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The Bounce: Will the Defense Hold Steady?

Examining the history of elite defenses, plus some football thoughts

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

This is the first installment of ‘The Bounce’, a new weekly column that will focus primarily on Baylor men’s basketball, but may venture into other aspects of Baylor sports fandom. ‘The Bounce’ will consist of a feature article, plus my smaller thoughts or notes I find interesting.

Now that the roster is settled, my biggest question about the 2020-2021 Bears is how the defense will fair. The roster turnover is limited, for sure, but did Baylor lose the one piece that a good defense just can’t lose? I dive into that question, plus bring forth some relevant history of how consistent top 10 defenses have been in recent years.

First, the most pertinent question in determining what will make or break the defense this season: what will happen at the center position? Scott Drew is getting back two key pieces from its 2019 wrecking crew in Davion Mitchell and Mark Vital, while losing perhaps the most essential piece in Freddie Gillespie. For those wanting a highly technical, detailed breakdown of last season’s defense, go here. The overview of how the Bears turned into a top 5 defense: Mitchell locked up opposing point guards, Gillespie held his ground both at the rim and when switched onto smaller players, Vital roamed the floor, and every other player gave supreme effort for all 48 minutes rotating and closing out on shooters.

The most important points of any defense are at the point of attack and at the rim. The versatility offered by the trio of Mitchell, Vital, and Gillespie allowed Baylor to play opponents straight up or by switching, as the situation required. Gillespie, with smooth feet and that tremendous wingspan, was particularly essential to Baylor’s adaptability. Without him, the Bears couldn’t have locked down the paint in the way they did last season. The big man was equally capable of sticking with opposing guards when switched out and of hanging around the rim to block or alter shots. Baylor allowed opponents to shoot a measly 44.4% from two-point range, a full 5% below the median national rate. That was in large part due to the disruption that Gillespie brought.

Gillespie’s presumptive replacement at center is Tristan Clark, who is now two years removed from knee surgery. He should be quicker than he was last season, when he looked like he was mired in quicksand on the defensive end. In 2020, Clark blocked only 4% of shots while fouling at a debaucherous 7.4 fouls per 40 minutes. The defense cannot maintain anything close to last season’s heights if Clark (or someone else who has a breakout season) can’t post better numbers than that at center.

There is some potential that Clark can be the anchor Baylor needs, but it will require a change to the defensive scheme. Even if he returns to his 2019 heights, Clark’s athleticism has primarily shown up as a rebounder and post player. To his credit, though, he has flashed some promise as a rim protector in his career. He posted a strong 9.6% block rate in 14 games in 2019 before his season-ending injury. He committed only 3.9 fouls per 40 minutes, too, which is a good sign that he is capable of defending the rim without fouling. Clark won’t be able to replicate Gillespie’s ability to switch out onto the perimeter, but there is potential he can hang back and adequately protect the paint.

Because Clark won’t be coming out to the perimeter as much as Gillespie, more pressure is on Mitchell and Vital to hold down the fort on the perimeter. Luckily, those two are truly special individual defenders, and Jared Butler and MaCio Teague are solid, as well. How well they contain penetration will determine how Baylor’s defense fairs. Clark won’t be able to come up as high on ball screens as Gillespie did, much less switch onto opposing point guards. That means the guards will have to fight over screens more often this season, something that could give ball handlers a head of steam going towards the basket. Can Clark deter dribblers in the paint without fouling? The answer to that question might be the answer to whether Baylor can maintain its high level defense.

To provide some context, I dug into how the top 10 defenses of the past five years have faired from year to year. The results aren’t exactly encouraging for Baylor’s prospects of repeating last season’s defensive success. It turns out, unless your Virginia, defense is highly volatile from year to year. Since 2016, the top 10 defenses by adjusted efficiency have turned over an average of 75% per year. In 2018, only one team (Virginia) made a repeat appearance as a top 10 defense. Only two teams have been in the top 10 each of the last three years (Virginia and Texas Tech). That’s not very many teams. On the other hand,

Tech’s ability to repeat could be taken as a positive sign for Baylor, since Baylor’s defense is modeled after Tech’s, but nothing is guaranteed.

For instance: the season following a top 10 appearance, defenses fell an average of 20 spots the following season. Now, having a top 25 defense would certainly still be enough for Baylor to contend (if the offense ticks up its efficiency, which isn’t out of the question). Given that Baylor’s defense has dropped by as many as 61 places in the rankings in the last five years, falling only 20 spots would be respectable. Of course, Baylor jumped up 71 places in the rankings from 2019 to reach number 4 in 2020. In the last five years, only 5 other teams rose 70 spots or more from the previous year to get to the top 10 (not including Baylor or West Virginia in 2020). Those five teams fell by an average of 30 spots the following year. One of those teams (Georgia Tech, 2017) dropped 55 spots the year following.

Now, those numbers don’t necessarily mean anything for how Baylor’s defense will fair this year. But the history around top 10 defenses suggests cautious optimism, at best.

Pickup Game

This is the section where I pick up and play with other bits of Baylor sports or some statistics that didn’t make it into the column. Disclaimer: I do not claim to have invented a “news and noteworthy” section to append to a feature article, only to have ripped it off.

  • The biggest climb then fall from those top 10 defense? That would be VCU in 2019. The Rams ranked 156th in 2018. Talk about a turnaround.
  • The biggest fall? Valparaiso under Bryce Drew, Scott Drew’s younger brother. After ranking 8th nationally in 2016, Valpo fell to 88th in 2017. Let’s hope things go better for Scott.
  • There has been some internet hem hawing about Baylor football this week. I’ll just ask this question: remember when we all collectively said this would be a free season for Dave Aranda and the program?
  • It’s either a life lesson or totally irrelevant: following an offseason of institutional turmoil that seemed to presage Mike Gundy’s exit, Oklahoma State appears to be the most complete team in the Big XII so far. Either that’s the result of a soft schedule or of Gundy’s ability to reconcile with his players and deal with relational difficulties head on. Even if it’s the former or some third option, I’d like to think it’s a good reminder that confronting conflict is the best way towards institutional health.
  • The Big XII knows how to build drama into its schedule. Baylor and Kansas are scheduled to face off in Lawrence for the final regular season game before the Big XII Tournament. Kansas is having to retool a bit more than usual and is among a number of successful programs to have recently fallen under some form of cloud or another (Arizona and Wichita State being two others). Can Baylor finally take home a conference title by beating the Jayhawks on their home courts? It’s a tantalizing thought.