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Oklahoma State at Baylor Preview and How to Watch: Why I Like Baylor Over Cade Cunningham’s Cowboys

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This will be a tough test

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at Oklahoma State Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

No. 3 Baylor (19-1, 11-1) takes on No. 17 Oklahoma State (17-6, 10-6) at 6:00 tomorrow in the Ferrell Center. The game airs on ESPN2.

Baylor won the original meeting 81-69. After going through warmups, projected No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, Cade Cunningham, could not play that game because of his recovery from COVID-19. He’ll play tomorrow.

As always, we’ll take a look at playing offense against the opponent, then turn to defense. Finally, we’ll close with a prediction.

Offense:

Oklahoma State’s 2-3 zone flummoxed the Bears for a bit of the first half. The Bears got some okay looks, but the Cowboys got the Bears a bit out of sorts. Baylor’s shot selection was okay, but they couldn’t score as well at the rim.

In the second half, Baylor opened up the offense.

First, the Bears were great at moving the ball from one side to the other. Butler, Davion Mitchell, Mark Vital and Adam Flagler all rate as elite at making cross-court passes. Those passes put pressure on Oklahoma State to immediately rotate, which opened up driving lanes:

Mitchell and Butler are skilled bounce passers too. Baylor can work Vital in the middle of the zone because he’s quick and good with the ball , as evidenced by his performance against Syracuse in the 2019 NCAA Tournament. A lot of zones become weaker when the ball gets in the middle because it forces defenders to crash. Baylor can make that happen:

Per usual, Baylor also broke the game open by going to the Fival. With Vital at the five, he rolled hard to the hoop, which opened up shots for Butler. He finished 6-of-7 from deep and ended any dream the Cowboys had of upsetting the Bears:

Baylor will likely run zone-fist crack for a bucket or two. Kansas destroyed Duke in the 2018 Elite Eight with that play. The Jayhawks accidentally created that play when preparing to play Baylor’s old 1-3-1/1-1-3 zone, as Jesse Newell details here.

I asked Drew about that set after the inaugural game, and he said, “We’ve actually run that for that several years. Because we’d play all that zone, and they’d (Kansas) run it all the time. The smart take from the strong. It was wide open in the first half, but Matt lost the ball.” That’s all very true, and with how Mayer played against West Virginia, I’d expect him to finish the play if it gets open in Waco:

Ultimately the Bears should be thrilled with their offensive performance in Stillwater. The Bears scored a blistering 1.19 points per possession (PPP). They also had a fantastic shot chart; there are very few bad shots here (filled in bubbles are makes):

Baylor attempted very few long 2’s against Oklahoma State

Returning from COVID-19, Baylor’s offense has been solid. The Bears scored 1.25 PPP against West Virginia, and perhaps most importantly, shot 13-of-31 from three. Mitchell made threes off the dribble, and Butler and Matthew Mayer made clutch buckets. The Bears’ woes against Kansas are largely attributed to a 6-of-26 performance from deep, as the shot chart still looks okay (though a few more mid-range looks than Baylor wanted):

The Bears went just 2-of-18 on non-corner threes. That probably (hopefully) won’t happen again for the country’s No. 1 3-point shooting club. So I do think Kansas was an outlier offensively. The Jayhawks are also playing extremely well. Combine Baylor’s two problems—just returning and Kansas’ improvement—and that covers a situation that doesn’t fit the particulars of the Oklahoma State game.

After the West Virginia performance, I would go as far as saying that Baylor is 95% back offensively. The Bears were active on the offensive glass, particularly Mark Vital. And they made a bevy of threes. Butler, Teague, Mitchell and Mayer looked as good as ever; Flagler played exceptionally against Iowa State, which indicates he’s not feeling the malaise from the pause.

So even with Cade Cunningham back, I wouldn’t expect Baylor to struggle on offense. The other side of the court remains the issue.

Defense:

The question for Baylor remains on defense. The Bears ranked No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency in January. The Bears are now 20th.

The Cyclones made several threes, including starting 7-of-8. Some (including me) made the reasonable (maybe it wasn’t, and I’m retrospectively trying to justify being wrong—or am in love with parenthesis in this sentence that’s already too long) case that Iowa State’s performance was an anomaly.

But Kansas destroyed Baylor inside, suggesting the defensive woes weren’t fully explained by Iowa State going supernova. The Jayhawks went 3-of-18 from deep, which might have undersold Baylor’s defensive travails in that game.

West Virginia played a lot of isolation basketball. Sometimes Sean McNeil hit ridiculously tough shots. But still, the Bears struggled to contain guards off the bounce.

The Mountaineers scored 1.19 PPP and got to the line 32 times. A few calls went against Baylor in both of their last contests, but the Bears are fouling because they’re not as spry limiting drives.

So there is a fair concern about if Baylor can limit Oklahoma State like it did in January. Teague and Vital defended inside and outside at the highest level. Oklahoma State tried to take Teague inside when he played the four, and it tried to take Vital outside when he played the five. Trying didn’t equal success:

With the background that Baylor will likely struggle to contain dribble penetration, it’s at least a positive that Baylor made way fewer defensive lapses against West Virginia than it did against Kansas. The second half against Kansas was by far the worst defensive performance by any Baylor team in the last two seasons. The TCU loss last season could be explained by Desmond Bane, a good NBA player now, going nuclear. Saturday had too many baffling mistakes (the only full video of the game has this dude in the bottom, so that’s why some guy is there; also more parenthesis!):

I’m a little more optimistic about Baylor’s defense though. Saturday’s problem was twofold. First, Baylor didn’t communicate switches well on the perimeter. Tuesday that got fixed. Second, Baylor had a lot of possession where it played 20 second stretches of good defense. Then the Bears made horrendous errors: From not understanding where the ball was, so they’d miss box outs, to ignoring better shooters for worse ones, the Bears made a bunch of bad mistakes.

That paragraph is obviously quite harsh, but that’s because the outright Big 12 champions have high expectations. They didn’t make those same errors on Tuesday. But the problem remains about how well Baylor can handle isolation defense. The Bears still seem just a tad uncertain and off containing drives.

Cunningham presents a unique challenge because he scores at every level. He doesn’t need much space. He’ll mix in a quality step-back with good range (42% from deep). If Baylor’s off in staying in front, he’ll get to the hoop too:

Cunningham ranks 4th in the Big 12 at drawing fouls. With his size—he’s 6’8—and pristine passing, teams like to crowd him. But he has advanced basketball IQ, so if he gets a step on the perimeter, he’ll crash into the helping defender for free throws:

Against Baylor, I fear he might get baseline and hit shooters on the other corner. Baylor’s “no middle” defense will often give up these driving lanes. They’ll probably send a helper earlier to make this kind of pass tougher:

There’s not a set formula for slowing Cunningham. Oklahoma State scored pretty effectively inside, and so did David McCormack on Saturday. I’d probably play Cunningham straight up with doubles ready to come early. While I normally lean toward Baylor not helping off 3-point shooters—because variance in 3-point shooting is one of the best ways to beat the Bears—I’d gamble that the Cowboys 3-point shooting isn’t enough to beat Baylor.

Cunningham can be quite inconsistent. For all the hype after he scored 40 points against Oklahoma on Saturday, he followed it with 3-of-8 shooting against Oklahoma on Monday (though he went 9-of-10 from the charity stripe). He’ll drop 20 points with ease, then he’ll have games, like against Texas, where he goes 2-of-17 or 3-9 (TCU).

There’s no doubt Cunningham is worthy of a top three pick in the draft. Most peg him as the favorite to go No. 1, and that’s rational. His feel for the game and potential make him overwhelming when he’s playing to his best. But the Bears will probably make him deal with some confusing looks late in the shot clock to increase his turnovers. He has at least six in Oklahoma State’s last seven games.

If Baylor can keep the Cowboys away from the restricted area, I like its chances. Oklahoma State missed a lot of paint chances outside of the circle in the first meeting:

If you go through Oklahoma State’s recent games, the pattern repeats itself. The Cowboys just aren’t great from outside the restricted area. So I think Baylor can keep the Cowboys in that zone, and make life tougher.

Isaac Likekele’s status remains uncertain. He didn’t play Monday, and Mike Boyton said that he wasn’t ready to go after shootaround. Although he only went 1-of-9 from the field in their the first game, he dished seven assists. I’m expecting him to play. If he doesn’t, Baylor obviously has one fewer threat to match.

Prediction:

If Cunningham plays to his ceiling, Oklahoma State has a real chance to win this game. If he doesn’t, the Cowboys still might get hot enough from three to overwhelm Baylor.

My guess is that Baylor’s offensive improvement against West Virginia is real. The Bears just have too many superb 3-point shooters for most teams to handle. And if the Cowboys trot out the zone, Baylor will carve it up. Add in Flo Thamba’s nice sealing lately, and I expect Baylor to score a ton.

The Cowboys will have plenty of chances to score too; the burden of proof is on Baylor to show its the defense it was from November to January. I expect Jerome Tang and Alvin Brooks, the coaches that focus on the defense, have been grinding away to get the best out of that side of the ball.

Maybe there’s a Big 12 title hangover, but I think losing to Kansas keeps this group inspired. I’ll say Flagler plays well, and Baylor knocks off Oklahoma State 80-72.