No. 1 seed Baylor (24-2) takes on No. 5 seed Villanova (18-6) at 4:15 CT in Indianapolis. The game airs on CBS.
Villanova lost starting point guard Collin Gillespie for the season five games ago against Creighton. He scored 27 points against Baylor last season and earned tri-Big East Player of the Year (there should have been a way to break that tie). The Wildcats have played four games without them. They’re 2-2, but both wins are in the NCAA Tournament.
I asked Scott Drew about that in Wednesday’s press conference, and he said, “I think they’re getting comfortable with the personnel they have. I look back, when we lost Tristan Clark, it took us two or three games to figure out what we were going to do. Great teams always adapt, and Villanova is a great team. They have a great coach. You knew they were going to figure it out.”
The Bears are now 7.5 point favorites on most books. The lined opened Baylor -5.5, so the money has come in favor of the Bears.
As usual, we’ll look at playing offense against the opponent, then turn to defense. Finally, we’ll close with a prediction.
Across full season data, two things stick out about Villanova’s defense: it allows a ton of threes (294th in percent of shots taken beyond the arc) and opponents take a while to score against the Wildcats (226th).
Without Gillespie, Villanova’s defense hasn’t dropped much. Evan Miyakawa’s stats showed that Gillespie ranked as the worst defender in the Wildcat’s rotation. And in the four games played without him, Villanova’s had a defensive rating in the following percentile: 82nd (Providence), 18th (Georgetown), 58th (Hartford) and 41st (UNT), per CBB Analytics. So the numbers are fluid.
That’s the overarching problem scouting Villanova: the Wildcats don’t have a large sample without one of their key pieces. Villanova’s played some 2-3 zone. It’s stuck with switching some screens, but it’s also had the big man come up to the level of the screen and show.
Losing one guard doesn’t change that much though. The Wildcat’s defense is anchored by Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. His father played at Kansas, and Robinson-Earl grew up there as well. Most people expected him to land in Lawrence, but with the NCAA scandal looming over the program, he opted to play at Villanova.
Robinson-Earl can switch screens. But he’s not Evan Mobley on defense. He’s projected as a second round pick (I’m more enamored by his offense, which I think makes him a first round talent). The question is whether he can handle the speed and craftiness of Baylor’s guards.
The Bears have been thrilled to move the ball and not play too much one-on-one ball. If Villanova switches, the Bears will have to decide if they prefer to work in isolation. The Bears will probably put Villanova in a bevy of ball screens and also use the dribble weave—as Baylor does about every game—to create some mismatches.
If I’m Baylor, I’d want to keep moving so Robinson-Earl is away from the hoop. I’d also want to tire out Jermaine Samuels. The backup big man (though Villanova can just play smaller at the four), Eric Dixon, can’t shoot, which makes defending the Wildcats much easier.
Maybe Villanova will elect to play zone. The Wildcat’s guards aren’t going to have the easiest time staying in front of Baylor, and Villanova needs all it can get from Robinson-Earl and Samuels on offense. But Georgetown got some pretty good looks when Villanova played zone. And Baylor’s such a good 3-point shooting team that I’d be scared to go zone.
Unless Baylor goes ice cold from three, I expect Baylor to have an efficient day. UNT scored well. The Bears have a much better offense than anyone in the Big East. Villanova’s going to have to give something up to Baylor, and the Wildcats don’t force many turnovers.
While I’m usually the biggest proponent of Baylor shooting 40 threes in a game, the Bears should look to get to the rim to start this game. Davion Mitchell is way too fast for Villanova’s guards, and if he drives, then the Bears will get kick-out threes and have a scrambling Villanova defense. That will set up offensive rebounding opportunities.
As bullish as I am on Baylor’s ability to score against Villanova, I have some hesitancy about how the defense will fare.
In the first game without Gillespie, Villanova tried to play inside. That led to a terrible loss to Providence.
In the next three games, Villanova shot every three imaginable. The Wildcats took 48.1%, 53.6% and 54.5% of their shots from deep in those contests. That rate would rank in the 87th, 95th and 96th percentile.
The Bears will likely make it tougher to make so many threes. UNT’s head coach Grant McCasland told the media after his program’s second round loss to Villanova, “You’ve got to figure out how you want to try to guard them in space. And in hindsight, getting after them would have been probably better. But they’re so physical and strong the way they drive it.”
Baylor should get out and pressure Villanova. That’s not going to lead to a ton of turnovers—Villanova ranks No. 1 in turnover rate and has turned it over on an impressive 11.4% or fewer possessions without Gillespie—but half-court pressure on the ball will make it tougher to shoot threes and get passes on time and on target to shooters.
Robinson-Earl and Samuels are unique challenges. The duo can both space the floor, though Robinson-Earl is only shooting 28% from three this year. I would not close out hard when he gets the ball from three. Instead, he wants to put the ball down and drive. But inside the arc, he’s a talented passer and adept driver. Mark Vital is probably the best matchup, and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua will probably draw the assignment when Baylor inserts him just before the 16 minute timeout.
The Wildcats play at a slow pace, but they can push the ball in transition. Both Robinson-Earl and Samuels can run the ball up the court. The Bears can get lackadaisical when a forward corrals a rebound. Attention is necessary against Villanova:
There are two other challenges for Baylor, beyond defending Robinson-Earl and Samuels. I don’t think Villanova will post them up consistently looking to score 30 inside. But they’ll use them as passers, which leads to the other threat.
First, Villanova can go nuclear from three. I’m a bit of a Bryan Antoine truther. The former 5-star prospect hasn’t done much in college. He battled a shoulder injury that caused him to miss quite a few games. He’s superb at getting open.
The other challenge is that Villanova might attack Baylor’s switches. Baylor iced a lot of ball screens against Hartford. If Baylor switches, it will either leave a guard defending talented bigs like Robinson-Earl and Samuels, or it will have big men trying to defend so many good shooting guards. Those guards can get to the hoop, but the bigger danger is that Baylor’s big men aren’t going to deter 3-point shots if they’re flying around the court.
If I’m Baylor, I’d continue to fly around defensively. I would plan to switch a lot of actions and just play to limit 3-point attempts. Baylor’s guards and forwards are good enough to recover against Villanova in the paint. The Bears don’t want to let Villanova shoot 35 threes and get hot.
I think Baylor is a good deal better than the Gillespie-less version of Villanova. If these teams played five times, I’d take Baylor to win four of them.
Villanova is terrifying though because it will take so many threes. And as I’ve detailed here all year, there’s not much the defense can do once the shot is released. If Villanova goes 18-of-35, then Baylor’s going to be in extreme danger.
My guess is that Baylor makes 3-point shooting a lot tougher for Villanova, and Chris Arcidiacono finds out Baylor’s a lot tougher defense than the four he’s played a major role against.
With Mitchell harassing the Wildcats, and a nice shooting day from Butler and Flagler, I’ll take Baylor 80-72.