Allow me to introduce myself...and thanks for giving this a skim at worst and a read at best...my name is Branden MacKinnon and I am a Baylor sports fan. All of the takes below are my own and probably will be incorrect, strap in and Sic ‘Em.
Setting the Scene
The Who: #6 Villanova MBB x #2 Baylor MBB
The What: Top 10 Matchup x Sweet 16 Rematch
The Where: Waco, Texas
The When: 2:00 PM CT
The Why: Preconference play glory and case for an eventual 1 seed in the tourney
The How: Scott Drew can coach and ‘cruit
How We Got Here
To move forward we must reflect on the past, so let me start by saying this is a very similar Villanova Wildcats team we played in the tournament last year, with one key difference, the heart and soul of their team, Collin Gillespie is back. In the Sweet 16 last year Baylor (the best college basketball team in history) was able to top Villanova in a game of runs. After trailing in the game early in the first half Baylor went on a 10-0 run over the course of five minutes to take an 18-11 lead, Villanova then responded with a 13-0 run in three minutes to take a 24-18 lead. Some back and forth throughout the rest of the half and the Bears enter the locker room down at half 30-23. The second half starts with some back and forth but Baylor clawing back and tying the game after a 16-9 run at 39-39. From this point on the Bears remembered their identity, as a ball screen/drive/kick/rotate offense and never looked back closing the game on a 23-12 run to win 62-51. I say all this to remind everyone that Villanova and Baylor we programs built to score in bunches last year and they still are today, which brings us to Sunday.
I expect much of the same from both programs offensively. We have seen Baylor hit some walls offensively this year and then out of nowhere turn into Drew's inferno - the unpredictability and talent on this team make them incredibly fun to watch.
From a Villanova perspective, please do not let their two losses fool you. Their losses are to 4th ranked UCLA and 1st ranked Purdue. This team is led by four talented, tenured, and gritty players, Collin Gillespie, Justin Moore, Brandon Slater, and Jermaine Samuels. All four of these guys cause problems in their own ways that could give this team fits defensively and get hot in a hurry.
Villanova Eye Test
I teased it about 4 seconds ago depending on how fast you read, so let me reiterate for those who have forgotten, this team is talented, tenured, and gritty. The Wildcats are going to be the toughest test of the year for the Bears so far (yes tougher than Incarnate Ward led by Godsgift Ezedinma. This team is successful for a myriad of reasons tied to the players, but also because their coach, Jay Wright, rarely puts his players in tough positions which leads to great execution.
Let's dive into the players. Senior guard Collin Gillespie is a certified stud. Gillespie leads Nova in PPG (17.3), APG (3.7), and SPG (1.4), and is extremely efficient doing it - shooting near 50/40/90 so far this season. The biggest threat Gillespie poses defensively is his quick hands and feet to jump passing lanes. Next up is Junior guard Justin Moore, who despite playing for the Wildcats is best described as a bulldog on the court. Moore is 6'4" and a built 210 lbs. Moore an aggressive on ball defender and is just behind Gillespie in SPG (1.3). His build makes him difficult to get by off the dribble, or on cuts, and he can get hot (or cold) in a hurry from the field. This brings us to the man I am personally most scared of on the Villanova roster, Senior forward Brandon Slater. I don't want to be dramatic here, but this man is a certified killer from baseline to baseline. 6'7" with a frame that is filling out, Slater is quick as a hiccup and according to SB Nation's vuhoops.com Slater has a close to 9 FOOT WINGSPAN. This is problematic on both sides of the ball as Slater is almost impossible to block when he gets to the hoop, contest off the dribble, or get by on offense. Slater is certainly the most improved player on Villanova's roster, averaging 3.8 PPG in 2020-2021 to 12.9 PPG so far this season. Slater also has the most NBA upside for a number of the reasons listed above and his efficient scoring - he leads Villanova shooting 51.9% from the field. Also, Slater is a lefty which makes watching his shooting stroke mesmerizing. Last player to highlight is the man who gave Baylor the most trouble in the Sweet 16 last year, Senior forward Jermaine Samuels. There is no way to put it, Samuels is an absolute monster in the paint and on the boards. In the Sweet 16 Samuels gave Flo, EJ, and Vital fits on the block. Samuels was 4/6 from the field, with his only two misses coming from beyond the arc, so he was 4/4 in the paint and 8/8 from the free throw line totaling 16 points. Samuels brings the same energy and effectiveness to the Wildcats this year as well. He is fourth on the team in scoring at 12 PPG, first on the team in rebounding at 6.1 RPG, and first on the team in blocks with about 1 BPG. The best thing about Samuels defensively is he is quick on switches, which allows Villanova to switch the screener and get back into set matchups when playing man to man.
Enough on the Villanova players, let's pivot to what they do really well as a team, because like I said this whole team is gritty with extremely high energy. Again, this is an eye test so there will be very little statistics here because we just dove into a ton of that.
What my eyes are seeing is that Villanova does three things as a team at an elite level.
1) Tight on ball defense
In the Sweet 16 Villanova held Baylor to its worst offensive performance of the season, holding the Bears to 62 points shooting 44.1% from the field, and 15.8% from three. Yes, Baylor didn't shoot incredibly well that game, but this was caused by Villanova top to bottom being tenacious on the ball. This has continued into this season as well. They play incredibly tight on ball defense, often times to a fault, with a tendency to over help and focus on being ball stoppers. This is a strength of Villanova that frazzles most teams, thankfully your Baylor Bears fall very far outside the "most teams" category.
2) Crash the glass
Villanova is very well coached from a rebounding perspective. When on offense, and a shot goes up all 5 guys are heading to the paint looking for a quick put back or a backside kick pass to a guard to reset the possession. When on defense, and a shot goes up all 5 guys box out their man and are looking to secure the rebound and start a quick transition run - primarily through Gillespie and Slater.
3) Move the ball
Candidly, Villanova doesn't have anyone on their team that is a dime dropper - nobody is going to make your defense look silly with a no look pass, lob, or back door cut. They only have two guys on their team that average more than three assists per game (Gillespie and Moore). But what this team does very efficiently is pass and cut. They are a high-level bounce pass team, which eliminates steal opportunities for their opponent, and when a player makes a pass they rarely stand still.
Alright, we've been gassing up Villanova for a few minutes now, and rightfully so they're the #6 team in the country. But not so fast - I think Baylor is a talented enough team to exploit some of the tendencies of Villanova including the things they do well. So, let's get after it family.
Why Baylor Wins
My analysis and thoughts on this Baylor team will be even more in depth as what we just went through for Villanova because I am fully expecting that if you have read 1400ish words of my takes up to this point you know and love this crew. What we are going to do here is go player by player and discuss how each of our key rotation guys will be pivotal to this team's success on Sunday. Also see their Twitter handles so give our boys a follow.
#0 Flo Thamba - @Flo_T3
Flo has been a focal point on this team for years; a Senior leader who has the ability to set the tone defensively and on the boards. Like I said previously this Villanova team crashes the boards HARD - the fifth starter for the Wildcats who I haven't mentioned is Sophomore forward Eric Dixon who is a bruiser down low at 6'8" 255 lbs. Flo is going to have to play big in the post, and be willing to battle on the glass with Dixon. I expect Flo to step up as he is quicker than Dixon, and play well in his minutes if he stays out of foul trouble.
#1 Jeremy Sochan - @SochanJeremy
Oh buddy - in full transparency Jeremy Sochan is my favorite player on this team. So please let me go off for a second for our prince. Jeremy is as talented with the ball in his hands as he is without. He has a tight dribble thanks to playing on the Polish men's national team, and cuts with purpose. Here's the deal - Sochan is a raw talent and when he plays with confidence, he is absolutely lethal. I think because of his diversity offensively he will have a chance to shine as he won't be the primary focus of the Wildcat defense. Defensively, as we all know, Drew switches all five positions - so I think Sochan will be put in positions when he comes off the bench as the primary defender on any of Slater, Moore, or Gillespie and with his quick feet and wingspan I think he is up to the challenge. Buy the Sochan stock.
#2 Kendall Brown - @TheeKbrown
In case you live under a rock, Kendall Brown may just be the most NBA ready talent that has ever walked through the doors of the Ferrell Center fresh out of high school, and it shows. Kendall can take the roof off of a play on both ends of the floor. His quickness, lateral jump, and vertical jump make him a threat to come out of anywhere for a finish at the rim or to contest a shot. Kendall scores with ease shooting 71.9% from the field, that is asinine. As it pertains to this game, Kendall will be the primary defender on Slater and the matchup will be electric. They play a similar game and I expect them to RUN as long as they are on the court. The key for Kendall offensively will be to cut early and often. Villanova only rotates 6 men so getting their legs gassed early will be key - and let me introduce you to freak athlete Kendall Brown. Kendall also is sneaky good from the corner for three - so watch for kick outs when Villanova crashes the paint on drives.
#4 LJ Cryer - @LjCryer
LJ Cryer has taken the biggest leap forward this year, after seeing flashes of his offensive talent last year in some late game minutes. LJ holds the Houston high school basketball record for scoring. Let me repeat, LJ Cryer is a BUCKET GETTER. I won't dive into the high school numbers, that is coming soon - but they are gaudy. How doesn't LJ impact this game is a better question than how does he impact the game. LJ is going to keep doing LJ things - he leads the Bears in scoring at 15.4 PPG and is doing it with efficiency shooting 54.1% from the field and 52.5% from three. LJ moves very well off the ball, very similar to what MaCio did for us last year. The X-Factor with LJ is he is also deadly off the dribble. If you watch the tape his release is wicked fast on the pull up and it reminds me a lot of Damian Lillard.
#10 Adam Flagler - @adamflagler
Okay as the title of this fanpost suggests, I think Flagler is going to have a huge game. Admittedly, Flagler has taken a bit of a step back production wise this season, due almost solely to him playing with a broken hand. When healthy, Flagler is an offensive spark, crafty scorer, and a staple for this team going forward. In the Sweet 16 game against Villanova everyone was ice cold, Flagler was the primary bright spot offensively. Flagler led the team in scoring that game with 16 points, shooting 2/3 from downtown (Baylor only had 3 threes that game fyi), getting to the line with ease Flagler was 6-6 from the stripe. As far as Sunday goes, with 8 days in between games, and limited minutes against Arkansas Pine Bluff, if Flagler's hand has progressed, he will have a huge game. Villanova's defensive intensity lends well to what Flagler does best, relocating off the ball. Flagler will be left open off the ball, and when the defense crashes on screens or drives that will leave Flagler open to knock down big shots. I'm thinking 18 points from Flagler - book it.
#11 James Akinjo - @akinjojames3 (Insta no Twitter for our boy)
James Akinjo was the biggest transfer we got this year coming in from Arizona and stepping in as the starting point guard as soon as he got to Waco. Akinjo filled a huge hole left by Jared Butler entering the NBA. Akinjo's court vision, passing execution, quick step off the dribble, and tenacious defense has made him an instant fit on this team. Akinjo leads the Bears in assists with 6.1 APG and steals with 2.2 SPG. I expect him to do both of these things against Villanova. Akinjo is shooting just 37.8% from the field and this offense is extremely efficient when he is a pass first guard. I think he has been put in some tough situations early where he has been pressing to score a bit, but he is much more dangerous as a passer. Look for Akinjo to beat Gillespie or Moore off the dribble and break down the Villanova's defense by getting into the paint and looking for cutters from the corner (Brown or Sochan), lobs off the screen and roll (Tchatchoua or Thamba), or kick out for three to our shooters (Cryer, Flagler, or Mayer).
#23 Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua - @JonathanTchamwa
I mean there's so much to say about what Everyday Jon (EJ) brings to this team. EJ is the heart and soul of our roster on both ends of the court. He has stepped into the role of the vocal leader and communicator of this team. EJ does a ton extremely well on the court, primarily having a hemi motor for a respiratory system, diesel fuel in his veins, and is built like a Greek god. All of this spells TROUBLE for Villanova. EJ will need to step up and limit Samuels offensively, which he did well of in the Sweet 16 game. EJ is probably in the best shape of anyone on the court whenever Baylor plays and that will absolutely be a factor on Sunday when Villanova only rotates 6 players. Look for EJ to wear down the Wildcat defense and be a force on the boards, in transition, and in the screen and roll game.
#24 Matthew Mayer - @MatthewMayer24
Our stallion, our mullet man, our king, Matthew Mayer. This fellow really doesn't have a conscious and I am HERE FOR IT. Mayer's ability to get a bucket whenever he wants and not care when he misses is the best thing for this team. This team is so unselfish that we need a foot on your throat killer and that is what we have in this beautiful man. It is quite literally always Matthew Mayer time and you simply cannot tell me different. I can't wait to see the mismatches he creates on Sunday because candidly there is nobody on Villanova's roster who can hold this man. Mayer is so creative off the dribble and this offseason put on a ton of good muscle weight so he can finish at the rim over anyone. Mayer's production has dipped a bit this year as he has been pushed into our primary scorer role, but I think that turns around Sunday in the biggest game of the year so far.
Okay you guys still with me? Here's where I make a very pointed prediction. Baylor by double digits, say it louder for the people in the back, BAYLOR BY DOUBLE DIGITS. At the end of the day, Baylor has more depth and talent. Baylor is as disciplined on the boards as any team in the country and our switch everything defense eliminates offensive rebound opportunities. This year's Baylor Bears are dummy athletic - and that is problematic for tight on ball defense. The Bears will be able to beat Villanova off the dribble collapsing the defense and opening lanes for cutters or kicks for shooters. Really the only risk I see is that Villanova is super experienced, but Drew is going to have the boys ready. And Dickie V on the call referring to Kendall Brown and Jeremy Sochan as 'Diaper Dandies' we can't be beat.
Baylor 78 - Villanova 65
For my betting friends Baylor covers the -7.5 and the Over 142 hits. Good teams win, great teams cover. Let's have a Sunday.