The two best best teams in America battle when No. 2 Baylor (3-0) takes on No. 1 Gonzaga (3-0) at noon on Saturday in Indianapolis. The game airs on CBS.
The Jayhawks were lucky to only lose by 12 to the Bulldogs. West Virginia still lost to Gonzaga when they shot 25% from three; they also missed likely top five pick Jalen Suggs for a while because of an ankle injury (he returned to the game). And Auburn had zero chance against Gonzaga.
The biggest game of the season means I’m not getting as much sleep as I’d like, but I wanted to get a giant preview out. Mission accomplished.
As always, we’ll take a look at playing offense against the opponent, then turn to defense. Finally, we’ll close with a prediction.
As phenomenal as Gonzaga has been offensively, they have not played at the same level defensively. The Zags had some bad luck with Kansas hitting a ton of threes, but they have a few weaknesses that Baylor can exploit.
First, Gonzaga’s been fairly bad at defending ball screens. They haven’t communicated well and get confused on whether they’re switching or not:
The Bears don’t run the horns set that Kansas did above. They do move a lot off the ball, and their floppy set requires deciding if you’ll switch the action or run through. If Gonzaga’s not communicating well, Baylor’s floppy set will lead to buckets:
Mark Few’s squad also struggles with teams that slip screens. This seems to relate to their communication issues with off-ball screens, and there’s an opportunity to clear a side and roll a man to the rim:
Baylor will likely run a ton of their dribble weave action to try and get a guard isolated to work on Corey Kispert. They’ve shifted him to the four in their favorite lineup with Florida transfer Andrew Nembhard. Kispert’s a menace offensively, but he can be taken off the dribble. Drew Timme doesn’t provide much rim protection, so a step is fatal:
Timme also doesn’t come out as early as he probably should, which leaves some opportunities for the Bears to make floaters. Kansas didn’t have too much trouble getting into the paint, especially when they went small in the second half:
Look for the Bears—as they often do—to get Teague, Butler, Mitchell and Flagler coming off a screen to get short floaters:
The Jayhawks ran their weave into side ball-screens. Marcus Garrett was able to make a floater:
Garrett is not the offensive force that Mitchell is running that side pick-and-roll. Perhaps the most terrifying site for Baylor’s opponents from the Illinois game is how they scored on two side alley-oops.
Late in the second half, Illinois elected to play drop coverage and keep two men on the strong side (the side where the ball or pick-and-roll is run). Baylor had Teague, Mayer and Flagler on the weak-side. In the Garrett pick-and-roll, Nembhard does a pretty good job sticking with Garrett as he makes the turn, and Nembhard doesn’t respect Christian Braun as much as he should, so he goes to the nail (middle of the free throw line) to provide additional help on Garrett’s drive:
Garrett should immediately pass to Braun when that happens. But Gonzaga abandons Braun, a 46% 3-point shooter from the last season, because they’re afraid of what happens if Garrett can get deep into the paint. Timme isn’t much of a shot blocker, and he also has to worry about Lightfoot catching a lob. Garrett makes the wrong read—electing to drive with Suggs providing help—and he still scores because Timme can’t provide resistance at the rim.
The Baylor side pick-and-roll is a lot deadlier than the Kansas one. Let’s take a look at one of the scores against Illinois:
That one highlighted how even with Vital—a limited threat as a 3-point shooter on one side—Mitchell’s speed as a dribbler gives him an edge turning the corner.
And late in the game, Baylor went nuclear with the play. Look at how far back Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua is when Mitchell begins throwing the lob. This play can’t be defended when Mitchell is nearly impossible to stay in front of coming off the screen. And a big man can’t guard both Mitchell and Tchamwa Tchatchoua—who can get a lob from that far away:
In the first half, Baylor ran a pick-and-roll with Butler, Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Teague on one side (though much closer to the middle of the floor than the Mitchell ones), as Butler turned into the lane. That play combined everything Gonzaga struggles with. Butler’s top end speed is slower than Mitchell’s, but he makes up for it with an unmatched craftiness and ability to pull up in a second. The Bears had Vital on the weak-side:
The obvious defensive strategy is to have the man defending Vital ignore him and tag Tchamwa Tchatchoua, while the other two guys handle Butler.
That doesn’t work though. After going 4-of-5 from distance against Illinois, Mitchell’s shooting 58% from deep. Nobody will shoot that well over a season, but good luck leaving Mitchell wide from beyond the arc. Illinois doesn’t want to do that. So the defender in the paint has to make sure he calls out the flare screen, and that Mitchell’s man can get around the screen. That split second of attention the paint defender has to process Vital’s screen and shout it out gives Butler time to hit Tchamwa Tchatchoua for the lob and the foul:
For Gonzaga, that play sets up everything they’d done poorly: a guard that can get around the screened defender, a real threat to catch a lob and a shooter in the corner that might get an off-ball screen. Gonzaga might corral the ball-handler or tag the lob or handle the screen without needing to call for a switch. But as anyone that goes on a date with someone out of their league knows, when perfection is necessary to make something happen, a mistake is inevitable. The Bulldogs are unlikely to handle all of those areas without messing something up.
When Oumar Ballo comes in, the Bulldogs will use drop coverage. That alignment hasn’t worked well against the Bears. With Teague and Flagler shooting well from the mid-range (75% and 89% respectively, per hoop-math) the Bears have roasted from that area. Yes, those numbers are due for regression, but they’ve picked their spots well, taking open looks and have good shooting form. Analytics eschews the long two because it’s not efficient when bad shooters fire away from there, as opposed to the opportunity cost of passing up a 3-point look. But when the defense gives wide open looks from there to good mid-range shooters, the calculus shifts.
Butler can also get to the rim against drop coverages:
The final area where Baylor can score is in transition. Gonzaga ranks 147th in percent of shots allowed in transition, per hoop-math, and they’re 179th in effective field goal defense in transition. They get too focused on stopping the ball. While that’s an understandable principle—the first rule of transition defense is to stop the ball—that maxim has an important word “first.” Gonzaga treats transition defense like the only rule is to stop the ball, which leaves 3-point opportunities aplenty:
From Butler to Teague to Mitchell to Flagler to Vital, the Bears have a phalanx of quality transition passers. And they’re good at making transition threes:
Baylor should score effectively against Gonzaga. The two biggest worries are that Gonzaga has giant guards—all of them are least 6’4—and Baylor could shoot horribly. The Bears aren’t rolling Bumble six feet fellas (5’9 dudes that list themselves as 6 feet on the dating app; I’m not answering any questions about my height) on the court. They’re 6’2, 6’3, 6’3 and 6’4. They scored against Illinois’ backcourt that wasn’t much smaller.
With how convinced I am that Baylor can score against Gonzaga, it might lead to thinking, “Wow, Baylor’s got this in the bag.” Well, let’s talk about Gonzaga’s unbelievable offense.
I’m a Christian, but I really don’t like the prosperity gospel. Yet looking at the offensive talent Few has this year, maybe he’s done something to win this abundance of offensive talent.
For all the mediocrity Timme displays defensively, his offensive repertoire is unquestionable.
He can destroy anyone on the low block. His work down there can make the best post-defender consider a new career path:
The Bears haven’t been the best stopping good post work:
After running high-low offenses for years, Few is adept at getting Timme the ball in post-pin situations. The Bears have fronted well in the past, but they’ll need to time their help well to avoid the tragedy that befell Auburn:
That leads to thinking, “Okay, put a big on him, and just play him straight up and send a late double when he starts moving.” That’s not even a guaranteed stop—and that leaves a shooter open—but the big man has a problem. Timme can dribble and get to the hoop. His fake dribble handoff leaves the defense giving up something. Focus a second man on Timme’s drive, and he can just hand it off for a good shot. But don’t send a second man, and the defender has to hope they can defend this:
Normally the right decision would be to make someone that’s not Timme beat your team. Gonzaga has plenty of other guys that can beat the team. Kispert is the final rotation piece left for Gonzaga from their 2019 NCAA Tournament win over Baylor. The 6-foot-7 hybrid can play the three or the four. He’s shooting 45% from deep this year after shooting 44% from there last year. His release is Usain Bolt quick, and he’ll go from way beyond the arc:
To prevent Kispert from scoring, it might be natural to just switch and avoid giving him a gap. Welcome to another problem defending Gonzaga. Kispert can put the ball down and get to the hoop. He took David McCormack to the hole. Maybe Tchamwa Tchatchoua can provide more resistance. That’s probably Baylor’s best bet. But they’re going to have trouble switching Thamba here:
Kispert’s shooting also open him up to slip ball screens. Garrett, one of the country’s best defenders, seems to think Kispert will just float to the corner for a triple. He doesn’t:
Even if there’s a strategy for dealing with that two man game—the Bears showed they could limit Kofi Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu from Illinois—Gonzaga’s got three guards that make life miserable in the pick-and-roll.
Jalen Suggs could end up going No. 1 in the NBA Draft. Cade Cunningham remains a heavy favorite to go No. 1, but Suggs has been a monster running pick-and-rolls. Try to just have one defender, and he’s getting to the rim and scoring:
Elect to hedge, and he’ll hit the roll man:
Kansas iced him about as well as you can. They also had the weak side defender come down and tag Timme on the roll. There doesn’t seem to be any option for Suggs:
Well, Suggs found a way to hit Joel Ayayi for three:
This assumes the defense has even gotten Gonzaga into halfcourt offense. The Bulldogs score 34.7% of their points in transition, which is 10% above the D-1 average, per hoop-math. Suggs can go coast-to-coast and embarrass a man with a euro step in five seconds:
If Gonzaga wasn’t talented enough offensively entering this season, they benefitted from the NCAA giving almost everyone a waiver because of COVID-19. Now they have Florida transfer Andrew Nembhard. He had 16 points and eight assists against Baylor last year. His speed, and Gonzaga’s ability to seal down low, makes him a threat driving:
The one offensive flaw for Gonzaga is 3-point shooting. They rank 188th in the country at just 29.1% from three.
Outside of Kispert, the Bears should be okay with late contested threes from anyone else. Mitchell’s shown his value doing that:
Timme has taken six triples. Nembhard shot 31% from deep last year and is 2-of-9 to start the year. Joel Ayayi hit 34.5% last year, but he is 2-of-9 to start this season and he went 3-of-11 the year before. It’s possible last year was an outlier. Suggs is a freshman, but on the three USA teams he played on, he never shot better than 30% from three. He’s also 2-of-6 in three games; his low number of attempts provides some evidence he’s not great from there.
Baylor has a quandary with Gonzaga’s shooting. The Bears built a fantastic defense last year, and they locked in for key stretches of the Illinois game by aggressively pressuring the ball. They don’t like to go under screens or concede open shots. It’s tough to change their identity. The defense also generates tons of turnovers, which makes waiting for an open shot a difficult proposition.
Gonzaga is just about perfect at everything else; they rank fourth in 2-point percentage. The easiest answer is to probably combine what Baylor does well with a focus on conceding some threes. The Bears can be aggressive on the ball, but if Gonzaga wants to run middle pick-and-rolls, Baylor should strongly consider going under non-Kispert ones. And on Kispert ones, they should have defenders abandon the other shooters to add help to Kispert and Timme.
The Bulldogs are good and smart enough that they’ll beat one look after a while. Baylor beats teams that run the same defense too. Preparing only one way is preparing to get beat multiple ways. Each team has so many options that the Bears will probably mix pick-and-roll coverages to try and stop Gonzaga from getting in a groove.
I have very low confidence in predicting this game. These are easily the two best teams in the country. The gap between Baylor at No. 2 on KenPom and No. 3 Villanova is 3.88 points. A 3.88 point gap from Villanova goes all the way down to No. 15.
KenPom gives Gonzaga a 52% chance to win. Torvik gives them a 51% chance. This is as close to a coin flip as we’ll ever see between No. 1 and No. 2.
When two good teams meet, the result can be radically different. During the 2015-2016 season, Oklahoma blew out Villanova 78-55 on Pearl Harbor Day. They met again in the Final Four, and Villanova won 95-51. That 67 point difference in scoring margin between Final Four teams should warrant skepticism about certainty for predicting this game.
But I’m in the analyzing and predicting business. Gonzaga is a problem and could easily win this game. The Bears will win it though. One of the four guards gets hot, and the Bulldogs can’t get going from deep. Baylor takes it 84-80.