Baylor takes on Syracuse at approximately 8:50 on Thursday in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. The game airs on truTV.
The Bears are two point underdogs in Vegas. KenPom and FiveThirtyEight give Baylor a 48% chance to win.
While the Bears have battled injuries recently, Scott Drew told the media on Tuesday that “Health wise, knock on wood...we’re in better shape than we’ve been, physically.”
Syracuse should have Tyus Battle back for this one as well.
As always, we’ll preview playing offense against the opponent, then turn to defense. Finally, we’ll close with a prediction.
As I’ve detailed here, Baylor has a giant offensive rebounding advantage. Syracuse is 335th in defensive rebounding. Baylor is 2nd in offensive rebounding.
Syracuse’s 2-3 zone—a defense that Jim Boeheim’s squad has played for decades—will allow the Bears to rush in for second chances:
Baylor will likely leave Mark Vital and Freddie Gillespie deep behind the zone. The challenge in those spots is picking when to shoot. Syracuse is the nation’s tallest team, per KenPom’s height metric. They have 7-foot-2 Pascal Chukwu ready to come block shots that seem open:
Baylor will look to beat Syracuse’s zone in three primary ways. First—as it so often is with me—is 3-point shooting. The Orange’s opponents attempted a 3-point shot on 47.6% of their possessions. That was the fifth highest 3-point attempt rate nationally. Quick ball movement and adjustments can open up threes:
The Bears will also look to get threes by setting screens and running shooters around the perimeter. In the 2013 Maui Invitational Final, Baylor let the ball stick too long early. But they made a nice second half rally with some good screens:
Baylor will also have to take deeper threes and be willing to pull up in transition. That long Syracuse zone is much tougher to work against when they have everyone back. Devonte Bandoo, one of the best 3-point shooters during conference play, needs to fire away like some of Syracuse’s opponents:
Mario Kegler will need to have a big game. The Bears will probably have him work the middle of Syracuse’s zone. The Orange aren’t easy to break down in the middle, but Louisville showed that quick bounces passes can let a man get open behind the defense:
The clear challenge against Syracuse is their ability to turn over opponents. The Orange are 10th in defensive turnover rate. Baylor is 264th in offensive turnover rate. As Drew said, “One thing we gotta do is get shots up.” The Orange will jump weak passes:
They’re also incredibly difficult to fire passes against in space. The Orange are ready to deflect passes, and they quickly grab those loose balls:
The Bears’ philosophy should be pretty simple: shoot when close to open and crash the boards. Taking an open 26 foot three prevents Syracuse from turning Baylor over. Baylor shouldn’t want to hunt for perfect shots in this game because that will lead to way too many turnovers. Accept that a decent look means a great chance of grabbing an offensive rebound and getting another decent look. Two decent looks outweighs the risk of a turnover seeking out a perfect shot.
Baylor will likely open and primarily plan to play their 1-1-3/1-3-1 zone (it’s classified as a 1-1-3, but the way the wings play, it looks a 1-3-1).
Syracuse’s size and speed will make playing man-to-man tough. The Orange are gigantic and can quickly move the ball. The Bears struggled with their man-to-man pick-and-roll defense against Iowa State in Kansas City. They often had to involve a third man in defending the pick-and-roll, which set up open shots. Syracuse can find shooters when the defense is forced to drop into the paint:
The Orange like to fire threes, but they’re not super accurate from distance. Syracuse is 74th in 3-point attempts but 244th in 3-point percentage. They like to work high screens into dribble hand-offs for three. Baylor will have to come over the top of that and not let Buddy Boeheim or Battle get open looks:
The Orange are just too big and likely to beat Baylor off the dribble in man-to-man. Although the Bears sound like they’re healthier, Syracuse’s size and speed will be an issue in man-to-man. The Orange are good at clearing out space and shooting when opponents don’t come out immediately. They run a 1-4 low set where the big man can pop out for a three:
Boeheim’s team will run plenty of isolation sets against man-to-man looks. They like to run “elbow get” where one of their bigger guards can attack at the elbow (side of the free throw line) and attack the hoop. Baylor’s smaller guards don’t want to have to defend this without any help behind them:
Given those challenges with man-to-man, Baylor will probably play zone and gamble that Syracuse can’t make enough tough shots to win. As Drew said of Battle, he’s “someone that takes tough shots and makes tough shots.” He’ll get to the hoop some and make hard shots:
Syracuse will attack the zone in two primary ways. First, they’ll look to get lobs. Baylor struggled to handle lobs against Kansas, so Baylor will have to make sure the wings don’t get out too high. If Syracuse can make some deep threes, congratulate them. It’s much less likely Syracuse nails 15 threes than they make three lobs:
Wake played quite a bit of zone, and the lesson they showed is that Syracuse can do some of the things Baylor struggles defending. They do a nice job working guys along the baseline and getting behind overextended wings. Kegler and McClure need to make sure they’re not too far outside. As always, active hands late are better than letting someone work the ball behind them:
That was all a long way of showing what I pretty strongly believe: Baylor has to play zone and focus on late contests of Syracuses’ 3-point shots. The Orange will even step into some long 2-point jumpers. That’s fine. Baylor doesn’t want Battle and Syracuse’s much taller team taking a bunch of shots at the rim. If the Orange can shoot 50% from three, then it’s okay that the season ends that way.
This is a very unique game. Baylor has an astronomical edge on the offensive boards. Syracuse has a tremendous advantage in forcing turnovers. It might come down to which team can win their strength area.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see any outcome. Makai Mason could make a ton of shots, and Baylor could just be overwhelming on the offensive glass. Or Syracuse could work Baylor’s zone and turn the Bears over enough and roll in transition. There isn’t any outcome—short of Baylor not offensive rebounding when they shoot—that would shock me.
Baylor should be willing to take plenty of shots and live with the strong chance they offensive rebound. While Syracuse will get their share of turnovers, I think the Bears hit enough threes to pull away. I expect a nice day from Bandoo, and I’ll take Baylor 74-70.