Stop me if you’ve heard this one before — a number one seed Baylor basketball team opens up March Madness against a 16 seed. This year, our opponent is the Norfolk State Spartans (24-6) from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
Baylor is the overwhelming favorite to win this game. Here are three stats that will determine if the Bears glide on to the next round or find themselves in a nail-biter.
Three Point Offense
Without LJ Cryer, Baylor has struggled behind the three point arc. But if there were ever a time for Flagler and Mayer to step up their shooting, it’s the NCAA Tournament! This is a game where efficient three point shooting will be especially devastating.
Baylor is an OK three point shooting team. The Bears convert on 34% of their attempts (171st in the country), though they prefer to attack from inside the arc, as their three point rate is only 38% (178th in the country).
Norfolk State has a respectable defense. They hold their opponents to a 3 percentage point lower two point shooting percentage (92nd in the country) and a 3 percentage point lower three point shooting percentage (45th in the country).
What’s interesting about Norfolk State is not how well their opponents shoot the ball, but from where they shoot the ball. Teams register an incredible 8.6 percentage point higher three point rate about Norfolk State than they average in other games (353rd in the country — lower is better).
Whether an intentional defensive strategy or a weakness that opposing coaches believe they can exploit, Norfolk State gives up more significantly more three point attempts than expected. If Baylor can knock down these looks, I don’t think Norfolk State has enough firepower to keep up.
“As a general rule, underdogs can make upsets more likely by introducing more randomness into a game — whether by slowing the game’s pace (thereby giving the favorite fewer possessions over which to flex its advantage in talent) or playing high-risk, high-reward strategies like shooting a lot of 3-pointers or trying to generate a lot of steals and turnovers on defense.” - FiveThirtyEight.com
Norfolk State is not built for upsets. Per KenPom, they are just about average in adjusted tempo, meaning they aren’t accustomed to an abnormally slow pace of play. They don’t attempt many three point shots — their three point rate is only 36% (231st in the country) — and they are only an average three point shooting teams at a 34% shooting percentage (168th in the country).
That’s two strikes against the underdog. Will generating turnovers be the Spartan’s saving grace?
When Baylor has the ball, they turn it over 17% of the time (171st in the country). Not great, but good enough to win games, especially when their opponent is not good at creating turnovers. Norfolk State’s opponents have a 0.4 percentage point lower turnover rate against the Spartans than they average in other games (222nd in the country).
It gets worse. Not only is Norfolk State not equipped to generate a lot of turnovers on defense, their offense will probably give up the ball a lot this game.
Baylor forces their opponents into turning the ball over 3.6 percentage points more often than their opponents average in other games (24th in the country). Norfolk State turns the ball quite frequently, averaging a 19% turnover rate (296th in the country).
The Spartans do not win this game if Baylor wins the turnover battle 12 to 16.
Free Throw Differential
Norfolk’s best two stats of any category are free throw rate and opponent’s free throw percentage. The Spartans attempt 3.9 free throws for every 10 field goal attempts (15th in the country), but they only make 69% of them (253rd in the country).
Baylor does a decent job defending without fouling, holding their opponents to a 3.4 percentage point lower free throw rate than their opponents average in other games (103rd in the country).
On offense, Baylor only attempts 2.9 free throws for every 10 field goal attempts (226th in the country), and they also make less than 70% of them (237th in the country).
Norfolk State’s defense probably won’t have a big effect on Baylor’s free throw rate, as the Spartans typically hold their opponents to only a 0.4 percentage point lower free throw rate (184th in the country). That said, they do tend to foul disproportionally worse free throw shooters, as Norfolk State’s opponents register a 6 percentage point worse free throw rate than they average in other games (7th in the country).
If this game is close, it’s because Norfolk State is getting to the charity stripe frequently and shooting abnormally well.
Ken Pom Prediction: Baylor 79, Norfolk State 61