Baylor lost in heartbreaking fashion to Oklahoma on Tuesday night. After starting Big 12 play shooting 25.5% from three—over the course of a full season that would be the worst mark in the country—Baylor went 15-of-29 from deep against Oklahoma. It took Baylor five Big 12 games to make more threes than they did on Tuesday.
With the Bears now at 2-7 in the Big 12, many are ready to say the season is over. It’s not. The path back is narrow. But the Bears have shown flashes of a team that could run off six wins in their next nine games. That mark may not guarantee an NCAA Tournament appearance, but it would give the Bears a decent chance at making it.
Here are some things that give me hope about this team.
1) The end of the hard hedging experiment:
Baylor decided to hard hedge Trae Young ball screens. The Bears almost never defend this way. But after Kansas State bottled up Young, the Bears decided to throw this defense at him. It did not go well.
In the first half, Oklahoma shot, drew a foul or turned it over 10 times when Young faced a hard hedge. Oklahoma scored 14 points or 1.4 points per possession (PPP). That is better than Villanova’s No. 1 KenPom offense that averages 1.29 PPP.
For an example of this disaster, Terry Maston wasn’t fast enough to slide with Young, and Jo Lual-Acuil was put in an impossible position:
Oklahoma hit some tough 3-point shots when the Bears hard hedged. Unfortunately, Oklahoma missed an easy dunk too. The problem with hard hedging, for Baylor, is that the team isn’t great at providing proper help. Most teams can’t wake up and run Baylor’s 1-3-1 zone. The Bears couldn’t wake up and become a team that hard hedges. Oklahoma’s big man can’t catch this pass, but the Bears defense was awful on this possession:
The Bears have done a lot better job switching and icing ball screens. They can’t weak or ice against great 3-point shooting teams, but they’ve had nice moments switching. They’re not perfect. They don’t have to be. They just need to not be as disastrous as they were hard hedging.
2) Nuni Omot playing well
Omot isn’t going to go 6-of-6 from three again. But his shot has looked good recently. And he’s attacked the basket well. I think he should be getting more minutes at power forward, but he can create from the wing too:
He had an offensive rating of 180 against the Sooners. It’s really not fair that Baylor lost when Omot played so well. If he can be a good Big 12 starter, the Bears might just do this.
3) The awesome play working:
Baylor’s rip action set, what I dubbed the awesome play last season, hasn’t worked very well this season. Without Ish Wainright throwing the pass or Johnathan Motley as the big man down low, the Bears haven’t been as successful with that look.
Against Oklahoma, Baylor made two adjustments. First, they did a better job looking to run the play for Lecomte. He had good opportunities around staggered screens and out of the second option (him running around a Tristan Clark screen):
A critic might say this is one play. If you watch much Baylor basketball, it’s hard to understate how much Baylor likes to run this set. They run a ton of floppy, single-double and ball screen continuity, but they might run the rip action as much as any single set. If they can score out of it, everything will get better for an offense that was cratering.
The Bears also did a nice job getting Lual-Acuil the ball on passes near the hoop on the weak-side. Getting him deep post position works for a man shooting 79.5% at the rim, per hoop-math.
4) The schedule
In 2014, Baylor started 2-8 in Big 12 play and finished 7-1. The Bears were 63rd on KenPom as they went to Ft. Worth and began a run of winning 10 of their next 11 games.
There’s a reason we remember the 2014 team. Most squads don’t dig out of a hole like that.
The 2014 team ended up with a top 10 offense. This team won’t. But the 2014 team ended up 70th on defense. Baylor still ranks 45th nationally on defense, even with the ridiculous opponent shooting from deep. KenPom and others have found 3-point defense is often arbitrary. Basically, the defense has a big impact on whether the opponent shoots. They don’t have much of an impact on whether a guy can make this:
Baylor’s already played Kansas, Texas Tech, West Virginia and Oklahoma on the road. They’ll get TCU without Jaylen Fisher. For a Baylor team that lost by three at Kansas and West Virginia, and two at Oklahoma, it’s not a stretch for them to win some games once things get easier.
5) They’ve been very unlucky
There are some folks that like to say this is stupid. They’ll say Baylor can’t close games. Or Scott Drew is terrible. Or something else while going wild on Tide Pods.
Baylor ranks 340th in luck on KenPom. The Bears went 1-of-12 from deep against TCU and forced overtime. The Bears scored just .82 PPP at West Virginia and nearly won. They went just 4-of-20 from deep at Kansas and nearly won. KSU went 8-of-17 from deep in Waco. Those same Wildcats started 2-of-14 from three against Kansas. Baylor went insane from beyond the arc against Oklahoma, but Oklahoma went 12-of-22.
The positive sign from Baylor’s early results is that things will eventually line up favorably. Baylor won’t get hot from three on a day their opponent is even hotter. They won’t miss all their threes against a team they destroy on the glass. And they won’t miss all their twos or easy shots late.
The Bears have missed late shots. Lual-Acuil took a bad three against Oklahoma. He should have just done this:
But the criticisms of this team are way too deep when the problems are so simple. The Bears missed a lot of shots early in conference play. If they become an average 3-point shooting team, they’ll flip a few games. Then they just need to get hot a couple of times and grind out another victory.
Baylor’s put themselves in a difficult spot. They’ve lost some games they shouldn’t have lost. But they’ve shown flashes of the top 25 team that knocked off Creighton and looked like a potential Sweet 16 team. Maybe it’s not Baylor’s year. But the year’s not over yet for Baylor.