The Longhorns open Big 12 conference play on the road against a talented but inconsistent Baylor Bears squad, with a Saturday afternoon tip at 1:00 pm CT on ESPNU.
Baylor fans bristle when you pick on Scott Drew, which is understandable to an extent -- next to Dave Bliss, he is a saint -- but even Bears loyalists must have been shaking their heads in December when Baylor was upset at home by College of Charleston one week, only to go into Rupp Arena and knock off Kentucky the next.
Thus it was and will always be with Scott Drew. There's no question that Baylor's head coach is doing an outstanding job assembling elite talent (although there are questions about whether he's doing it within the rules), but Drew consistently demonstrates an astounding inability to understand the resources at his disposal and how best to deploy them so as to extract the most value from them.
Case in point? Scott Drew's fixation with exotic zone defenses that even Manny Diaz thinks are fundamentally unsound. There's nothing wrong with a coach masterfully installing a different look on defense that other teams do not see very often but which his team will know how to execute to perfection -- particularly as an effort to create an advantage for a team that will otherwise be disadvantaged due to its limitations. But that is, of course, the exact opposite situation of Scott Drew's at Baylor, where he is taking a group of elite talent that otherwise would have various advantages, doing a subpar job installing and teaching his squad to play funky zone defenses, and giving away those advantages. There was a ray of hope for Drew after last year when he finally decided to ditch the facepalm-inducing 1-3-1 zone defense of recent seasons past... only to install an equally facepalm-inducing 3-2 zone defense for this season. Double facepalm? Double facepalm.
Season To Date
The Bears wrapped up non-conference play 8-4 against a substantially stronger non-conference schedule than Texas played. Baylor notched quality wins versus KenPom No. 77 Lehigh, at No. 8 Kentucky, and versus No. 62 BYU, but dropped games against No. 36 Colorado (neutral court), versus No. 118 College of Charleston, and versus No. 86 Northwestern, before losing -- like seemingly every other team in the conference -- at No. 14 Gonzaga, who wrapped up their non-con slate a perfect 5-0 against the Big 12 (West Virginia, OU, K-State, Baylor, Oklahoma State).
The Bears have been excellent on offense this season, with a true shooting percentage of 54.0% (26th best mark nationally), thanks to the Bears outstanding work shooting the ball inside the arc (55.4%) -- and more specifically, at the rim, where Baylor takes 35% of its shots and makes 73% of its attempts. (By comparison, Texas is shooting just 31% of its attempts at the rim and making 61%.)
Baylor Offense: Initial Shot Distribution
Data via Hoop-Math.com
Along with creating outstanding scoring opportunities at the rim, the other area where Baylor's performance is helping the team thrive on offense is their vast improvement taking care of the basketball, turning it over on just 17.3% of their possessions this season (30th nationally), down from 20.4 last year (180th), and 23.4 the year before (322nd). The frightening thing is that this offense appears to have a fair amount of room to improve -- given that their long frontcourt players are capable both of grabbing more offensive boards (securing only 34% of their own misses on the year, 112th nationally) and of learning how to better earn trips to the free throw line (31.5 FTRate, 258th). It's anyone's guess how much of that they'll actually improve, but make no mistake: on a good night this is a very strong offense that can put 90+ points on the board.
In contrast to the success on offense, the story has not been as pretty on the other end of the floor, where Scott Drew is not merely failing to utilize the Bears' advantages but through his use of the aforementioned 3-2 zone is actively mitigating them -- managing both to limit their ability to be shot blockers and increasing their vulnerability to giving up offensive rebounds (opponents' have nabbed 33% of their own missed shots, 208th nationally).
Baylor Defense: Opponents' Initial Shot Distribution
Data via Hoop-Math.com
Whereas Texas is only allowing opponents to get shots at the rim on 28% of their field goal attempts and to make 55% of those shots, Baylor's opponents are winding up with shots at the rim 33% of the time, where 58% of those attempts finding their way through the cylinder. Out on the perimeter, meanwhile, Baylor has been successful in limiting the volume of three-point attempts that opponents are firing (just 28% of all shots), but allowing a high percentage of those shots to be made (37%). It may well just be statistical noise, but in this case you can supplement the data with what you see with your eyes: Baylor's 3-2 zone defense too often results in open looks from beyond the arc, and struggles in transition.
The Baylor backcourt is filled with names you should know very well by now, but the most important one to know is once again point guard Pierre Jackson, who returns for a final go-round and in many ways is the Baylor offense. Everything runs through Jackson, and he is the definition of a multiple threat when the ball is in his hands: he loves to rise and fire from the outside (48% of his field goal attempts for the year are from beyond the arc), he's got a good outside stroke (37% from three), and where every other Bear overwhelmingly shoots the three upon receiving a pass, Jackson isn't gun shy about pulling the trigger off his own bounce, with a full 56% of his three-pointers this season coming unassisted.
That prolific outside shooting forces defenders to extend to 20 feet, which helps Jackson put the ball on the deck and penetrate, where he's not just quick but exceptionally effective at using his body to seal defenders, get all the way to the rim, and finish or draw contact when he gets there. Where Javan Felix is shooting 38% on shots at the rim, Jackson is at 67%, with one of the best FTA/FGA ratios in the country. The scoring ability alone is quite enough, but Jackson is also doing a better job taking care of the basketball this season (a solid 19.2% turnover rate) while continuing to rack up impressive assist numbers setting up his teammates (33.6% assist rate).
So, to review: if you don't extend your defense to guard Jackson beyond 19 feet, he will fire threes without hesitation, and at 37% shooting he can absolutely bury you from beyond the arc on a given night. If, however, you extend to contest his ability to get off a perimeter shot, he'll use his quickness and body strength to get by his defender, break down your defense, and either score it himself, draw a foul, or punish your help defender with an assist to the man you left open.
The other two returning Baylor players in the backcourt are junior Brady Heslip and senior AJ Walton. Memo to Texas: There is one and only one thing that you need to know about Brady Heslip: he shoots and makes a lot of three pointers. That's pretty much the beginning and end of the story with Haslip, and on some nights that's literally the only thing he does, as on February 20th of last year, when Heslip killed Texas by going 4 for 5 from downtown, but contributed nothing else -- no rebounds, no assists, no steals. Texas absolutely must be situationally aware with Heslip, because he has a quick release and he is looking for that opportunity to fire a three for all 35 seconds of the shot clock. As for AJ Walton, after an absolutely dreadful junior year he's finally putting things together as a senior, needing to cut down on his turnovers but performing solidly across the board otherwise: he's finally found his outside shot (36% from three) and he's doing a better job this year both scoring and dishing effectively off the bounce.
Baylor's frontcourt is once again stocked full of big, long bodies, and after being so badly undersized a year ago it's nice to see Texas enter this match up with some frontcourt size of its own. The Bears are reloading on the interior this year after losing the incredible production of multi-year starters Perry Jones III and Quincy Acy.
The most talented of the bunch is class of 2012 headliner Isaiah Austin, a 7-1 McD's All-American and freak of a basketball player thanks to his incredible mobility and versatility for his size, a blessing of good genetics and instruction -- both courtesy former NBA big man Isaac Austin, his father. Son Isaiah can extend his game all the way out to play the wing, has the ability to put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket like a small forward, and -- obviously -- the length to post up and score in the paint, with freshman season numbers that bear out his unique skill set: a 106.7 offensive efficiency rating and 55.7% effective field goal percentage, which includes a shot distribution you just don't expect to see from a 7-1 player:
He's not quite Kevin Durant out there -- more like a hybrid between Durant and Anthony Davis -- but in any event a uniquely talented basketball player who presents serious match up challenges for most teams. I'm eager to see what Texas opts to do defensively on Saturday. We can certainly help ourselves with Pierre Jackson by zoning Baylor, but you worry about Heslip going off for 8 three pointers like he did against St. John's in December. I suspect we'll see a mixture of both, and I rather hope that we get to see Prince Ibeh defending Austin -- great match up, and I think Ibeh's got the agility to defend Austin honestly.
I'm running way long here already, so briefly, Baylor's starting frontcourt is rounded out by junior Cory Jefferson, a 6-9, 210 pain in the ass who just seems to be everywhere, on both ends of the floor. He's active, has a great nose for the ball, very good hands, athleticism, and touch around the rim. Kind of like we used to describe Quincy Acy, basically -- an excellent college forward who does a little bit of everything across 25-30 minutes per game. Big, big match up for Holmes, Bond, and Lammert, of which only Bond fares well in an athletic match up with Jefferson.
- F Rico Gathers (FR), 6-8, 260 - Still very raw, but he's a solid contributor already who will grow into a great asset.
- G/F Deuce Bello (SO), 6-4, 187 - More of a great athlete than a basketball player at this point, but quite an athlete. Would have made a great name for a character on The Wire.
- G/F LJ Rose (FR) 6-4, 190 - Game still moving too fast for the highly touted freshman.
- F Taurean Prince (FR) 6-7, 202 - The endless supply of talented, skilled big men that Drew has assembled recently is truly impressive.
- G Gary Franklin (JR) 6-2, 195 - A slightly more diverse version of Haslip who will contribute 10-12 solid minutes per game mostly looking for the three pointer, but isn't as accurate.
Keys to the Game & Prediction
This preview went much longer than I intended and took a long while to put together, so I'm going with an abbreviated finish here to get this up on the site. Looking at the keys to the game, on defense the approach I'd like Texas to take is to be control the paint defensively, ride Haslip's jock (and don't sleep for a second), and live with whatever Jackson is able to do trying to be a one-man team. If he scores 25 points on 27 shots, that's great for Texas. The main thing is to try to keep Jackson in front to disallow Baylor from looks at the rim -- something's gotta give in this game, either our defense at the rim or their scoring at the rim, and I'd like to see us structure our defense to win that battle.
On offense, honestly, along with avoiding turnovers (as always), right now we just need someone to be able to hit a jumper. Lewis has hit some but McClellan and Felix are absolutely ice cold right now and it's just dragging down our offensive output tremendously -- not even on bad shots, just missed shots. Baylor's silly zone will give us our fair share of open looks from three, and we've just got to hit a few of them for once. Again, as I detailed in this week's Texas Basketball Report, if this team can improve from shooting 31% to 34-35% from beyond the arc, and from shooting 65% to 70-72% from the free throw line, that'll be enough to win if we're able to sustain our excellent defensive numbers.
As for a prediction, if Baylor has an "on" night, we're not going to keep up. Not a chance. They're the better, more experienced team, playing at home, and if they play well, they'll win, period. But don't forget how this post started! You never know what you're going to get from Scott Drew's team, and if we game plan them well and Drew doesn't make good adjustments, we could find ourselves in a competitive game that plays in the low 60s, which we could win.
But we're clear underdogs here, likely to lose in most scenarios, and playing on the road. I can't pull the trigger, and will just have to hope to be pleasantly surprised. I'm calling it for Baylor, 71-61.