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Baylor-Arkansas Preview, Prediction and How to Watch: Why I think the Bears Make the Final Four

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Villanova at Baylor Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Indianapolis- No. 1 seed Baylor (25-2) takes on No. 3 seed Arkansas (25-6) at 8:57 on Monday in Lucas Oil Stadium. The game airs on CBS.

Baylor opened as a five point favorite. The line has moved in Baylor’s favor. The Bears are now favored by 7.5 points.

With a quick turnaround, we’ll do a shortened version of our usual preview. We’ll start with playing offense against the opponent, then turn to defense. Finally, we’ll close with a prediction.

Offense:

To use NFL lingo, Arkansas is a multiple team. The Razorbacks will guard in a variety of ways. Eric Musselman mentioned at today’s press conference that his squad went to its fourth pick-and-roll defense against Oral Roberts.

The strangest thing about playing Arkansas is how quickly its defensive tempo is. Opponents shoot immediately against Arkansas, as the Razorbacks rank 8th in how quickly possessions end. Only Gonzaga and Alabama rank in the top 35 in adjusted defensive tempo and play so effectively. I asked Scott Drew about that today, and he mentioned that Arkansas speeds opponents up by forcing turnovers.

I’d expect Arkansas to mix up coverages. Baylor’s quite good at eventually figuring out a single defensive alignment. I would not expect Arkansas to drop much. Wisconsin tried that, and Baylor went dunk city.

Arkansas will probably soft trap and switch. That’s similar to the smartest strategy about Baylor, and the one Kansas used against Baylor. That will force Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Flo Thamba to make some plays if Baylor runs a bunch of middle pick-and-rolls.

I’d expect both teams to play smaller for a lot of this game. Baylor hasn’t played the Fival (Mark Vital at the five) for extended minutes in the tournament. But this is probably the game for that. Arkansas doesn’t play too many giants, and the Bears will need to be quick.

Moses Moody stars for Arkansas on defense. At 6-foot-6 with good body control and strong instincts, he’s tough to beat off the dribble or finish over. Baylor will probably run dribble weaves and other actions to avoid driving at Moody. He’s a high-IQ helper:

Can Baylor shoot as poorly as it did against Villanova and win this game? That’s probably the ultimate question. Baylor went 3-of-19 from three against Villanova. The Bears have improved immensely on defense—holding all NCAA Tournament opponents below one adjusted point per possession. Every Baylor opponent scored at least one adjusted point per possession in the seven pre-NCAA Tournament games after the pause. As Adam Flagler said today about the defense, “It’s definitively back to where we want it to be.” But I think Arkansas is just a bit better than Villanova, so I don’t believe Baylor will win if it shoots that poorly from deep.

It’s hard to imagine Baylor shooting so poorly a second time. The Bears had plenty of good looks against Villanova. While some were off the dribble, Baylor’s a good 3-point shooting team off the dribble. Jared Butler is due to break out from distance, and if Arkansas elects to scramble away from the ball, MaCio Teague is ready to fire too.

Defense:

Arkansas played Texas Tech in the Round of 32. I asked Eric Musselman today if that helped his team prepare. Both teams play version of a “no middle” defense where the goal is usually to keep the ball out of the middle (though Baylor isn’t as stringent about that as Texas Tech. Musselman said that there are similarities schematically, but that the different personnel meant the comparison was not perfect.

I do think there are some instructive things about the Texas Tech game. Arkansas did a nice job beating Texas Tech in the middle. The Razorbacks ran a lot of dribble hand-offs, and Texas Tech didn’t do the best job all the time.

Davonte Davis, one of Arkansas’s starting guards, met with the media today. He mentioned that Baylor likes to help on dribble penetration, so it would be important for the Razorbacks to kick out and make 3-point shots.

Arkansas isn’t the best 3-point shooting team, so we’ll see how many triples Arkansas feels comfortable taking. Against Texas Tech, Arkansas took 10 baseline 2-point jumpers. That’s a ton, and a sign that Arkansas might be comfortable taking more pull-up twos than most teams.

As always, Baylor is a unique challenge on the ball. The Bears make simple passes difficult. Villanova had nine second half turnovers. The Wildcats had 12 total in four halves of basketball to open the tournament (the Winthrop and UNT games). No matter how well you think you’re ready, there’s something different about playing Davion Mitchell. And the rest of Baylor’s coterie of defenders, especially in the Fival, are above-average to elite.

Arkansas has decent length with Moody and scores well near the hoop. Justin Smith has been playing almost the entire game lately, and he allows Arkansas to go small. He’s 6-foot-7 and a monster near the rim, per this chart from CBB-Analytics:

That fits Arkansas’s general patter: getting to the hoop and making shots there. Per CBB Analytics again, the Razorbacks are amazing near the basket:

If I’m Baylor, I’d look to get small as much as possible and switch everything. The Bears want to be fast and make Arkansas make triples.

There’s a case that Baylor shouldn’t let Arkansas take a bunch of threes. The Bears are the better team. If these teams played 10 times, Baylor would probably win eight. And if Arkansas takes a bunch of threes, maybe it goes nuclear and gets lucky enough to win.

But Arkansas is so much better near the hoop. The Razorbacks rank 188th in 3-point accuracy and 252nd in 3-point attempts. This team isn’t usually looking to let loose from three.

I see paths to Arkansas scoring, but barring an unbelievable shooting day from three, it’s hard to envision Arkansas approaching the offensive tier that some of the teams left in the field can attain.

Prediction:

Every game from here is the biggest in Baylor basketball history. The 1948 and 1950 Final Four teams played in a different era. Basketball wasn’t as important, and let’s be real, every member of Baylor’s rotation would wax anybody on the floor back then.

The difference between this team and the 2010 and 2012 teams is the talent Baylor has. Both those squads were good. Anybody that makes it this far can win a title. The 2014 Connecticut Huskies prove things get weird in the single elimination format. But this is a different level. Butler and Mitchell are better than anybody on those teams, and even as deep as the 2012 Bears were, Matthew Mayer, Flagler and Tchamwa Tchatchoua form a better bench.

Baylor just has a little too much talent for Arkansas. The Bears put two years into winning this game. Butler is due to break out of his shooting slump, and Teague should step up and hit some big shots inside. I’ll take Baylor 78-69.