No. 2 Baylor (12-0, 5-0) takes on No. 6 Kansas (10-3, 4-2) at 8:00 on Monday in the Ferrell Center. The game airs on ESPN.
The Bears are the higher ranked KenPom team for the second time ever in this series. While you could argue the 2012 Bears should have been favored in Lawrence or Waco, or that a few other teams—most notably the 2017 team in Waco and the 2020 team in Waco—should have also been favored, this is a unique game. This is the first game in the series where every objective observer would say Baylor has the better team than Kansas.
Having the better team doesn’t guarantee a victory. KenPom gives the Jayhawks a 20% chance. The Jayhawks will be hungry. Bill Self noted after Kansas’ loss to Oklahoma State on Monday that his squad has “less than zero margin for error” to win the league. If Baylor wins this game, Kansas would need quite a run to win the league and also plenty of help.
Given the high stakes nature of this one, we’ll take a detailed look at playing offense against Kansas, then turn to defense. Finally, we’ll close with a prediction.
Kansas primarily plays man-to-man. But after struggling against Oklahoma State, they threw out a 2-3 zone and a triangle and 2. I would not expect to see a ton of either defense on Monday. But Self has had almost all full week after their game against Iowa State was canceled. Maybe he runs one of those looks again.
If KU gets funky on defense, the Bears will roll out a bevy of shooters and work the middle of the zone. Oklahoma State hit the middle, and Mark Vital—as proven in the NCAA Tournament game against Syracuse two seasons ago—can fire passes for triples from the middle of a 2-3 zone:
I’d expect KU to stay man-to-man. The worst area of Kansas’ defense lately has been in transition. My semi-hot take is that Kansas is playing too many guys. Until Bryce Thompson fractured his finger this week, the Jayhawks were playing 10 guys. In contrast to those advocating for court packing, nine seems like a lot too. Many of them had never played together. But even the guys that have played together have been confused. They’ll call for switches and not get them. They’ll try to ice and fail to hold the ball on that side of the court. Their ball screen defense with David McCormack has not been good:
Baylor hasn’t been a “run a million middle ball screens” offense, and I don’t think they’ll do that on Monday. There are opportunities though. The Jayhawks end up moving around like crazy to deal with McCormack’s limited mobility:
If Kansas plays defensively like they did against Oklahoma State, they have virtually no chance to win this game. I expect them to improve quite a bit. Their transition defense was the worst I could remember from any Kansas team. McCormack would go for low probability steals, leaving them exposed. Others would loft back like they were still feeling the impact of a late night at The Wheel. Kansas had that problem some against Texas too, so the burden is on the Jayhawks to fix that:
We’re probably too far into a discussion about Kansas’ defense to mention Marcus Garrett. He was national defensive player of the year last season. Quite a few teams elect to not even attack him. Butler had a fantastic time driving at him in Lawrence. Still, he’s one of the country’s best.
Garrett hasn’t been quite as good defensively this season. He battled a non-COVID-19 condition against Kentucky. He’s also played quite a few minutes, and he’s the point guard now. Last season he could let Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike handle the offense, while he worried about eliminating prime offensive options. He runs the show now, and his defense has taken a slight step back. He’s a good player, and I’m open to the argument that he’s battling some kind of injury. Regardless of whether he’s injured, he remains a menace defensively.
Kansas will likely play a solid stretch without a traditional center. Sometimes that means Jalen Wilson there. Other times they’ll roll Tristan Enaruna or Tyon Grant-Foster at the five. Mitch Lightfoot is also a bit different than McCormack or the other three at the five. The issue for Kansas in a lot of these looks has been communication and assignment integrity. Here, Christian Braun has absolutely no reason to help. Lightfoot is available and can ignore Jericho Sims in the corner. You can go through any team and find examples of missed assignments, but I’ve watched at least parts of every Kansas game (including the Washburn one!) this year. They make weird decisions:
These attacks may seem overly critical for the No. 10 defense. Texas just went insane from three to pull away, making plenty of shots like this:
The attacks are maybe over the top because Kansas has a lot of low hanging fruit to improve. Hustle back in transition; don’t go for stupid steals; figure out what the pick-and-roll coverage is; The Jayhawks are too late in the year to make some of these mistakes, but that also means they can get better. Maybe it happens on Monday, but eventually your bad habits define you.
Like usual, I’d expect Baylor to move quite a bit off the ball because Kansas doesn’t switch all those actions. Adam Flagler, fresh off a rejuvenated performance against Texas Tech, could be an option in four guard lineups.
Kansas’ offensive swings are wild. They scored one adjusted point per possession or less against: North Dakota State, Creighton, Kentucky, Texas Tech, Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. But they also had a nice offensive day against Gonzaga, West Virginia and TCU. The Texas game is explained by an uncharacteristically awful 3-point day, and the TCU game is largely explained by fantastic shooting (64% from two and 40% from three).
Perhaps the best place to start with Kansas’ offense is McCormack. The 6-foot-10 junior is a former McDonald’s All-American. After playing behind Azubuike, this was supposed to be his year. Self said all spring and summer that he’d lead the Jayhawks in scoring. He started the year terribly. Plenty of folks persuasively argued Kansas should curtail his play and go small. But he’s steadily improved and been much better lately:
Self’s preferred offense for many years featured a ton of high-low sets and post-pins. His goal is to generate as many easy buckets as possible. McCormack wasn’t making shots early in the season, but he’s been much better lately.
The Bears will have to elect how to defend McCormack. Defending him straight up is risky. He’s bigger than everyone but Flo Thamba. The Bears haven’t fronted many teams this year, so going that route introduces a new scheme. Maybe they just play straight up and double. Or maybe they count on McCormack not being impossible to play straight up. The Bears aren’t easy to move the ball side-to-side against with their no middle defense. Self will likely run middle pick-and-rolls (though thank God for Baylor that Azubuike is on the Jazz now) or try and use some motion to confuse the Bears to ensure Baylor can’t involve a third defender in a two man action:
Given Baylor crashes the glass, Kansas will run in transition. They’ll also work to overload the strong side and get the ball handler going downhill to hit 3-point shooters. Ochai Agbaji is over 40% from distance. Even with a 4-of-19 stretch, Christian Braun is over 36% from deep. Jalen Wilson can also rain threes too. Watch out for this play:
Wilson has been a revelation for Kansas. He missed almost all of last season with an injury, and Kansas didn’t have him as a guaranteed starter entering the year. But he can play three positions. He’ll primarily work at the four. He’s a good shooter, both from beyond the arc and on 2-point jumpers. He also gets to the rim well, and carried the Jayhawks to a win over Kentucky. If the Jayhawks go with Wilson at the five, the Bears aren’t going to want to have their traditional centers spend a ton of time on him:
Although Garrett has not played at an all-conference level, he’s done a nice job running the offense. He’s not Dotson, Frank Mason or Sherron Collins, but he’s a giant threat when he gets a step. With good length and veteran experience, he’ll make shots near the rim and find open teammates. You don’t want him to get moving with his burst of speed:
Garrett’s not hopeless from three—he’s 7-of-22 on the year—but he’s reluctant to shoot. If he makes five threes on Monday, then Kansas is probably going to win. I would lean toward going under his ball screens, though that gives him the chance to get a step. Baylor needs to avoid closing out past him if the ball is moving. The Bears are quick and often provide some hard fly-bys. But Garrett is savvy. He’ll use those fly-bys and get to the hoop. If this game is close, a few mistakes like that could end things.
I would not expect Baylor to play zone in this one. I’ve never asked anyone about that possibility against the 2021 Jayhawks, but the Bears did throw it out for a second at the end of their buy games. It’s an option they could use sometime during Big 12 action.
Oklahoma State had success using a zone against Kansas, so some might think, “Hey, maybe run a zone for a few plays.” But Oklahoma State ran a 2-3 zone, and the Bears’ zone is a 1-1-3/1-3-1 zone (like not being a snob about using impact in place of effect/affect, I think the 1-1-3/1-3-1 distinction is over-pronounced; basketball purists and grammarians recoil!). They also haven’t played it much, and the key is that they’re No. 1 in defensive efficiency. They don’t need to try and confuse Kansas by throwing out something wild. They’re more likely to confuse themselves playing zone against Kansas, which could allow dunks or open threes.
If I were doing a premortem for how Kansas wins, I’d say the Jayhawks get hot from three, Baylor struggles to defend McCormack and the Bears have a cold shooting night from beyond the arc. All of those things might be unnecessary for a Kansas win, but they’re possible. Kansas could win this game.
The analytics sites think the odds Kansas wins are 20% (KenPom), 15% (Torvik) and 14% (Evan Miya). Those aren’t great odds for Kansas, but if someone told you that you had those odds of meeting your spouse for the first time tomorrow, you’d be really excited. Or your current spouse would be livid.
Ultimately the Bears are the better team. Other than Gonzaga, there’s really not a case that anyone is better. Someone else is extremely likely to beat the Bears—going through the gauntlet of the Big 12 unscathed is nearly impossible—but Baylor has some real advantages over Kansas.
I expect Jared Butler to have a bounce back game after struggling for the first 34 minutes against Texas Tech. He rarely has two consecutive bad games, and he seems to relish playing Kansas. Vital should also play well when the Bears downsize, and I think Baylor meets the challenge of putting Kansas out of the Big 12 title race. I’ll say Baylor makes some nice moments by Kansas irrelevant, and Baylor wins 78-69.