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Baylor Basketball’s Best Skill: The Surprising Finding on Opponent Compatibility

Forgot everything you know

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Baylor vs Syracuse Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Before Baylor’s NCAA Tournament game against Syracuse, tons of folks keyed in on Baylor’s massive offensive rebounding advantage. The Bears ranked second nationally in offensive rebounding rate. Syracuse ranked 335th in defensive rebounding. Put those two facts together, and most folks figured Baylor would destroy Syracuse on the offensive glass.

Baylor didn’t beat Syracuse by dominating the offensive glass though. The Bears secured 34.6% of their misses against Syracuse, which wasn’t even one of Baylor’s top 19 offensive rebounding performance of the season. Despite that pedestrian performance for Baylor, the Bears walloped the Orange and finished with 1.3 points per possession—a mark well above the nation’s best offensive tally.

That example is part of a concept that Jordan Sperber dubbed “opponent compatibility.” Sperber is a former graduate assistant at Nevada and runs a popular weekly college basketball newsletter called hoop-vision. He ran a detailed study and found that when we look at the four factors—effective field goal percentage, rebounding, turnovers and free throw rate—we don’t learn much by just knowing one team dominates a category and another one is trash.

Sperber’s analysis hasn’t caught on to wider audiences, yet. Too often when analyzing games—and I’ve been guilty of this—we say, “This team is top 10 in this category, the opponent is terrible in the corollary category, therefore, look for them to dominate.”

With that framework, I decided to look at this for Baylor’s offensive rebounding rate last season. I plotted Baylor’s offensive rebounding rate in every game against the opponent’s average adjusted defensive rebounding rate:

As the graph shows, there was almost no relationship between Baylor’s offensive rebounding and the opponent’s strength as a defensive rebounding team. The r-squared value shows there is virtually no relationship. For example, Baylor only grabbed an offensive rebound 30.4% of the time against Prairie View A&M, the 341st ranked defensive rebounding team. But against Arizona—the 71st best defensive rebounding team, Baylor notched an offensive rebound on 56.3% of their misses.

That might lead to a reasonable question—or maybe I’m just tired and haven’t thought of a better transition: If Baylor is such a dominant offensive rebounding team, then why aren’t they better against the worst defensive rebounding teams and worse at offensive rebounding against the best defensive rebounding teams? That’s not something that’s easy to solve. There was also almost no relationship between Baylor’s offensive rebounding and the quality of a defense:

The most important thing for the 2019 Bears success was their effective field goal percentage:

That r-squared value, which tells us how much our sample is explained by what we’re measuring, is ridiculously higher than it was for other factors. That makes sense for the Bears season. Baylor had one of their worst offenses ever in non-conference. Then the Bears led the Big 12 in 3-point percentage and turned their season around. They attempted threes on 65% of their field goal attempts against Syracuse and knocked off the Orange. For a Baylor team missing Tristan Clark, shooting was essential for them to win.

Let’s get back to what this article was really about though. Baylor was an excellent offensive rebounding team, and they could be fantastic collecting offensive boards regardless of how good an opponent was at defensive rebounding. Mark Vital, Freddie Gillespie, Mario Kegler and King McClure were terrifying if they were near the hoop. Those guys were difficult to scheme against, regardless of how good a team happened to be at defensive rebounding.

The real takeaway is that basketball becomes matchup dependent. Basketball has millions of moving parts. Try and create more 3-point shots against a bad defensive rebounding team like Syracuse, and you may not have as many guys around to defensive rebound, but you might go 16-of-34 from deep:

Offensive rebounding was certainly valuable for Baylor. The Bears were dreadful from three against Arizona, but their 56% offensive rebounding helped them win in Tuscon. And in Ames, Baylor notched a 47.4% offensive rebounding rate and thrashed Iowa State’s defense to the tune of 1.18 points per possession.

Basketball is a game of matchups and nuance, and Baylor’s dominance in offensive rebounding shows that too. The Bears didn’t set the standard in offensive rebounding by destroying scrubs. They did it by being consistently good and capable of being superb, regardless of opponent.

While we’ve learned Baylor’s going to finish every season with strong offensive rebounding numbers, we have to look beyond basic rebounding rankings to figure out how a game might unfold. That might seem intuitive that life is about more than numbers, but when some analyst shouts that “Team X is great at this offensive category, and Team Y is bad at the corresponding defensive category, so we know this will be a disaster for Team Y” remember that basketball isn’t that easy. Opponent compatibility isn’t enough.