Kansas City, Missouri- No. 2 Baylor (22-1) knocked off a much improved Kansas State (9-20) 74-68. The Bears will take on Oklahoma State at 5:30 tomorrow in the T-Mobile Center.
The Bears remain as dominant as ever offensively. Baylor entered the game No. 3 in adjusted offensive efficiency. Since the COVID pause, the Bears have been electric on that end and rank in the top five.
Once again, Baylor performed admirably on offense. The Bears had too many turnovers (21), including 13 in the first half. But the Bears scored a solid 1.14 points per possession. Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague combined for 47 points. Jared Butler didn’t have his best day—he struggled to make layups and had an uncharacteristic seven turnovers—and still finished with 18 points. It’s a good sign that Baylor turned it over this much, and its best player didn’t have his best day, and they still had an efficient outing.
Baylor’s goal this season is winning a national championship. That’s the standard Baylor’s realistically striving for; that’s an incredibly high bar. With Gonzaga, Michigan and Illinois as talented as any cadre of No. 1 seeds ever, at least three, and quite possibly four (including Baylor) are going to be disappointed when they lose for that final time in Indianapolis.
To achieve that lofty goal, Baylor’s defense has to get better. Before the pause, Baylor ranked No. 9 in Bart-Torvik’s adjusted defensive efficiency. The Bears suffocating defense ranked No. 1 in the Big 12. They turned over everyone, which fueled an offense that probably wasn’t as good pre-pause as it is post-pause. In the five games since the pause, and before playing Kansas State, Baylor ranked 190th in adjusted defensive efficiency. Here’s how the Bears ranked coming into this game:
Things didn’t go much better tonight. Kansas State’s Davion Bradford scored 18 points in the first half. Most of those were on easy layups or dunks. That tied a season high for a full game. In the second half, the Wildcats got a variety of open triples. Nigel Pack, the Wildcat’s best player, went 5-of-8 from deep. The Bears let him get open too many times.
There are a bevy of defensive issues. Baylor’s defense is designed to force guys to drive baseline. The big man should then be there ready to help. Often the big man is late, which leads to easy buckets. When the big man does get there, the guards aren’t there to provide a second line of help or to help the helper. And they’ve missed boxing out certain guys, letting easy offensive rebounds proliferate.
Baylor understands the defense has to be better. After the game, I asked Davion Mitchell about what has to improve defensively. He picked up a giant charge in the first half, and he rightfully won Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. He told me, “I feel like we’re not talking enough...on the ball I’m pretty good. Off the ball, I’ve got to stop helping off the corner. Little errors, we need to fix, and we will do it.”
Scott Drew also understands the Bears have to get better on that end. I asked him about the issues today, and he said they were both some of the ones the Bears have had since the pandemic and some unique ones tonight. He added that KSU is a “tough prep team. Coach Weber has a million sets. They execute so well. That’s one of those teams that’s difficult when you don’t have prep time because they can make you look bad with a million sets.”
The Bears can be as good on defense as they were pre-pandemic. Mitchell, Mark Vital and Butler all made the Big 12’s defensive team. Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua is swift, which helps him draw charges or pressure the ball. Teague’s been difficult for anyone to score again. Thamba did a pretty good job in the second half defending the paint.
How well Baylor can play on defense remains the issue for Baylor winning a national title. The Bears might lose an NCAA Tournament game on an off shooting night, given the variance dictated by the sport crowning its champion at the whims of a single elimination format. But the Bears have a sufficient sample size to show they are one of the country’s three best offenses.
Today wasn’t good enough defensively to be national champions. The Bears understand that. They’ll face Cade Cunningham and the Cowboys tomorrow. That’d be a good day to return to form on defense. They’ve shown they can do it. Now it’s time to prove it.