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Time for Small Ball: How Three Guard Lineups and Downsizing at the Four Could Save the Season

Baylor needs more spacing and the ability to switch pick-and-rolls

NCAA Basketball: Sam Houston State at Baylor Sean Pokorny-USA TODAY Sports

After a 2-6 start to Big 12 play and an 0-6 start on the road, Baylor needs a miraculous run to make the NCAA Tournament.

Baylor is plagued by two problems. The team can’t shoot threes, and recently, they’ve been unable to contain dribble penetration and high ball screens.

To counteract those problems, the Bears should consider making two changes. First, they should play Manu Lecomte, King McClure and Jake Lindsey together as much as possible. Second, they should play Nuni Omot and Mark Vital at the four.

We’ll lay out the advantages, turn to the disadvantages and conclude with why this is worthwhile.

3-point shooting/spacing:

Baylor has been utterly disastrous from the perimeter. The Bears have played 10 top 50 KenPom teams. Baylor’s shooting 25.5% from deep in those games. Over the course of a full season, that total would be the worst mark in the country.

With apologies to Terry Maston after he broke his hand, Baylor has four guys who can hit threes: Lecomte, McClure, Lindsey and Omot.

Unfortunately, three of those four have shot poorly in conference play. The other hasn’t taken very many attempts.

Lecomte has struggled mightily. Here’s the difference in his 2017 and 2018 conference performance:

With his struggles, here’s Baylor year-to-year change in 3-point% under Drew:

One giant issue for the Bears is that they can’t space the floor with their traditional lineup. Florida, like Kansas and others, gave Vital plenty of space. He just kills the offenses’s spacing:

But the Kansas game demonstrated how he can do a nice job setting screens and helping Baylor run their sets. Yes, both of these shots don’t go in. But there’s a giant difference in the process on the following two plays and on the one above. The one above almost never works, the two below can really get it done:

The Bear’s smaller lineup eventually pays off. The Bears went small in the second half in Lawrence and won that half by eight points. Kansas’ defenders have to pay attention to shooters on the strong side, which frees Omot up to set a nice screen for a good 3-point look:

The Lecomte-King McClure-Jake Lindsey combination with Omot sealing has found open looks:

And when teams don’t overload the strong side to set up Vital or Omot sealing a defender for an open three, the Bears can get open looks:

The Bears need more open 3-point looks. Lindsey has attempted just 12 3-point shots in conference play. His numbers—like nearly everyone on the team—are down from last season:

Having Lindsey spend more time with Lecomte and McClure would free him up to drive. And if he can get in the lane, he can show off his floater. He hasn’t had the force of Motley or the opportunity with cramped spacing to float on fools:

McClure has also struggled. His 3-point percentage is higher in conference play, but he’s worse at everything else:

The coaching staff has been after him to shoot more. With more spacing, and the ability of Lecomte and Lindsey to possibly get into the paint, he could have more opportunities.

Finally, Omot is substantially better playing power forward. After a strong end to non-conference play, including a 14-of-21 stretch from deep, he couldn’t get much going early in conference play. But after a nice game against Kansas, his numbers are okay:

Omot’s much better when he can create in space or against bigger defenders. He struggles against quicker defenders because his handle isn’t the tightest. But he’s good near the hoop:

The Bears can also salvage some of their strong offensive rebounding with Omot at the four. He ranked top 500 nationally in offensive rebounding rate. His percentage has tanked as he’s moved away from the hoop. But if the Bears want him to crash the glass and seal defenders near the hoop, then he’s a capable rebounder.

Defending ball screens:

Baylor’s struggled mightily defending ball screens the last three games. First, they have a tough time getting out onto shooters if they weak (force the ball handler to use their opposite hand and drop the Baylor big man into the channel) screens:

And they’ve struggled with dunks in that sequence form Texas and Kansas:

Second, their efforts at hedging high ball screens have not gone well. The Bears rarely do this, and with the floor spacing teams they’ve faced, they haven’t had any help when doing this:

Third, they haven’t done well with the big man dropping into coverage:

Compounding those problems is that Baylor’s not been great getting out to shooters. Florida and Kansas State were ridiculously good from the perimeter. Both teams were better than expected, even given the defensive shortcomings. But as Scott Drew noted at halftime of the Baylor-Florida game, “We’ll get out more on the shooters, the way we’ll do that—we’re going to switch ball screens.”

The Bears did a decent job switching. When teams can switch in college, it’s often a much better defensive decision. A lot of college players are less likely to take advantage of the favorable match-up, instead they’ll keep running their offense. Second, offenses can stagger too, even with the defense ready to contest a jump shot:

The issue for Baylor switching with two big men is that they have to continue to rely on another big man to guard at the perimeter. And eventually asking Clark, Maston and Lual-Acuil to defend at the perimeter leads to break downs:

If Baylor’s playing Omot or Vital at the four, they’re in a significantly better spot switching those plays. Omot and Vital can both defend on the perimeter. They’ll get beat occasionally, but they’ll get beat way less than the Bears’ big men.

Baylor’s pick-and-roll defense has not been good lately. The Bears best bet is to switch those looks and prevent driving lanes, dunks and open shots. Vital and Omot give Baylor another option to switch 1-4 pick-and-rolls.

Problems:

We live in an era where most ideas are presented as perfect or awful. The tax bill was either a giveaway to corporations and going to blow up the deficit or it was going to be a massive engine for economic growth and actually generate more revenue than the pre-bill rates. I’m not here to litigate the merits of that bill, but it seemed neither were national figures offering support or opposition to it. A real discussion of that bill should have included a recognition that it definitely had some advantages and disadvantages. But in 2018, we pretend things are either perfect or pathetic.

My idea of playing Lecomte-McClure-Lindsey and then Vital or Omot a ton is not without its problems. First, the trio would be playing a ton of minutes. Lecomte is 11th in the league in minutes. Will his shot suffer even more if he’s asked to play 38 or so minutes a game?

Second, the guards would have to adjust their games. Lindsey is active and uses all five fouls. He won’t be able to foul on fast break opportunities. He might need to pick his spots on drawing the turnaround charge. For a defense that can struggle to turn teams over (the Bears rank 312th in that category), the Bears might end up surrendering easy buckets.

Third, Baylor would likely offensive rebound less. Baylor ranks 23rd in offensive rebounding. While I think Vital and Omot can be good on the glass, they’re not going to be as good as the big man they replace.

Fourth, Baylor would be messing with rotations. Someone who plays a ton of minutes would suddenly sit. Will the chemistry be adversely impacted if somebody plays a few minutes a night or gathers DNPs?

It’s worth it:

Ultimately, I think the advantages of switching the lineup outweigh the disadvantages. Lecomte’s shooting is struggling both because he’s missing some shots he needs to make and because it’s taking a lot of work to get him open. He should have an easier time getting open with more spacing and another guard on the floor. While Lindsey might need to surrender easier buckets to not foul out, the Bears should also be better at preventing transition opportunities with a better offense. With the Bear’s season cratering, the risk of a chemistry disruption is worth trying to find something that works. Losing creates its own chemistry issues. Winning can fix them.

Baylor would create two big opportunities with the lineup change. They’d gain better 3-point opportunities, and they’d be much better defending ball screens. I have no doubt their offensive rebounding rate would decline, but Omot and Vital can grab boards. The team hasn’t been able to generate good looks and prevent their opponent from taking too many easy baskets. It’s worth taking a shot.

The Baylor coaching staff has plenty of data and good minds to figure out if going small is necessary. They’ve been close a few times with their traditional lineups. But they’ve been blown out a few times too. The Bears have an opportunity by going small. They should take it.