No. 1 seed Baylor (22-2) takes on No. 16 seed Hartford (15-8) at 2:30 on Friday in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
The Bears are favored by 25 or 26 points on most sports books. KenPom and FiveThirtyEight both list Baylor as 98% favorites.
How to Watch:
If you’re not joining me in Indianapolis, the game will air on truTv. If you have a basic cable subscription, you should get that channel.
If you’ve cut the cord and don’t get truTV, you need to find someone with a cable package that gets truTV. While the March Madness Live application is free, you must have a cable subscription that gets truTV to watch Baylor on that platform. But if you find a friend with that channel on their package, then you should be good to go with their account.
Hartford has played only five games against top 225 KenPom opponents: Connecticut, Villanova, UMBCx2 and Vermont.
The Hawks—I love the mascot Howie the Hawk—can play both man-to-man and a 2-3 zone.
I think there are two big weaknesses that will harm Hartford. The first is that it gives up a ton of 3’s and shots at the rim. Per hoop-math, Hartford is the 23rd worst team at forcing 2-point jump shots. Opponents can overwhelm the guards and the big men aren’t speed demons:
Second, Hartford gives up quite a few offensive boards. I think that’s partially from getting sped up having to help. Connecticut and Villanova both offensive rebounded well over the season average against the Hawks.
The Bears will face the temptation to isolate if Hartford goes man-to-man. Honestly, I don’t think that’s a bad plan here. Davion Mitchell is too fast for them. Jared Butler can score in isolation against any of the Hawk’s defenders. And MaCio Teague should be able to punish them in the post.
Traci Carter will swipe some turnovers. He ranks No. 3 nationally in steal percentage. A former top 150 recruit and Marquette player, he’s very good.
In these kinds of games, there’s always the chance Hartford gets funky. The Bears are 98% favorites. In a straight up game, Hartford has almost zero chance. To adjust the odds, Hartford might try a junk defense. Sam Houston State did that 11 years ago (that doesn’t feel that long ago) in the No. 3 v. No. 14 game. So there’s a chance Baylor sees something different. The Bears prepare for those kinds of defenses in the preseason, and I’d expect the staff to have a strategy in timeouts to deal with anything unique.
Hartford’s offense seems like it should be a bit better. It has some talented pieces. I like Austin Williams’ ability to put the ball down and beat forwards off the floor.
The Hawks haven’t faced as well when facing top 225 KenPom teams:
In the Vermont game, Hartford shot 10-of-19 from three. I’m guessing Vermont can’t believe its luck.
Hartford can be a pretty good passing team:
Despite their poor 3-point shooting, I would still be hesitant to let them fire those shots. With the extra point, the 3-point shot creates a lot of variance and potential reward. Baylor sold out a lot to limit 3-point shooting against Kansas State, and the Wildcats did well inside. But the Wildcats have been a much better team down the stretch than the Hawks. I would not give up defending the post or doubling certain post touches. But I would try and run Hartford off the line with hard contests and fly-bys. If Hartford wants to dribble and take long 2’s, then that’s fine.
I’m doing a deep dive into Baylor’s defensive woes soon. The Bears need to play better defense to have a deep tournament run. This is a good day to make life tough on Hartford. The Bears have been a bit off in some pick-and-roll coverage. They can probably switch things in this one. After trying to stick Davion Mitchell on Cade Cunning in the Big 12 semi-finals, the Bears can eschew “Mitchell must stay on the best offensive player.” Instead, they can just focus on switching properly and preventing easy opportunities.
KenPom ranks Hartford the highest of the No. 16 seeds. Thanks to transfers, the Hawks have some quality players. After Virginia’s loss to UMBC, nobody should presume any game in the NCAA Tournament is certain.
It would be an incredible upset for Hartford to win. Baylor has substantially more talent, and Hartford isn’t primed to make a million threes. That’s probably necessary for a sub 150 KenPom team to knock off Baylor.
With some practices this week, and a particular focus on defense, I think Baylor plays very well to open the dance. I’ll take Baylor 84-50.
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