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Baylor-Houston Final Four Mega Preview: Why I think Baylor makes the title game

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A thorough look at the Final Four

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Arkansas at Baylor Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

No. 1 seed Baylor (26-2) takes on No. 2 seed Houston (28-3) at 4:15 CT on Saturday in Lucas Oil Stadium for a trip to the national championship game. The game airs on CBS.

Baylor opened as a four point favorite in Vegas. The line has moved on all major books, and the Bears are listed as five point favorite on WynnBet.

The analytics websites have things a bit closer. KenPom likes Baylor by a point and has it as a 51% favorite. Torvik likes Houston by one, and gives Baylor a 45% chance to win. Evan Miya likes Baylor by 3.5 points and gives the Bears a 60% chance to win. And FiveThrityEight gives Baylor a 59% chance to win.

All those websites, and even Vegas, expect this to be a close game. This does not figure to be the drubbing Gonzaga will put on UCLA.

The Cougars have a few tough losses, but they’ve pounded a bevy of squads. Despite whatever the world thought about Illinois (I told people Loyola would beat them), this is the best team Baylor’s played this season.

Given it’s the Final Four, we’ll take a look at playing offense against the opponent, then turn to defense. Finally, we’ll close with a prediction.

Offense:

This should be an ugly game. Houston slows the game down. The Cougars get right into people. They’ll foul. And they’ll bang around to force quite a few turnovers.

Houston will switch its pick-and-roll looks. The Bears are running far more pick-and-rolls in the NCAA Tournament than earlier in the season. That should continue in this one.

The Cougars will probably try to trap when Baylor keeps Flo Thamba and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua on the court with Mark Vital. Houston loves to pressure the ball and make passing difficult.

Despite that preference, Houston will have to decide if it can send so many guys toward the ball and potentially leave 3-point shooters open on the weak-side or the side of the court that does not feature the ball. Usually that’s a good defensive strategy. Quentin Grimes and DeJon Jarreau—the AAC Defensive Player of the Year—are bigger guards. But Jared Butler’s evisceration of Kansas State in Manhattan showed that leaving the weak-side open against Baylor is a rough strategy:

Davion Mitchell’s played at a new tier recently. He earned my vote—and I’d surmise was probably the unanimous pick by the rest of the media—for the South Region’s most outstanding player. Houston may try to switch pick-and-rolls. But with how well Mitchell gets going, Houston probably wants to try and avoid someone slower guarding Mitchell.

While I normally claim that 3-point percentage defense is a mirage, Houston might actually be splendid at 3-point defense. The Cougars were the best team in the American this season (imbalanced scheduling and a nice performance from Wichita State denied them the regular season crown). Some opponents fired triples hoping for the benefit from getting hot beyond the arc. But even teams that aren’t just hunting a million threes have trouble with Houston. The Cougars swarm shots and make passing difficult. Every shooter wants the pass “on time and on target.” With the Cougars, it’s difficult to get passes that fit that parameter.

Sometimes Houston’s switches have not been great. The Cougars will mess up whether they’re switching—every team makes that mistakes from time-to-time—and also screw up the timing on when to pass someone off to the other defender in a switch. I think Baylor has some potential with Matthew Mayer as a pick-and-pop screener for 3-point attempts. Memphis got an open look in the American Tournament:

I’ve highlighted areas where I think Baylor can succeed against Houston’s offense. That should not lead to overconfidence. The Cougars guards are big, and Baylor doesn’t have a frontcourt where the Bears will throw it into the post looking to score 25 on Houston. The Cougars are a top 10 defense. They make it very difficult to make shots.

Opponents have gotten lots of shots at the rim against Houston, but they’ve done a terrible job there. Check out this data from CBB Analytics on how poorly Houston’s opponents shoot:

With how good Houston’s offense is, Baylor probably can’t win this game shooting as poorly as it did against Villanova. A 3-of-19 performance from deep likely ends the season. But the Bears have some avenues to get to the rim, and they shouldn’t be discouraged if the intensity of playing Houston leaves them shooting worse from the perimeter.

Defense:

On Jim Rome’s show yesterday, Kelvin Sampson said, “We don’t shoot it well enough to live off first shots.”

With Houston mediocre at making shots, the Cougars thrive with offensive rebounding and by rarely turning it over.

Given Houston’s No. 2 in offensive rebounding and Baylor is No. 273 in defensive rebounding, some would fear, “Wait, isn’t Houston just going to grab about every offensive rebound and win this game?”

Basketball is unique, which makes the answer complicated. Jordan Sperber, the publisher of hoop-vision and a former Nevada assistant, looked at a concept called “opponent compatibility.” The basic idea was to see if a team dominated one factor, did it perform better against teams awful in that factor? His research found teams didn’t. Great teams dominated a category over a full season, but they weren’t likely to dominate at a higher level against the worst teams in that category.

To test out if Houston’s offensive rebounding correlates to opponent defensive rebounding, I plotted Houston’s offensive rebounding percentage in every game against the opponent’s defensive rebounding rate. These stats are from KenPom. It turns out that Houston does not offensive rebound at a higher level based on opponent quality:

While the Cougars did very well against some bad opponents (like the above graphs, a higher ranking on the Y-Axis is bad; Houston’s higher ranking on the X-axis for any data point is good). It turns out that the correlation between opponent defensive rebounding ranking and Houston’s offensive rebounding is about 4%.

Looking at the graph, there are several examples that bear this out. Houston rebounded fewer than 25% of its misses against sub 150 defensive rebounding squads. It also grabbed greater than 35% against four teams that rank in the top 50 in defensive rebounding.

The story for teams that are great at something is over the course of a full season they’ll dominate a category. But they don’t suddenly hit a higher plane against really awful teams, or forget how to be good in that category against pretty solid teams in that category.

Turning to Baylor, the Bears do have a higher correlation between opponent offensive rebounding quality and how poorly Baylor does defensive rebounding. Another chart!

Baylor’s defensive rebounding woes are about 31% explained by opponent quality (meaning Baylor does do worse as the teams are better at offensive rebounding; though the relationship is fairly limited). That’s not enough to get you published in academia, but it’s enough to wonder if there is some relationship in the real world.

That’s a long route to offering my view that Houston will probably collect a lot of offensive rebounds. As I’ve said continuously—but I’ll repeat again for the newcomers—Baylor’s defense is going to be mediocre to bad at defensive rebounding.

Basketball is like life. Every decision involves tradeoffs. I have not gone to the gym and started going out more since I’ve fully vaccinated. But that means your boy isn’t quite as skinny as he was earlier in the year (quite might be an understatement). I took the tradeoff of enjoying life more over the benefit of being more attractive. Similarly, Baylor’s defense decides to fly around like wild—with a bit less size—to force more turnovers and make shooting difficult. The Bears could plunk two players in the post and refuse to help. That would solve the defensive rebounding problem, but it would mean Baylor would stop turning people over. The Bears have picked their tradeoff and understand the consequences.

Tradeoffs aren’t absolute though. The Bears can do little things to improve defensive rebounding. When the shot goes up, Baylor sometimes struggles to have bigs find a man to box out. That’s not a constant problem, but it’s enough of one. When I’m not going to the gym and am gobbling down BBQ and wings, I could maybe remember that I don’t need to also eat a bunch of lemon Kit Kats during the day. We’re not asking for perfection—though as I’m days away from turning 30 maybe it’s time to get a little closer to that—just a few slight changes to boost rebounding.

The Cougars are led by Grimes. He won AAC Player of the Year. For anyone that just remembers his run at Kansas, the dude is completely different. Grimes was fairly bad at Kansas. When he transferred to Houston, I didn’t think he’d accomplish anything. Grimes proved me completely wrong. He’s hit 41% of his unbelievably high 240 triples. Baylor’s guards can’t lose him.

Jarreau and Marcus Sasser will take threes too. Jarreau is shooting 35% from three and Sasser is down to 32%. But I think Sasser is capable of breaking out from distance. He shot 35% last year, and he still takes a ton of threes. If Houston wins, I would not be shocked if he goes nuclear.

Can Baylor turn Houston over? If we don’t get one team going insane from three, this might decide the game. Houston ranks No. 41 in turnover rate. While ranking 41st in the small spaces we move in life isn’t that impressive, in a 351 team sport, it is.

I think the Bears can. With the small sample size of the NCAA Tournament, Baylor ranks No. 1 in adjusted turnover rate, per Torvik. The Bears have an adjusted turnover rate of 25.2%. Villanova ranked No. 1 nationally in offensive turnover rate. Wisconsin ranked No. 3. Baylor turned Villanova over on 28% of its possessions and Wisconsin over on 23% of its possessions. That’s over 10 points higher than either team’s adjusted average. To paraphrase Mike Tyson, “Everyone’s got a plan to not turn the ball over until they see Davion Mitchell opposite them.” He’s the fulcrum in Baylor’s turnover apparatus. But Jared Butler and Mark Vital are top 15 defenders nationally, and MaCio Teague’s wingspan, Matt Mayer’s inability to care about an opponent’s personal space, and Adam Flagler’s instincts, make Baylor a threat to swipe anyone.

Prediction:

There’s a part of me that thinks the past year is just a series of “wow, everything is about to be awesome but not really” so we’re going to get denied Baylor-Gonzaga. And I don’t see the Bruins beating the Bulldogs.

The sport’s two best teams are clearly Gonzaga and Baylor. The analytic sites that rank Houston near or above Baylor input seven games of post-COVID Baylor. That’s keeping Baylor too low, which probably explains why Vegas has a lot more confidence in Baylor. Before the pause Baylor ranked No. 7 in adjusted defense. During the tournament, it’s ranked No. 12. That’s pretty strong evidence for Adam Flagler’s belief that, “I definitely think (the defense) its back.”

Houston is a one heck of a team though. I had the Cougars making the Final Four (again, I can’t stress how much the media needs a deep examination of why it thought Illinois was suddenly amazing for dominating the Big 10 after Baylor throttled it and a bleh Mizzou team beat it). If Houston gets hot, it can beat Baylor.

The country needs Baylor-Gonzaga, and it will get the matchup. The vaccines are crushing the pandemic (variant, sharmiant, we’re coming back!), and things are going well. Butler has a vintage performance, and Mitchell shuts down Houston. One of Mayer or Teague will have a big game from deep, and despite missing some free throws late—and causing crushing anxiety among the fanbase—Baylor wins 64-60.