Baylor (18-14, 8-10) takes on West Virginia (22-9, 11-7) at approximately 8:00 (30 minutes after the conclusion of the 6:00 game) on Thursday. The game is at the Sprint Center in Kansas City and airs on ESPN2.
Baylor lost in Morgantown 57-54. The Bears lost in Waco 71-60. With Baylor squarely on the bubble, they may not be able to make the tournament with another loss to the Mountaineers.
As always, we’ll preview playing offense against the opponent, then turn to defense. Finally, we’ll close with a prediction.
I think Baylor has to get a little creative this game. West Virginia’s interior defense has crushed Baylor. In Morgantown, Baylor went 11-of-32 from 2-point range and finished with just .82 adjusted points per possession (PPP). In Waco, Baylor went 16-of-49 from two and scored just .88 PPP. Neither mark will beat a good team.
Baylor’s been swallowed by the shot blocking of Sagaba Konate. He blocked nine of Baylor’s shots in Waco. And he’s a giant reason the Bears couldn’t make shots near the hoop. The Bears can’t take too many shots near the hoop around this guy:
How do you deal with a problem like Konate? The Bears should seriously consider downsizing. And they should do it early. Tristan Clark is probably going to start every Baylor game next season. But it’s tough to play him with another big man in this one. The Mountaineers can swarm against Baylor. This matchup necessitates more spacing. Nuni Omot for Clark would add spacing.
Most importantly, Baylor has to get a handle on their turnover issues. Baylor’s 14 turnovers weren’t catastrophic in Waco. The issue is that Baylor had some awful turnovers. Mark Vital lost the ball twice in the first half. Manu Lecomte couldn’t maintain his dribble and threw a weak pass to Vital, which led to another turnover. Press Virginia will create some turnovers. The Bears can’t create their own.
Baylor fell behind 48-20 early in the second half in Waco. The Bears inserted Omot for Clark and played much better offensively. Omot gives the Bears a few advantages. First, he can shoot in transition. Texas—without Mo Bamba—upset West Virginia. The Longhorns exploded from beyond the arc. They got lucky, but they also took open threes in transition. Omot can do that too. He’s been raining shots, finishing 8-of-14 from deep to end the year:
Second, he can create his own offense. Twice, Omot hit tough turnaround jumpers. West Virginia’s physical defense will force some ugly shots. He can make those.
Finally, Omot is a fantastic screener. The Mountaineers have Jevon Carter, the two-time Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. With Omot’s intelligent screening, Lecomte can get going:
The Bears didn’t stay small, but I think they should for most of this game. Terry Maston and Jo Lual-Acuil are certainly two of Baylor’s best players, but it’s hard to space the floor and pull Konate away from the hoop. When Baylor stays big, they need to find a way to isolate and force Konate to move:
The Bears played pretty solid defense in both games. WVU’s 1.04 PPP was a little too high in Waco, but the Bears’ offense was awful in the first half. That led to plenty of transition opportunities for the Mountaineers.
Baylor played a ton of zone, which is a fine decision against West Virginia. The Mountaineers have two very good 3-point shooters. Carter hit 38% of his 162 triples, and James Bolden made 43% of his 156 3-point attempts. Fortunately, the Mountaineers don’t have too many other shooters. A bevy of Mountaineers made long 2-point shots in Waco, but they didn’t in Morgantown. Baylor should gamble that West Virginia won’t make those shots, especially against their faster and smaller lineup that can contest so many looks.
The risk in downsizing is that West Virginia is superb on the offensive glass. The Mountaineers rank 4th in offensive rebounding. Vital will need to overpower stronger players and guards will have to box out. The Bears did a nice job holding West Virginia off the offensive glass in the first two meetings. But if Baylor goes small, the risk is that West Virginia hits second and third shots.
The Bears have been a strong 2-point defensive team. West Virginia’s not great at making 2-point shots. Esa Ahmad’s fit on the team—after missing the first semester—has been awkward. Baylor might want to switch pick-and-rolls with Ahmad and gamble that he won’t be able to punish them. Better to let Ahmad shot than Carter or Bolden.
The Bears’ chances in this game don’t revolve around defense. The offense has to be better. So many of basketball’s cliches glorify defense. It matters. But the Bears have been good enough defensively to beat West Virginia. They haven’t been offensively.
This is a tough game for Baylor. West Virginia has such physical guards and a big man capable of neutralizing Baylor’s usual advantage in the paint. KenPom gives the Bears just a 38% chance to win.
Baylor really needs to change things up. Unless the Bears just rain threes on West Virginia, I don’t think Baylor can win this game staying big. Baylor went small for most of the second Kansas game and it worked. Staying big is often the right call for a team with Lual-Acuil, Clark and Maston. But West Virginia is unique. It will take a unique approach from Baylor to win this game.
Maybe I’m crazy, but I think Baylor’s getting this done. I expect Vital to be a monster on defense and somebody to get a little too hot from the perimeter. West Virginia wins most days. Baylor wins Thursday. I’ll take Baylor 74-69.
Season Prediction Record: 24-7
Record Against the Spread: 13-10