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Why I think Baylor Will Return to Playing Elite Defense in the NCAA Tournament

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Putting myself out there!

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Baylor Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Jerome Tang signed onto Zoom in Las Vegas and wasn’t thrilled. As acting head coach while Scott Drew sat isolated in Waco with COVID-19, Tang said, “I’m not worried about our offense.” He went on to mention, “I don’t think Coach Drew or Coach Jakus (the primary offensive coaches) have had to stop practice once to yell at the offense.” With the offense thriving, Tang feared the defense wouldn’t measure up.

The Bears ended up building one of the country’s best defenses. In late January, Baylor ranked No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency. Before a 21 day COVID pause, Baylor ranked No. 8 in adjusted defensive efficiency on Bart-Torvik’s website.

Since the return Baylor’s followed the exact path Tang warned about. The Bears rank No. 6 in adjusted offensive efficiency in those seven games, which is particularly impressive since Baylor had two awful shooting days. But on defense, Baylor ranks 181st during those seven games (lower is better):

@kendallkaut

The Bears are worse in every major defensive category since the pause. It’s reasonable to wonder: if Baylor’s worse everywhere, then how can Baylor get back to playing elite defense?

After looking at the film and shot charts—and attending four of these games—I think Baylor has plenty of reasons to be optimistic it can fix this.

1) Davion Mitchell:

Mitchell remains an absolute menace on the ball. I voted for him on the All-Big 12 Tournament Team because he eviscerated Cade Cunningham. The Bears took a 60-52 lead into the under eight timeout. Despite at least a five inch height difference, Mitchell locked down the presumptive No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft:

Mitchell is not sufficient for Baylor to play well on defense; Baylor’s struggled with him playing exemplary.

But Mitchell playing at this level is necessary for Baylor to return defensively. When one defender can eviscerate opponents on the ball, like Mitchell, then offenses have to hunt for someone not guarded by Mitchell. After the Oklahoma State loss, MaCio Teague said, “He (Cunningham) got free from our best defender.”

The challenge for other teams with Mitchell playing this well is that Baylor has at least 1/5 of the defense back. And Mitchell can also cover for other mistakes and get back into position on screens. As the above clip demonstrates, he provides a fail-safe backline option in transition. Mitchell turns his hips like he’s good enough to play cornerback in the NFL.

The key with Mitchell’s play is that he sets the baseline. You’d prefer to have the best defender, the guy who can lock up the team’s best guard, back. Baylor has that.

2) The stupid mistakes are correctable:

My guess is that the film sessions haven’t been kind to the Bears recently. I could pull clips from the Kansas game where forwards have their heads completely turned away from the play. Against Oklahoma State, all defensive team performers ended up letting offensive players drive middle with ease. While there are times that Baylor’s scheme allows that—the rules aren’t as stringent as Lubbock’s version of this defense—it doesn’t countenance it often.

The Bears hadn’t practiced much since returning. Scott Drew told the media Tuesday, “We just haven’t had a chance to practice, very similar to if you only shoot one day in three weeks, your shooting probably is not going to be on. So it’s great to get after it and get better. We have such a mature group. When you show them things on film, they want to learn, they want to get better. But there’s no substitute for actually being on the court practicing and repping stuff. So hopefully our rotations will be a lot tighter and our defense will be a lot more in sync like it was prior to the pause when we were really flying around and doing a great job.”

Against Kansas State, the Bears didn’t provide great effort or help here:

I asked Mitchell on Tuesday what needed to improve defensively, “I would say helping each other out. When you watch us there’s a lot of one-on-one buckets that can’t really happen. Just cause we can’t be spread out like that because there’s a lot of great players that can score one-on-one. So I feel like we should be more helping each other out, talking more. Our rotation are a little bit slow but those are things we worked on in practice the last couple days so I feel like we’re going to do a lot better helping each other out and not letting teams just go one on one with us the whole game.”

One might counter, “Baylor’s made some of these stupid mistakes and been slow on rotations for seven games, why isn’t this just what Baylor is?”

Drew had a good answer on that Tuesday, “The illustration that best fits, I know Chuck (Carlton), you probably bench 300, maybe 325 before. Once you reach that plateau and then take time off it’s easier to get back to it than if you’ve never reached that. The good thing with our guys, a couple of weeks ago before the pause, they were there. A couple days or practice and refreshing their bodies and minds hopefully we can get back quicker. That’s one thing we used with the guys, again having a mature group really helps with that. Sometimes a younger group, a bunch of 17 and 18-year olds, it’s usually two weeks of practice. If you have a veteran group maybe it’s two days of practice. This time of year, you’re still trying to get better. The teams that don’t get better, they go home.”

If you think Drew is just trying to be relentlessly optimistic, there are plenty of clips where Baylor is nearly there. Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua got switched onto the speedy and crafty Isaac Likekele and stopped him:

Mitchell spoke glowingly of Tchamwa Tchatchoua Tuesday, noting, “Definitely from day one, Jon has been everyday Jon. He works extremely hard in the gym. Not just on his offensive game, he works on defense and rebounding. He’s a guy that works on everything on his game. I think he’s going to be a really good player. For me, I mean, he’s helped me a lot during quarantine by me guarding him, by just guarding a bigger stronger guys. I know I’m going to be guarding those guys throughout this tournament. He’s helped me just be able to stand my ground. I definitely helped him by moving his feet, he can guard 1-5 just like Mark can. I mean, probably not as good as Mark, but he’s up there. He’s a guy that’s going to make us a lot better by giving us energy, and I mean he talks and he just loves the game.”

Vital didn’t have his best game against Oklahoma State. I asked him what needed to get better after the loss, and he said, “Effort. Just effort, man. And a lot of scouting. We need to get back to our scouting and getting our switches and everything right because right now we’re not switching on the right screens, we’re not — personnel is not correct. We’ve got to just, back to it honestly.”

I then asked Vital how likely he thought Baylor could get back there, he said, “We’re the Baylor Bears. We’re going to get that right. Don’t take this loss and make it think that we’re just some team. We’re still one of the best teams in the country at the end of the day, and we just took a lick, and we got knocked down and now we’ve got to get back up. Muhammad Ali did it a lot.”

3) Baylor’s defense has been a bit unlucky:

People are reluctant to ascribe luck to most situations. In America, we like to think that most people achieve things because of hard work. And while I would agree with much of that sentiment and am certainly not a Marxist, luck situates a lot of our lives. Maybe you ended up with your spouse because she was in a great mood and decided to give you a date. Maybe your business took off because you lived in a town where your competitors were incompetent. That may not be the main explanation, but those circumstances—things totally out of your control—helped make the blessed reality you live possible.

In a small sample size, anything can happen. And Baylor has been extremely unlucky with opponents making 3-point shots. There’s a company called Shot Quality that analyzes each team’s shots and figures out the expected win percentage from those looks::

Turns out that so many of Baylor’s opponents have gotten lucky hitting some shots they’d normally miss. Tyler Harris from Iowa State made difficult looks. So did Kyler Edwards from Texas Tech.

The West Virginia game follows that pattern too. Baylor did a fantastic job limiting the Mountaineer’s big man, Derek Culver. He finished with nine points and zero made field goals. Based on data from CBB Analytics, this is how efficient West Virginia normally is from areas of the court, and where West Virginia normally gets its shots (click on the image to make it larger):

CBB Analytics

Against Baylor, here’s how West Virginia did:

CBB Analytics

It turns out West Virginia just made a lot of threes! And plenty of those were well-contested. Sean McNeil is a good shooter. Baylor lost him once, but he had very difficult shots when he rained jumpers. The Bears didn’t do anything wrong. He just made shots.

The truth of 3-point shooting percentage defense is that the defense has very little impact (impact should replace effect/affect; the change is coming!) on 3-point shooting percentage. Mitchell’s perfect contest of Cunningham didn’t stop him from making this shot:

While anyone who plays basketball will tell you that obviously contesting has some impact (see it already feels natural replacing effect/affect!) on shooting, it misses the point. Most 3-point shooters don’t shoot when the defender is prepared to contest. That’s why 3-point shooting percentage is what we consider a noisy statistic. Ken Pomeroy explained this well back in 2018:

We can get a little more complex by constructing a regression model to predict a team’s 3-point defense the rest of the season based on its first nine games. Taking the last three seasons collectively, the result is that early season 3-point defense is not completely inconsequential, but nearly so. For every 1 percent that a team’s early season 3-point defense improves, its defense the rest of the season improves by 0.10 percent. Do not read that as 10 percent, but one-10th of a percent. Not nothing, but close to it. To illustrate, here’s a plot of a team’s 3-point defense over the first nine games and then the remainder of the season. It’s not a completely random scattering of data, but it’s close. There’s just very little predictive value in a team’s early 3-point defense numbers.

The Bears being unlucky matters because Baylor isn’t quite as bad as it seems. The Bears have given up too many shots at the rim and been to slow on rotations. Those are real issues. But the 3-point explosion from Baylor’s opponents explains many of the woes. And over a larger sample size, I’d be shocked if Baylor’s opponents keep shooting like this.

4) The defensive rebounding isn’t fatal:

While I don’t think Baylor would publicly admit this, the Bears are going to be a mediocre defensive rebounding team.

Basketball and life aren’t contained. In a classic Seinfeld episode, Elaine opens a muffin store where she only sells the top of that muffin. That leaves her with a problem. She has muffin stumps that she needs to discard. She can’t just make the top of the muffin and release a quality product. So she has to figure out how to handle the stumps. And it turns out that dealing with stumps isn’t easy. Or at least it wasn’t in the joyful, yet irreverent era of 1990’s primetime sitcoms.

Similarly, the Bears and all basketball defenses all have some problem: they’re going to be left with something they just don’t value as much—like Elaine and the top of the muffins. The Bears focus on turning teams over and contesting shots. That means Baylor is going to probably always have two weaknesses: fouling and defensive rebounding. The Bears could sit back and not try to force turnovers. But then Baylor fans might start wondering, “Why can’t Baylor force turnovers?” “Teams are getting too many shots up against the Bears, and the offense doesn’t get easy transition points!”

Every basketball defense creates some area where the offense will have an advantage. When a defender is out contesting shots, he’s going to foul a shooter sometimes. If you want the defense to not foul, you can shy away from the defender and allow him a path to the rim. But then an offense’s effective field goal percentage will skyrocket. And if you play smaller lineups to boost turnovers—and send guys flying around to contest and limit shot attempts—then defensive rebounding will suffer.

There is one difference between defensive rebounding for Baylor and Elaine’s disregard for muffin stumps. The Bears still would like to defensive rebound. In fact, Baylor might even emphasize that element more because it will naturally be in a worse position to defensive rebound because guys are flying around trying to turn teams over. When I asked Drew about responding to team strengths on Tuesday, he mentioned, “Rebounding-wise it’s hard to change who you are. Hopefully, you’re a good block-out team, and we can get better in that area.” The Bears will focus on having guys box out where they are, but they’ll often be in spots that make defensive rebounding challenging.

Ultimately the Bears can improve a bit in defensive rebounding. But the Bears are just not going to be a great defensive rebounding team. As Hyman Roth said in the Godfather Part II, “The is the business we’ve chosen.” For the Bears, the business is turning teams over and making teams think twice before shooting because a Baylor defender is closer than tax day. This area sticks out, but Baylor can be a bad defensive rebounding team and field a great defense. It did that for most of the year.

5) Baylor is tough to face for the first time:

There is some tension in my argument here, but I think I’m right, so place whatever weight you want here. But the Bears’ defense has stymied teams the first time up. Texas Tech’s had a similar benefit too, making the national title game in 2018—after losing to No. 10 seed West Virginia in the Big 12 Quarterfinal. Nobody figured out its no middle defense until Virginia did in the national title game.

There’s tension because the sample size isn’t large, and above, I discount small sample sizes to say Baylor’s been unlucky with 3-point shooting. But I think that tension can be explained away by large sample sizes demonstrating 3-point shooting defense is a mirage and diving into a real explanation for why it’s tough to play this defensive style without a previous meeting.

The Bear’s defense features a cadre of skilled defensive players. Most teams should approach Mitchell with a basic, “We’re not attacking him” philosophy. Despite the wisdom of that move, it’s difficult to get the ball in isolation and think that you can’t take the defender. To reach the NCAA Tournament means a basketball player is better than 99% of people that play varsity high school basketball. So admitting defeat or shying away from a matchup isn’t easy.

The issue with preparing to face Baylor is that few teams will fly around and switch everything quite like Baylor does. The Bears won’t switch all ball screens. But when the Bears go to the Fival—with Mark Vital at the five—that best lineup will switch everything:

I don’t buy the general theory that it’s hard to beat a team twice or three times. But I think Baylor is uniquely tough to beat once. Few teams can truly simulate what it’s like to play a switch everything team or deal with Mitchell’s speed. Baylor’s NCAA Tournament opponents in the first three rounds—and likely four unless Texas Tech makes the Elite Eight—won’t have played Baylor yet. That probably also explains why Baylor’s held the following teams to fewer than 1 point per possession in the inaugural meeting the last two seasons: Texas (last year when it hadn’t seen Baylor’s defense, but not this year as it returned so many guys who had; Texas also started 10-of-19 from three), Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Arizona and Butler.

I don’t think the differential is that high here. I think Baylor returning to normal is far more important than whatever benefit Baylor’s style provides. But I do think Baylor’s style provides some benefit, and that should factor into considering whether Baylor’s defense can return.

The NCAA Tournament:

In the single elimination format of the NCAA Tournament, anything can happen. Kansas lost to Oregon in the 2017 Elite Eight, while playing a virtual home game in Kansas City, because the Ducks went 11-of-25 from three while the Jayhawks went 5-of-25. An off shooting night can end anybody.

The Bears have not been good enough on defense since the return. Even that standard has left them at 5-2 with wins at West Virginia and over Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. As the country’s best 3-point shooting team, and with a top five offensive rebounding unit, the Bears don’t have to be great on defense to advance.

The Bears have shown flashes to make me think they can return to what they were on defense. Maybe the Bears miss enough rotations and botch a key switch while falling in the round of 32. Maybe, despite Tang’s focus and early season warning, Baylor’s defense just can’t return to what it was.

Nothing is certain in the NCAA Tournament. We take the data and the film and make the best prediction possible. And from my review, I expect Baylor to play championship level defense. That just might be enough to ensure one.