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The Bears are Coming In Hot

Baylor basketball is living up to the billing so far

Scott Drew has the Baylor Bears rolling early despite a challenging opening slate with two proof of concept matchups against what look to be NCAA Tournament-quality SEC teams. The offense is still top-flight, the defense is improved with a higher gear that they can access when needed, and the vibes are absolutely immaculate. Let’s do a check-in on where Baylor stands nationally in some key areas and note the upcoming challenges still left on the non-conference schedule.

Week 3 Rankings

Baylor moved up 4 spots in the AP Poll this week from 13 to 9 in the latest rankings. The climb has been steady over the first three weeks (20 > 15 > 13 > 9) as the Bears have answered a few questions voters had to start the season (more below). That AP ranking is two spots above their kenpom.com ranking of 11, where Baylor is slotted just behind BYU (!!) at 10 and Tennessee at 9 (all KenPom and other statistical ratings are prior to Tuesday night games).

Baylor is ranked 13th per evenmiya.com, mostly because those ratings are more skeptical of Baylor’s defense (96th) than both voters and KenPom. We’ll talk a little more about why that may be below. In fact, let’s talk about that and a few other preseason questions that have started to clarify over the first three weeks.

Three Big Preseason Questions

There were three big questions for Drew and the team to answer coming into the season.

  1. How would a team gel bringing back just one starter and relying so heavily on transfers and freshmen?
  2. Would the defense be better?
  3. Who would be the closer?

We’ll answer them in order.

The Rotation is Already Set

With just six games in the books, Drew seems to have settled into a pretty reliable rotation, even if there’s still tinkering to do on the substitution patters. Here’s the breakdown:

Starters

  1. RayJ Dennis
  2. Jayden Nunn
  3. Ja’Kobe Walter
  4. Jalen Bridges
  5. Yves Missi

Rotation

  1. Langston Love
  2. Josh Ojianwuna
  3. Caleb Lohner
  4. Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua

Reserves

  1. Dantwan Grimes
  2. Miro Little

The headliner here is the starting lineup. Excluding the game against John Brown (because, well, that just was not fair at all) those five are a massive +25 in 39 minutes played. That puts them in the 97th percentile. It’s almost unfair, particularly on offense. Baylor has the number three KenPom offense and is shooting the absolute nets off the rim. The Bears aren’t taking that many threes so far this season (only 32% of their field goal attempts have been from deep compared to 44.9% last season and 38.4% in the title season) but they are making a blistering 45.7% of them. That’s absurd. The title team made 41.3% and was the top shooting team in the nation. Perhaps even more insane — Baylor has made 47.8% of its above-the-break threes, a full five percentage points higher than on its corner three attempts (42.3%). That’s usually the other way around. The D-I average so far this season is 34.8% from the corner and 32.4% from above the break. That deep shooting success is largely the work of Walter, who’s knocking in 48.3% of his threes.

The shot diet is solid, as well. A mid-range heavy team last season, the Bears are built to get downhill to the rim this season with more physical guard play. More shots are coming at the rim and the paint this time around. The finishing hasn’t been elite there yet, but the free throw rate has more than made up for it and has won its two toughest games. Baylor’s free throw rate is 50.2% (8th in KenPom). That’s a jump of nearly 14 percentage points from last season. In the wins over Auburn and Florida, the Bears were a combined 48-59 from the charity stripe. They’d shot 20+ free throw attempts in 5 of their 6 contests this season. Last year, it took them 12 games to hit that count. They got to 30+ attempts in 3 of the first 4 games, something it took 14 games to achieve last year. The year prior, they didn’t reach that 30 count in a single game, and they did it only once in the title season. Drew has commented that the new block/charge rule has helped this, but it’s also the case that Walter (no surprise) is a elite at getting to the charity stripe. He’s drawn nearly 8 fouls a game (26th nationally) and is averaging over 7 free throw attempts per game (32-36 FT, excluding the John Brown game). Baylor is playing a basketball analytics symphony with free throws, rim shots, and threes.

Brief note before moving on: Missi is good good, huh? Great defender and shot blocker (top 40 in block rate, 1.2 steals per game), great rebounder (top 25 offensive rebounding rate), and he can do this:

Defense is Better, but has Room to Grow

Last season, Baylor finished with the 107th ranked defense, per KenPom, which was pilloried as the reason for not going beyond the first weekend of the Tournament. This season, they’re up to 44th. Good, not great.

The good stuff: Baylor has done a good job of suppressing corner three attempts. They’re in the 87th percentile nationally in that area. And while more attempts are coming at the rim than is preferable (31%), teams are shooting 61.9% in the restricted area, slightly below average (Hello, Missi!). That’s livable, though still not great. Baylor’s also forcing teams to shoot in the midrange at a slightly above average rate (13.8% of shot attempts). Good, not great.

Potential problem areas: Opponents are only shooting 27% from deep so far, well below the 32.8% D-I average. As opponent quality jumps way, way up in conference play, Baylor will face much better shot makers from outside. While Baylor’s done a good job of denying the three ball so far, eventually teams are going to start making more of those. Baylor is also in the bottom quartile in allowing teams to shoot from the paint and the 48th percentile allowing shots at the rim. While Missi and Ojianwuna have so far been able to ward off some shots, it’s a troubling statistic. To the eye, Baylor seems to want to switch just one through four and is willing to allow more paint touches to opponents as long as the big is able to sag into the paint. Will that be able to hold up against elite perimeter play? We’ll see.

Walter is That Dude, and Dennis is Settling In

When looking at the roster coming into the season, there were questions about who would take over games in the clutch when the team needed a basket. Well, two candidates have boldly stepped up to the plate. Against Auburn, Walter dropped a record 28 points in his debut; against Florida, Dennis made big play after big play in a tight game with 24 points and 8 assists. Both have been stout defensively and, along with Nunn, can really lock down in crunch time. Baylor is +79.4 in net rating with those three on the floor together. That’s a top tier elite backcourt.

With Walter establishing himself as a potential top-five draft prospect and Dennis adjusting to the step up in competition, Baylor seems well positioned to close out close games as the season progresses.

Looking Ahead

Still left on the schedule before the calendar roles over: Seton Hall in Waco (61st in KenPom), Michigan State in Detroit (20th), and Duke in Madison Square Garden (12th). That’s three more snapshots to take of the team as they head into conference play. Will Baylor be 13-0 when they go to Stillwater on January 6th? Probably not. But if they are? Expectations will be wildly high.

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