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Baylor at Kansas: The Preview on How Baylor Tries to Win the Big 12 on Saturday

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A win clinches the league

NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Baylor Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

No. 2 Baylor (18-0, 10-0) takes on No. 17 Kansas (17-8, 11-6) at 7:00 on Saturday inside Allen Fieldhouse. With a win, the Bears secure their first ever Big 12 title.

Baylor won the inaugural meeting 77-69. Each team is different since then, but the game provides some key insights into how the squad’s will battle this time.

We’ll take a look at playing offense against the opponent, then turn to defense. Finally we’ll close with a prediction.

Offense:

The Bears overwhelmed Kansas in the first meeting by putting David McCormack in as many ball screens as possible. The former McDonald’s All-American has been much better in the second half of the season, but with how fast Flo Thamba can set screens, and how crafty Jared Butler is, the Jayhawks couldn’t survive in that allotment:

In recent games, Kansas has switched to having McCormack come out higher on screens. Often Kansas will trap. In the second half, Kansas switched to trapping ball screens.

When Baylor stays big, those lineups force either Flo Thamba, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua—assuming he plays after missing the Iowa State game because of the COVID-19 protocols—and Mark Vital to make plays.

The Jayhawks got back into the game while trapping those looks in the second half:

I asked Scott Drew about that Thursday, and he said, “We knew they would do that because that’s something they love to do to keep you off balance. That’s something we feel good about because we practice against it and execute it. With us, you look at it, and they’re (Kansas) playing their best basketball of the season, and they’ve gotten better...because obviously they got better during the last few weeks.”

One of Baylor’s counters is to downshift against that lineup and let Vital become a playmaker. He’s an incredibly underrated passer.

The other is to put Jared Butler in the action and let him go to work. Kansas is reluctant to tag off shooters, as CJ Moore exquisitely detailed in The Athletic this week. Its goal is to allow the two men defending the ball screen to contain the pick-and-roll. But Butler is crafty—perhaps the country’s best dribbler. If he can snake, the Jayhawks will have to tag, and that opens up some triples:

If Tchamwa Tchatchoua can’t go, Drew will have to decide if Vital can play 30+ minutes. He played a season high 31 minutes against Iowa State on Tuesday and was incredibly effective. I asked Drew about if Vital can play more, and he told me, “Foul trouble, injuries, COVID protocols, you gotta do what you gotta do...until you can get your rotations back and back to normal, every man has to do what they’re called to do. Our guys our winded and tired. Mark with 15 rebounds persevered, and we’re really proud of that.”

The best offense against Kansas is to try and isolate someone on Christian Braun or Jalen Wilson and go to work. The pair aren’t awful defensively, and you can make a case both have been much better during Kansas’ 5-1 streak in the last six contests.

Perhaps the best argument for Kansas is that Jared Butler was simply too outstanding in the first meeting, and he wont’ replicate that performance. He finished with 30 points on 14 shots, including 7-of-9 from deep. Butler is the league’s best player, but even a mediocre defender like Wilson isn’t at fault when Butler’s drilling this shot:

The problem for Kansas is that if it becomes too focused on Butler, the Bears have other problems for them. Davion Mitchell didn’t have his best performance—he had a couple turnovers and his shot selection, at times, fell below his normal acumen; he’s too fast for everyone but Marcus Garrett.

The Bears also missed some transition opportunities that could have put the game away earlier. MaCio Teague missed an open triple and so did Adam Flagler. Both had huge moments later, including Teague on drives late.

Even in the restart from COVID, Baylor played well offensively against the Cyclones. Yes, it’s Iowa State, but the Bears got pretty good looks. They notched 14 offensive boards, and Adam Flagler added 22 points off the bench.

Iowa State just played pretty well, and Baylor missed some decent looks. While it’s easy to attribute that to COVID and think Baylor’s due for malaise, teams just have games where they play below the baseline. Oklahoma lost to Kansas State. Kansas nearly lost to Omaha, and looked fairly awful in its win in Manhattan. I would attribute some of Baylor’s problems against the Cyclones to COVID. But I think that’s overblown, and I don’t expect—if Tchamwa Tchatchoua plays—Baylor to struggle offensively because of COVID-19:

Baylor is well designed to score against most teams, but the Bears are well-positioned to score against Kansas. Again, it’s easy to look and expect Butler to not be super human; if the Bears shoot poorly from three, then Kansas can put the clamp down at Allen Fieldhouse, and the Baylor offense might atrophy.

I think Baylor will get quality shots though. KU ranks second in defense during league play. The Jayhawks can make life tough on that end. They’ve cleaned up some of their miscommunications on off-ball switching. But they just aren’t well-positioned to handle a team with so many guards, and I expect Baylor to have an effective offensive night.

Defense:

The other side of the ball is where Baylor might have a bigger problem.

McCormack has been much better down the stretch. In the 10 games since Baylor and Kansas met on MLK Day, he’s shot at least 50% from the field on nine occasions. That’s an inverse of the beginning of the season: he shot worse than 50% in nine of Kansas’ first 10 games.

When Baylor plays the Fival (Mark Vital at the five), the Bears usually will front and then send a double team. The Bears non-Flo Thamba bigs aren’t well positioned to defend him straight up. The Fival should also hold up well if Kansas plays Wilson at the five since the Bears can switch everything:

Vital’s been a menace on defense, and he turned his season around against Kansas. This possession is the kind of effort he brings every night, but it really showed up in that game:

The Bears got lazy a few times in Waco. Christian Braun and Ochai Ogbaji shot a combined 9-of-13 from three. The Bears failed to pick them up in transition, and they went under some screens. Both are cardinal sins against the Jayhawks. Do that at the same rate in Lawrence, and Kansas probably wins.

Bryce Thompson’s return adds another wrinkle. Significantly, it prevents Kansas from having to overtax Marcus Garrett. Thompson doesn’t shoot much from beyond the arc, but the former McDonald’s All-American is crafty with the ball, which means teams at least respect him and don’t want to sag away when he lacks the ball. That helps open up the offense:

The Bears will likely stay aggressive defensively. They’ll trap and double plenty and try and force as many turnovers as possible. As long as they stay attached to 3-point shooters, they should live with trying to defend any non-McCormack post (hello Mitch Lightfoot) without sending much help. If Braun and company want to put the ball down, take the chance you can contain them without offering much resistance.

We’ll also see how much Kansas wants to run middle ball screens. Obviously that destroyed Baylor when Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson ran the show. That combination is gone, but against Baylor’s version of the “no middle” defense, sometimes just starting in the middle works. I wouldn’t expect a ton of it though because the Jayhawks personnel isn’t well designed when they’re big to run a million of those screens. And when Baylor plays the Fival, it can just switch all of those.

Prediction:

KenPom gives Kansas a 28% chance to win. The Jayhawks, with the exception of 15 minutes against Texas and offensively against KSU in Manhattan, have been playing exceptionally. The Bears nearly lost to Iowa State—the Big 12’s worst team. It shouldn’t shock anyone if Kansas wins.

Baylor has a few too many guards this year though, and can matchup with some of Kansas’ best lineups well. Maybe McCormack drops 30, and the Jayhawks go 12-of-20 from deep. Basketball’s become a game where so many outcomes are dependent on 3-pont shooting, so maybe the perils of “living and dying by the three” costs Baylor an undefeated season on Saturday.

The Bears have a little too much offense though. With the best four guard combination in America, someone should get going. I expect MaCio Teague to get a bit more space from the Jayhawks, and to have a big game. And wherever you fall on Game Stock, anyone would invest in Jared Butler against Kansas. He’s scored 53 points in two games in Allen Fieldhouse and dropped 31 on them in Waco this year.

Self summed up this game well after losing in Waco. He said, “Let’s not get this too twisted. Baylor’s better than us right now. That doesn’t mean we can’t beat anybody...our margin for error isn’t what their margin for error is.” He’s right. Baylor wins the game and clinches the Big 12. I’ll take Baylor 74-68.