Baylor (9-5, 1-1) takes on Kansas (13-2, 2-1) at 3:00 on Saturday at the Ferrell Center. The game airs on ESPN.
Scouting Kansas, even in the best of circumstances, is incredibly difficult. Last season Baylor assistant John Jakus—one of the most well prepared and analytically savvy assistants in the country—stressed that Svi Mykhailiuk liked to go right and almost never drove left. The Bears’ staff told the players to force Mykhailiuk left. Kansas has a way of making preparation irrelevant:
The Jayhawks are even more difficult to figure out this season. Udoka Azubuike is out for the season. Kansas has only played four games against high quality competition without him. That leaves limited film and data to figure out what Kansas will do. They’ve primarily gone small, but they can still play Mitch Lightfoot in two big lineups.
Bill Self’s squad is also radically different than last season. Lagerald Vick is the only starter left from their Final Four team. The Jayhawks just burned Ochai Agbaji’s redshirt. That man played 25 minutes in his first game against TCU.
All that is a long way of saying that in a series where there are a ton of adjustments, things could get weird. Baylor elected to go small after falling behind 18-3 in Allen Fieldhouse last year. The Bears ended up leading 61-56 late in the second half before losing. Baylor played man-to-man in the 2012 Big 12 Semifinal win, which was the first extended run of that defense for the 2012 Bears. Scott Drew could switch the Bears’ starting lineup (something we’ll cover more below). The Bears’ traditional starting lineup leaves three non-shooters: Mark Vital, Mario Kegler and Tristan Clark. Kansas will swallow that offense.
As always, we’ll look at playing offense against the opponent, then take a look at playing defense. Finally, we’ll close with a prediction.
Kansas sports the No. 7 defense. Their best defensive player is Marcus Garrett, a 6-foot-5 sophomore inserted into the starting lineup since Azubuike’s injury. He shut down Alex Robinson, a man who terrorized the Bears in Waco. He’s a problem all over the court, and there’s a giant risk he could stymie Makai Mason:
Baylor’s offensive goal will be trying to isolate Mason on Vick. Despite being a senior, his effort wanes on defense:
In Allen Fieldhouse last season, Baylor tried to get Lecomte matched with Vick. He then beat him off the dribble and hit a couple of turnaround jumpers:
Mason will try to run that strategy back:
Beyond trying to isolate Vick, the Bears have two other offensive hopes. First, Kansas’ off-ball communication hasn’t been great. The Jayhawks start two freshmen guards and are loath to switch off-ball action. If I were KU, I’d just switch more off the ball. But Self is revitalizing the offense and working another freshman into the lineup. I doubt they’ll change too much this early in conference play. And that’s a problem for the Jayhawks:
The second hope for Baylor is that they can beat some of Kansas’ soft hedges. Kansas will double Tristan Clark on almost all non pick-and-roll touches. That makes getting him the ball out of pick-and-rolls imperative. The Jayhawks will sometimes tag the roller (have a third player bump into Clark to slow him heading toward the hoop), but if they don’t, they need to get the ball to him:
The challenge for Baylor is that Kansas is going to pack everyone into the paint. That makes the starting lineup catastrophic. Kansas will ignore Kegler and Vital beyond the arc. They’ll double Clark before he catches it. Baylor needs to force Kansas to at least honor additional shooters, and they need to have a chance to break some of Kansas’ guards off the dribble. The current starting five doesn’t make that a possibility.
With the talent differential, Baylor probably needs to shoot at least 30% from deep to have a shot. That’s not sufficient, but it’s necessary for the Bears to have a chance. Kansas’ defense is designed to limit attempts near the hoop—Kansas ranks 41st in 2-point defense, despite lacking a rim protector. If King McClure, Devonte Bandoo and Mason are 2-of-14, then this one is over.
Baylor might try to target Dedric Lawson if he ends up matched with Vital. Vital is first nationally in free throw rate. He’s abysmal from the stripe, but the maniac gets fouled constantly. Self often sits his best players with two fouls, so Baylor might trade a few lower scoring possessions with Vital at the line for more possessions without Lawson on offense.
Kansas has the nation’s No. 29 offense. They’re led by Lawson, a 6-foot-8 former Memphis Tiger. If the season ended today, he’d likely be the Big 12 Player of the Year (he’d have my vote). He can take over games on offense and is a skilled passer. The Bears can’t bite on his pump fakes from deep. Lawson is just 6-of-28, but he keeps fooling people and scoring.
Baylor is going to have to play zone. And even if Kansas starts shooting well, the Bears will need to hope they can ride out a wave of hot shooting. The Jayhawks are 201st in 3-point percentage and 306th in 3-point attempts. The Bears’ zone will need to focus on not leaving Vick. The Bears have been lackadaisical in focusing on the right shooters. This is a fairly easy scouting report: guard Vick, risk other 3-point shots. Vick is shooting 43% from deep and went 8-of-8 earlier in the season against Vermont. Find the dude and make him beat you off the dribble:
The other reason Baylor has to play zone is because the Bears aren’t going to be able to limit dribble penetration without offering serious help. If Baylor plays man, Kansas will overwhelm the Bears with their dribble hand-offs, and quickly get downhill. Alex Robinson has gotten past Baylor’s defenders. Devon Dotson would be an absolute mess one-on-one:
An important principal for Baylor is to not overreact to non-Vick shooters. Charlie Moore, K.J. Lawson, Grimes and Dotson aren’t great shooters. Any possession that ends with one of those guys shooting a three is a win. Villanova showed a nice way of focusing on the paint in transition. The Wildcats were content to let Garrett beat them from the arc, instead of letting Grimes get a shot at the hoop:
It’s vital that Baylor stays focused all game. Teams can loose their edge when they think the opponent won’t fire from deep. Kansas isn’t close to their ceiling, but they show flashes of the team that will end up a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament:
Kansas will likely get several lob opportunities against the zone. The Bears need to be careful to not overextend the 1-3-1 zone too far. TCU and Iowa State can hit triples. The Jayhawks, with the exception of Vick, can’t. But it’s hard to break habits. Baylor is the underdog here. The margin for error is low. This is not a game to give away a couple of possessions by jumping out to guard Dotson at 28 feet.
Self’s two biggest successes against Baylor’s zone have involved shooting overextending the Bears and attacking from 15 feet. Maybe Lawson, Vick or Mitch Lightfoot can hit a bunch of midrange jumpers. Jamari Traylor used to destroy dreams:
Kansas is more likely to beat Baylor’s zone like they did in 2015 and 2016—when they could get the ball to the middle and have a big man hit jumpers and floaters near the hoop—than overextending Baylor with shooters or clearing driving lanes. Baylor’s best bet to handle the ball in the middle is to have the wings crash in and the center stay deep. In the above example, Johnathan Motley would crash to the middle and Rico Gathers would stay back to stop a lob. And when Kansas has Vick switch sides, Baylor needs to be cognizant of having the man opposite Vick crash down. This is a game where communication and understanding the scouting report really matters. The gap from an open Vick three to a Garrett three is immense.
The Jayhawks could make all of this irrelevant by hitting open threes. And if they do, accept that it isn’t your day. I can’t fathom Baylor handling Lawson and Kansas’ quick guards in man-to-man. I’d rather let Kansas prove they can keep raining threes than allow them to get open lanes to the hoop or Lawson open near the rim.
There is no opponent I’d rather see Baylor beat. Since I graduated from Baylor in 2013, I have graduated from Kansas as many times as Baylor has defeated Kansas (once). The 1-11 streak has been rough for Bears in exile.
Unfortunately the Jayhawks are an exceptional team. They’ve had some mediocre stretches, but this team is close to getting it figured out. My big fear is that Kansas will dominate a few of Baylor’s bigger lineups, and Garrett will shut down Baylor’s dribble penetration. The Bears could play terrible offense for 10 minutes and beat the best of the PAC-12. They can’t do that and beat Kansas.
The most likely path to Baylor winning is to have an outlier day from three. The Bears shot better against Iowa State. They’d need Bandoo to hit his shoots, McClure to have a nice day and then either Matthew Mayer or Makai Mason to hit shoots. That feels like drawing an inside straight.
I’ve been wrong many times. I thought Iraq had WMDs, so I have been wrong on much bigger predictions. But I think Kansas just has a better team. I’ll take Kansas 70-60.