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Scott Drew on the Frontier of Replacing Talent

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The three-time Big 12 Coach of the Year is doing things rarely seen in men’s basketball.

NCAA Basketball: Championship-Baylor at Michigan State Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

All season long, we’ve heard how Baylor lost four starters from their National Championship team and platitudes about how impressive it is to keep winning without them.

I’m here to quantify exactly how impressive this season has been.

What Baylor Lost

Davion Mitchell. Jared Butler. MaCio Teague. Mark Vital. An NBA lottery pick, a 2nd round NBA pick, a G-league starter, and an NFL tight end. 60% of Baylor’s minutes, 63% of points scored, 52% of rebounds collected, and 62% of steals/blocks.

Sure, other schools have to make up for lost talent, too. In fact, 49 other schools (14% of Division I teams) had to replace as large of a share of minutes, points, rebounds, and blocks/steals as Baylor in the 2021-2022 season alone.(*)

*I’m ignoring Ivy League schools in the 2021-2022 season since they didn’t play in the 2020-2021 season.

But replacing 60% of a team’s productivity when that productivity is below average is less of a challenge than replacing 60% of a team’s productivity when it leads the country.

Baylor’s departing players registered 1,579 points, 512 rebounds, and 234 steals/blocks in the 2020-2021 season; those numbers rank 11th, 49th, and 7th in the country among non-returning players. Forget conditioning on non-returning players — that’s more points than 133 entire teams scored!

Only 4 teams in the 2021-2022 season lost players with that kind of production: Baylor, Creighton, Georgia, and Minnesota. Over the last 10 years, it’s only happened to 6% of teams.

Said differently, Baylor started the season in the unenviable position of replacing more on-court productivity than 343 other schools. If that’s where the story ended, we’d all be using it as an excuse for a lackluster season. A rebuilding year. Oh reader, there is so much more.

What Baylor Won

At the end of the regular season, the 2021-2022 Baylor MBB team posted an 84% win percentage and the 4th best “Simple Rating System” rating in the country.

*Per Sport’s Reference, the Simple Rating System is, “A rating that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule. The rating is denominated in points above/below average, where zero is average. Non-Division I games are excluded from the ratings.” It was the easiest metric I could find for ~350 schools across multiple seasons.

How do teams with similar SRS ratings compare in terms of lost productivity? Among the top 10 teams in SRS, Baylor had the fewest returning minutes and points, fourth fewest returning rebounds, and second fewest returning steals/blocks.

To put into a broader perspective of what Baylor accomplished, I’ve created two scatter plots. The first shows the year-end SRS rating for each team in the Big 12 since its inception plotted against the team’s returning minutes from the prior season. Baylor’s seasons are highlighted in green.

From the positive correlation in the data, you can see that the more talent a team needs to replace, the harder it is to achieve a high SRS rating. Teams along the frontier — those that register the highest SRS rating for a given share of returning minutes — define what we know to be possible.

The 2020-2021 season was obviously special for Baylor. That team posted one of the highest SRS ratings in Big 12 history, including the highest SRS rating for Baylor since joining the Big 12. They benefited from an above average share of returning minutes, and their experience and chemistry obviously played dividends.

The 2021-2022 team is also pretty special. While their SRS rating isn’t as high as the 2020-21 team’s, only one other school in Big 12 history has recorded a higher SRS rating with a smaller share of returning minutes — the 2018-2019 Texas Tech team. You may remember them as the runner-up in the National Championship game.

The next plot shows the same variables as the first plot, but for every Division I team in the country over the last 10 years. There’s still a positive relationship between SRS rating and returning minutes, and both the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 seasons are near the boundary.

There are a few teams that have pushed the SRS-returning minutes frontier past the 2022 Baylor team, but not many. They include Duke (2017-18, 2018-19), Gonzaga (2016-17, 2019-20), Kentucky (2016-17), and the aforementioned Texas Tech (2018-19).

Baylor Men’s Basketball may once again lose four key players at the end of the season, but if there’s any coach out there prepared to fill the gap, it’s 3-time Big 12 Coach of the Year Scott Drew.