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Baylor is on the Precipice — The Plus/Minus Week 4

The Bears have some positives this week, but the dam could be near breaking as the season progresses

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at Wichita State Peter G. Aiken

Welcome to the Plus/Minus, your regular evaluation of Baylor men’s basketball. Each week we consider two pluses, two minuses, and one net neutral.

This week, Tristan Clark gets some well deserved love, the defense comes under scrutiny, and I speculate that the bottom could be close to falling out for the Bears against Arizona.


Half court defense

Baylor is a team that must play under control. In games like the first half of the Wichita State game, poor offense leads to even worse defense. Turnovers and poor shot selection led to too many transition opportunities for the Shockers. The defense was scrambled, leading to miscommunications and mismatches. The second half of the game, however, demonstrated how good Baylor’s defense has the potential to be, just so long as the offense gives it a chance. When the offense scores and gives the defense a chance to set up the zone, the Bears are actually quite stingy. Wichita State managed to score only 27 points in the second half after going off for 44 in the first.

As of Monday afternoon, Baylor ranks 49th in defensive rating, per KenPom, allowing just 96.5 points per 100 possessions. Perhaps the most surprising defensive number is the block percentage, where Baylor is ranked 1st in the nation, again per KenPom. The Bears block a soul-crushing 19.9% of opponent shots. That’s quite nearly 1 in 5 opponent attempts that get stuffed. The 6th ranked team in block rate is closer to 2nd than 2nd (Baylor’s conference rival Texas Tech) is to the Bears. A large share of the credit goes to Tristan Clark, who personally blocks nearly 13% of opponent shots when he is on the floor, ranking 17th in the nation individually. Clark alone blocks a higher rate of shots than 291 teams. He is doing wonders to anchor the center of the zone.

But that’s kind of the point. In the possessions where Baylor can set its defense, opponents have a lowly 37% eFG%, per hoop-math. When opponents can push the ball in transition, that number spikes to 56%. It’s even worse in the possessions after rebound or steal, where aggressive offenses have 61% and 62% eFG%, respectively. At the rim, opponents are shooting over 70% off of Baylor misses and somewhere around 50% after baylor makes. You would expect that to be true for any team. For Baylor, though, it’s a true game killer. The half court defense is sound when it can get set. The offense just needs to give it that opportunity.

Clark at the rim

Here’s more praise for Tristan Clark: He’s a magnificent 94% on shots at the rim, with 70% of those shots being assisted, per hoop-math. In raw numbers, he’s 33-35. Give the man the rock inside!

Clark was central to Baylor’s comeback attempt against Wichita State. In the first half, his teammates only got him the ball away from the rim at the elbows and mid post. Those are tough places for Clark, how has a workable jump shot but would rather play under the basket. By starting him so far away from the rim, Baylor sets Clark up to get the ball stripped, as happened several times against the Shockers. When Clark got the ball in the post during the second half, however, he was much more capable of surveying the floor, attacking when he had room, and passing the ball to the open man when the defense doubled him.

Clark has been Baylor’s best player so far this season. Other teams recognize the threat he poses, so Baylor’s coaches and players need to be creative in how they get him the ball. He’s just too good to watch teammates hoist ill-advised shots from the perimeter early in the clock.


Transition three-point defense

Some more tidbits on the transition defense: Baylor’s opponents shoot during transition 21% of the time, per hoop-math. In those situations, the Bears are allowing a three-point attempt on 44% of shots. Those shots are falling at a sizzling 48.4%. Part of this is just the nature of todays game. Baylor, for instance, is shooting 42% of its transition attempts from three, but is only converting 22% on those shots.

At the same time, opponents are attempting less than 30% of their transition shots at the rim (Baylor, for comparison, is at 35%). The high volume of three point attempts, their conversion rate, and the relatively few attempts at the basket suggests Baylor’s initial transition defense has been mostly effective on the initial ball handler. It’s the secondary break that is killing the Bears, which stems from a lack of organization in identifying your man in transition. If Baylor can correct this one part of their defense — or if opponents cool off from deep — Baylor’s transition defense will look a lot better.

Lack of assists

Baylor ranks 252nd in assists per made field goal, per KenPom. Only 48 percent of Baylor’s makes have been assisted so far this season. To borrow a phrase: that is bad.

To put it in perspective, in the previous 5 seasons, Baylor has had assist rates of 58.1 (43rd), 60.5 (29th), 63.4 (10th), 59.3 (37th), and 53.8 (134th). To have fallen by ten percentage points is an indicator of just how disjointed this season’s offense has been. There have simply been too many pull-up shots, too much dribbling, and too much ball-watching. Baylor doesn’t have the talent to win games scoring one-on-one.

One caveat is that Baylor has picked up the pace on offense, meaning more transition opportunities that typically have a lower assist rate. Even so, the eye test validates the concern that there is too little purposeful passing and cutting. There are also too many unassisted jumpers being taken. 72% of Baylor’s made threes have been assisted, while they are shooting only 30% on the season from deep overall. Some of those misses are coming off passes, to be sure, but far too many threes are coming off the dribble, a low-percentage shot for even professional players.


Margin of defeat

Moral victories are the epitome of a neutral element. You lost, but you didn’t lose that badly.

To Baylor’s credit, it’s three losses have not been total embarrassments by the time the buzzer sounded. Well, losing to Texas Southern at home is probably embarrassing no matter the margin, but in their neutral and away losses to Ole Miss and Wichita State, the Bears margin of defeat was only single digits. That’s despite trailing by 33 points to Wichita State, too, which says something about Baylor’s resiliency. Bringing that game back to within five in the closing minutes took a lot of focus and effort. Some credit it due for that.

Because the margin of defeat has been relatively small thus far, Baylor’s net rating has remained essentially stagnant over the last 5 games. They’ve only fallen 5 spots despite having a 3-2 record in that stretch. Close losses will do that.

The schedule is getting close to ramping up, though. A game at Arizona could be dangerous for Baylor. Luckily for the Bears, Arizona isn’t a hot team from outside, but if the Wildcats are allowed to sprint out of the gates, they have the talent to hold onto a lead where Wichita State did not. Arizona is Baylor’s first opponent who could seriously threaten to blow them out.

If that should happen, the Bears’ net rating will start to falter, likely into the high 60s or low 70s. And thus far in the season, that’s beginning to feel like that might be where Baylor belongs.