Baylor (19-11, 10-7) takes on Kansas (22-8, 11-6) at 1:00 on Saturday in Allen Fieldhouse. The Bears have never won in Allen Fieldhouse, and the Jayhawks have won 35 straight home finales. This is going to be pretty, pretty, pretty tough.
Kansas won the first matchup 73-68. Things are a little different since that one. That game was Baylor’s first without Tristan Clark. As Baylor Associate Head Coach, Jerome Tang, told me, “We were scrambling in that one trying to figure out what we needed to do.”
LaGerald Vick destroyed Baylor in Waco. He went 6-of-8 from beyond the arc and scored 21 points. He won’t play Saturday, as he has taken a leave of absence from Kansas.
As always, we’ll preview playing offense against the opponent, then turn to defense. Finally, we’ll close with a prediction.
Kansas has the nation’s No. 16 defense. Baylor’s two biggest strengths, give them hope. First, Kansas allows a ton of 3-point shots. They’re 280th in 3-point attempts. Bill Self’s defense is built on the philosophy of stopping easy buckets, i.e., layups and shots near the rim.
Before the Texas Tech game—Kansas’ worst defensive game of the Bill Self era—Jesse Newell of the Kansas City Star wrote:
It all leads us to an arbitrary number that, at the least, has been a recipe for opponent success so far. There’s no foolproof formula here — and a team without decent three-point shooters might not be able to pull it off — but shooting 45 percent of one’s shots from three against KU has definitely served teams well to this point.
Of the 10 opponents that have hit that three-point rate against the Jayhawks, nine of them have put up top-12 offensive marks against the Jayhawks. Meanwhile, among the 16 schools who didn’t get to that number, only three (Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Arizona State) were able to register an above-average performance against KU’s defense.
The Red Raiders attempted a three on 44% of their shots and scored 1.45 points per possession, an almost unfathomable mark over a full game against even the country’s worst defense.
Baylor has taken far more threes this season. With Clark out, the Bears revamped their offense and looked to space the floor. Their 3-point attempts are the most of any Baylor team this decade:
Against Kansas, Baylor will look for threes in a few ways. First, they’ll take advantage any time Kansas hedges. The Jayhawks, like most teams, work a variety of pick-and-roll defenses. They often hard hedge because that defense can make it hard to turn the corner and get layups. But the Jayhawks’ defense leave a man in the paint ready to tag the roller—a look where the man in the paint bumps into the screener rolling to the hoop. Kansas’ defense can lead to a few passes and an open three:
Baylor will also try and work on screening for the screener. That can leave a Kansas big man too far from the action to help out. In this clip, Mark Vital sets a screen for Freddie Gillespie, and Dedric Lawson ends up too far away to help Devon Dotson:
The Bears will also look to push the ball. Without Clark, Baylor’s best offense is a 3-point shot and an offensive rebound. Draining the clock and looking for a post up isn’t the 2019 Bears’ formula. In transition, Kansas’ giant guards are left scrambling. That’s the time to fire:
I’d also look for Baylor to maybe give Matt Mayer a small run in this game. He didn’t play against Oklahoma State. The Bears would like to shrink their rotation eventually—playing nine guys can hamper a team’s rhythm—and Mayer took a terrible shot in his limited run against Kansas State last weekend. But Kansas has bigger wings with Marcus Garrett, Quentin Grimes and Ochai Agbaji. Those guys are tough to throw passes over:
Mayer worked well against Arizona’s length. He’s 6-foot-9, and he can fire passes to the weak-side corner. With how KU defends, and with his reputation for never passing up shots, it’s a chance to prove he belongs in the rotation:
There are two other 3-point areas that matter. First, Baylor will look to take long 3-point shots. Manu Lecomte blew Kansas out by taking shots well beyond the line. Baylor’s upped their percentage this season, as they rank in the top 80 nationally in Will Schreefer’s data on long 3-point attempts, well above past seasons. Most college defenses aren’t designed to stop shooters five feet beyond the arc. But most players don’t shoot much worse that far back. LeComte showed the way last year. This a chance to run it back:
Second, Baylor should take a three if a big gets switched onto one of Baylor’s guards. When that happens, the Jayhawk’s big men often give space. But more importantly, it’s a huge opportunity for an offensive board. Dotson is a special freshman (much more on him below), but he doesn’t want any part of Vital on the glass:
The Bears have to offensive rebound like they normally do to have a chance. Baylor is the nation’s second best offensive rebounding team. They didn’t show that in the first half against Texas and in their last two games against Kansas State and Oklahoma State. In the first meeting, Baylor grabbed an offensive rebound on 50% of their misses, well over Baylor’s average mark of 38.2%. Kansas was a brutal defensive rebounding team in November and December. During conference play, they’re the league’s best defensive rebounding team. If the Jayhawks show that on Saturday, it’s hard to see the Bears winning.
Two other sets will likely determine this game. First, Baylor’s ball screen continuity offense and the ability to win a few isolation buckets. The Bears were able to isolate Mario Kegler in that look in Waco. Lawson’s lateral quickness isn’t great, so if Baylor can clear a path with him as the only defender, Baylor’s in a decent place. But Kegler struggled to take over against Grimes. After an impressive run, he hasn’t been as good the last few games. Baylor needs the Kegler that scored 47 combined points in back-to-back games against West Virginia and Texas. He has to win these kind of matchups:
Second, Baylor could really use Mason’s tough 2-point shot making. As his toe injury has flared up, he hasn’t been the same force in the paint. Dotson is a menace running around screens. The freshman isn’t offensive player Frank Mason or Devonte Graham were yet, but he might already be a better off ball defender than either one. The way he runs around screens, Baylor will try and get Mason going to the hoop:
Several Baylor-Kansas games have been lost by terrible Baylor starts. In 2018, they fell behind 16-3 at Allen Fieldhouse. The Bears ended up leading 67-61 late in the game, but a team that makes a 64-45 run should be up more than six points. Sure enough, Kansas came back and won. And in Waco this season, Baylor started 0-of-14 from the field. That can’t happen in this one.
Baylor will have to decide whether they play man-to-man, zone or both. I suspect Baylor will play both defenses.
In man-to-man, Baylor’s big challenge will be limiting Lawson. He worked Baylor one-on-one, and in high-low sets in Waco. Baylor may have to double him, something that’s worked okay for opponents. When Garrett and Lightfoot play, Baylor will likely help off those two and double hard on Lawson. He’s just too good when he has to beat one man:
Dotson will be a huge problem in transition. Even when Baylor’s defense is set, his insane speed will twist Baylor’s defense. The Bears’ guards have to sprint back as soon as Kansas secures the ball. Nobody else in the league moves like him:
Those problems could lead to Baylor thinking they should play zone, and I suspect the Bears will start in zone. The Bears have to focus on the correct shooters. Garrett, a 24% shooter, can take whatever he likes. Grimes, a 34% 3-point shooter, deserves respect, but Baylor probably needs him to have a so-so game to get the victory. If he plays up to his preseason lottery pick status, then it’s not going the Bears’ way. Luckily Vick is gone. The Bears gave him too many open looks:
Kansas will try to counter the zone in three primary ways: getting the ball to the middle to secure layups, working alley oops and shooting threes via screens up top. Those screens make finding guys like Ogbaji important:
The best bet for Baylor is to make Grimes and company prove they can make a ton of threes. Maybe that happens. But the Jayhawks have had plenty of poor shooting days and they’re not the offense they were last year. The 2018 Jayhawks could go on magnificent runs. That team finished 5th in adjusted offensive efficiency. This squad is 28th.
Other than Dotson in transition, and Lawson in the half-court, Kansas does not have an elite offensive area. They’re not terrible at anything, and often that can carry a team. But the Jayhawks don’t rank in the top 75 in effective field goal percentage, free throw rate, turnover percentage or offensive rebounding.
Baylor’s challenge will be sticking with the game plan. If Grimes hits a few threes, then he needs to prove he can hit a few more. Lawson and Dotson have proven their best traits over 30 games. They shouldn’t get the chance to show how good they are in Lawrence.
Predicting a Baylor win seems ludicrous. The Jayhawks haven’t lost at home this season, and Baylor’s offense has been terrible the last two games. With McClure working his way back from injury, and Mason still battling issues with his toe, maybe Baylor’s 26% odds to win this game on KenPom are inflated.
I haven’t predicted a Baylor win in Allen Fieldhouse since 2012. That year, Baylor entered the game 17-0 and ranked third nationally. That Kansas team had lost to Davidson in Kansas City. Baylor came in and found out Thomas Robinson was the country’s second best player. They also learned how tough it is to win in Allen Fieldhouse.
Saturday is a very different finale for the Jayhawks. There will be no Big 12 trophy presentation at the end, as Texas Tech and/or Kansas State will win the league. They’ll be no senior speeches, as Vick remains away from the team. And there will not be the usual raucous crowd. The arena will still be sold out and loud, but they’re down to 10 student camping groups, well below their usual 70+, per Newell. Ticket prices have gone way down as well.
History changes. Kansas winning 14 Big 12 titles didn’t guarantee a 15th. Kansas being 17-0 against Baylor in Lawrence doesn’t guarantee an 18th win either.
Maybe I’ve just had a terrible week and can’t be objective enough in making this pick. But I think Baylor pulls off the giant upset. The Bears have a strong shooting day, and Kansas plays flat for stretches without the Big 12 title on the line. It’s a historic day for Baylor. Baylor wins 74-68.