounding. Jo Lual-Acuil, Tristan Clark, Terry Maston and Mark Vital need to be ready to grab every miss when Lightfoot plays:
The Bears will start two traditional big men, and almost always will have a decided size advantage at the four. Kansas starts with Svi Mykhailiuk defending power forwards. Most Big 12 teams don’t have the size Baylor has with Clark and Maston at the four. The Bears need to work the ball to those two. Maston has struggled shooting since returning from a broken hand, but the Bears could really use a return to form in this game.
Kansas traditionally hard hedges the pick-and-roll. With Azubuike’s speed a little limited, they sometimes weak and ice them too. But given the Bear’s struggles with teams that hard hedge, I’d expect the Jayhawks to hard hedge. Baylor needs to slip those actions and fire shots when there are holes in Kansas’ attack. Once again, the importance of Maston’s shot returning can’t be undersold. He’s normally money from 15 feet. If that returns, Baylor can get open shots:
Baylor will also probably start running their high-horns set that worked so well against Creighton. Maston’s shooting has been limited, but the Jayhawks don’t have the most mobile big men. The Bears ran that set on the final six plays of the Creighton game. That play leaves big men scrambling, which can ensure deep post position for the Bears:
That play’s especially likely to work because it can pull Azubuike from the hoop. Texas Tech won in Allen Filedhouse for a host of reasons, many of which the Bears will struggle to replicate. But Texas Tech ran the same look and pulled Azubuike away from the hoop. Zhaire Smith isn’t going to dominate LaGerald Vick in the post, but Clark or Maston down there would feast:
Baylor needs to be careful with big-to-big passing. The Bears raced out to a 15-6 lead in Waco last year. Both teams have quite a few different guys, but the systems are similar. Kansas killed on bad passes to big men and gambled that the Bears couldn’t catch quick strikes. Kansas ranks just 163rd in turnover percentage, but Creighton and a bevy of other teams aren’t turnover specialists, yet they forced a ton of Baylor turnovers.
Baylor’s offensive success against Kansas in the last five years has often involved running good shooters off screens. With the Jayhawk’s reluctance to switch off-ball screens, Baylor’s done a good job getting even the best shooters open:
The Bears should work their single-double and floppy action to get Lecomte going. After a 7-of-34 stretch to start conference play, he made seven 3-point looks against Oklahoma State. Kansas’ opponents are attempting triples on 40.3% of shots. Lecomte needs to keep draining shots for the Bears to have a chance:
I’d also be prepared for a return of the awesome play. I refer to Baylor’s rip action set that way. Baylor was fantastic with that set with Wainright as the primary passer. Mark Vital has recently become Baylor’s fifth starter, supplanting Nuni Omot. Vital’s shown impressive touch and solid decision-making. The Bear’s talented big men should draw a lot of attention, which could free up the 3-point shooter. Vick’s defensive effort sometimes wanes, imagine this effort:
with McClure running around, he should have that extra bit of space to shoot:
Kansas will play some, and possibly quite a bit of their 2-3 zone. Until the second half of the Oklahoma State game, the Bears had been on an anemic 3-point run—going 25% from deep in the first five conference games. Kansas played a lot of zone against Texas, another Big 12 team that can really struggle to make 3-point shots. The Jayhawks will focus on the best shooters and dare mediocre shooters to beat them; Baylor’s going to need to have average shooters hit shots like these:
If this game is close, the Bears need to run a new play. Kansas State tried to run the same play they ran at the end of their game last season on their final look. Bill Self had his team ready, and the Wildcats walked away with another devastating loss in Allen Fieldhouse. Against Kansas in Waco last season, the Bears tried to run a play to Johnathan Motley they’d run earlier in the season. Kansas sniffed it out immediately. The Bears need to be different on Saturday. The “pacer” play that led to a wide open shot for Lecomte against West Virginia should not be run. Kansas will be ready. This game demands some surprises.
Kansas has an awesome offense. They rank 10th in adjusted offensive efficiency. The Jayhawks are experienced with Devonte Graham—the 2016 Big 12 Tournament Most Valuable Player—now the full-time point guard. He’s joined by three guys all at least three years removed from high school in Kansas’ most played lineup: Mykhailiuk (senior), Vick (junior) and Malik Newman (former 5-star point guard and Mississippi State transfer).
The Jayhawks are an exceptional 3-point shooting team. Kansas is shooting 41.1% from deep, and after years of Kansas fans demanding Self “Free the Three,” the Jayhawks have. 42% of their shots are triples, which ranks 84th nationally.
Kansas’ exceptional 3-point shooting necessitates not helping off shooters and being careful about double teams. Iowa State was left scrambling, and the Jayhawks quick passing led to an open shot:
Last year, I mentioned two cardinal rules defending Kansas. The first was that nobody should go under against Frank Mason. The second was that the defense should never close out hard on Josh Jackson. Baylor committed both of those sins in the final five minutes last season. Those plays led to five points, which was the difference in the game.
The cardinal sin of this season is helping off shooters. If Mykhailiuk, Graham and Vick can destroy the Bears with drives to the hoops, then this game is over anyway. But Mykhailiuk has hit 48% of his 131 attempts this season. There’s no reason for Iowa State’s defender to help off Mykhailiuk to offer help on Newman’s drive. If the Bears defend like this, then go ahead and just surrender:
Again, I just can’t stress enough that helping or taking one step away from someone’s man or area is a disaster. Graham doesn’t need any space to make shots:
Baylor will likely mix defenses, as they’ve done often lately. Kansas will try to get the ball into the corner and behind the last line of the defense to make plays. Jamari Traylor, Perry Ellis and Josh Jackson have worked the short corner to success over the years against Baylor’s zone. Eventually the Jayhawks have forced the Bears to switch defenses.
I’m worried about how well Baylor can play man-to-man defense against Kansas. The Jayhawks run a series of dribble hand-offs at the top of the key. Baylor’s young freshmen have, at times, struggled to communicate on those plays. If the Bears botch a switch on one of those plays, Kansas will have open lanes for dunks.
Baylor’s man-to-man defense will also require a big man to run around screens. Do the Bears feel comfortable with Clark and Maston running around five screens to defend KU’s 3-point shooters?
Kansas lost to a very bad Washington team in the Sprint Center. The Huskies ran a 2-3 zone that went out high to defend shooters. The Jayhawks played Syracuse’s 2-3 zone the game before, and the Huskies adjusted their zone to require Vick to make plays in the middle. The Huskies displayed impressive patience and surrendered a few easy buckets, but they held Kansas to just .93 points per possession, well off KU’s average of 1.19 points per possession. The Bears could look to keep Lual-Acuil low and make Kansas beat them in the middle:
The problem for Baylor counting on running Washington’s game plan is that Kansas probably won’t allow an opponent to defend them like that. Kansas will likely flash Graham and Newman into the paint. That duo is much better from 10 feet and would likely eat the Bears up inside. But the Bears might extend their zone out and morph it closer to a 2-3 look for a little bit.
Baylor’s normal pick-and-roll defense needs to adjust. The Bears normally ice and weak pick-and-rolls. With giant big men, the Bears normally force guards to make long 2-point shots. Unfortunately, Kansas has excellent range. Conner Frankamp—a former Jayhawk—torched Baylor’s pick-and-roll defense because Clark didn’t come out far enough. The Jayhawks will do the same. Graham and company will make this shot, if the Bears don’t come out:
It’s unclear if Texas is trying to weak or just switch this (my guess is weak), but the point is that limiting 3-point attempts is vital in pick-and-roll defense against KU:
The Bears need to make Marcus Garrett prove that he’ll take shots and make them. He’s just 5-of-26 on the season from beyond the arc. Vlad Brodziansky gives him a ton of space, then contains him. The Bears need to make this man prove he can beat them:
Similarly, the Bears should give Lightfoot plenty of space. He had a nice run against TCU. But the man is not quick or much of a shooter. He’s shown some flashes, but he’s also been one of the worst Kansas rotation players in years. He’s another guy where if he beats the Bears, they can accept that Saturday just isn’t their day.
Kansas doesn’t get to the line much (344th nationally in free throw rate), and they don’t offensive rebound very well, ranking 184th in that category. If the Bears’ big men can’t keep up with Kansas’ shooters, the Bears might decide to go small with Omot at power forward to get additional speed and gain the ability to switch more dribble hand-offs and ball screens.
Scott Drew has beaten Self three times. In 2009, the Bears shocked Kansas by playing zone, after being a man-to-man team. In 2012, Baylor played man-to-man after being a zone team most of the season. And in 2013, Cory Jefferson started raining threes after basically never taking them.
Baylor might need to do something a little different to win on Saturday. Kansas is extremely well coached, and the Jayhawks were never as flawed as some of their fans thought after losing early in the season. Washington caught them by surprise, and Arizona State hit 14-of-28 threes. There’s not much hope for anybody when the opponent shoots that well.
The Bears could win this game. It’d be an upset, but the Jayhawks still have flaws. They don’t have much size, and as a team so reliant on 3-point shooting, they can have off shooting nights where the opponent doesn’t have to be perfect to win.
Ultimately, I fear the Bears won’t be able to hit enough 3-point shots, and Kansas will go on their inevitable run in Allen Fieldhouse and pull away. I always hope to be wrong when I pick against Baylor—and I especially hope to be wrong in this one—but I have Kansas winning 74-65.
Season Prediction Record: 16-2 (Had Baylor beating TCU and Iowa State)
Record Against the Spread: 8-3 (Had Baylor covering against Xavier and Iowa State; Had West Virginia covering against Baylor)