Kansas got a break this week when Texas fell in Lubbock to Texas Tech. It erased the Longhorns’ lead at the top of the Big 12, instead plunging them into what is now a 3-way tie for 1st with Kansas and Baylor. Now, an opportunity to knock Baylor down a game presents itself Saturday afternoon, in what will no doubt be yet another tough Big 12 contest between two excellent teams.
It’s easy to forget that about six weeks ago, Baylor was off to an 0-3 start in league play, and the general consensus around college basketball was that the Bears were set up to have a down year. Looking back, that was the wrong takeaway from the three game losing streak. They did lose by double digits in Ames, but multiple teams have done that this year. The other two losses were by just one point against a fully healthy TCU squad, and an overtime loss to a Kansas State team that’s better than most expected entering conference play. Since that rough start, all Baylor has done is win 9 of their last 10 games in what is far and away the toughest conference in the sport, including a six point win over the Jayhawks in Waco on January 23rd. Baylor has now beaten every team in the Big 12 except for Texas, and they still get to host the Longhorns next weekend.
Now that Baylor has solidified themselves as still one of the top teams in the league, Kansas will have their work cut out for them in a game that could end up having a big impact on who wins the Big 12. Baylor enters this game ranked 10th by KenPom and 9th by Torvik, with a deadly offense ranked 1st and 2nd by those metrics respectively. Frankly, there isn’t much on that side of the court that Baylor struggles with. For the season they’re 11th nationally on the offensive boards, they haven’t had many turnover issues, they get to the line frequently, and they hit over 36% of their threes. They also take over 44% of their shots from three, meaning that unless the opposition makes a concerted effort to run them off the 3 point line, a lot of what Baylor does is minimally impacted by the defense they’re facing. They haven’t cooled off at all in Big 12 play, either. They rank first in the conference in offensive efficiency, limiting turnovers, offensive rebounding, and three point shooting (while taking the most threes of anyone in the league). They’re 2nd in eFG% and 3rd in free throw rate, while hitting 78% of their free throws. It’s a good thing Kansas has Bill Self at the helm, because solving the Baylor offense is one of the toughest tasks in a Big 12 full of difficult teams to solve.
Now that you’re terrified of Baylor, allow me to offer a silver lining: they aren’t very good at defense. They rank dead last in Big 12 play in defensive efficiency, eFG% allowed, and 2 point defense (they somehow are allowing teams to shoot over 56% from two). They’re 9th in terms of forcing turnovers and last in shot blocking. Their best defensive trait is “3 point defense,” where they’ve been fortunate to see their opponents shoot just 31.8% from behind the arc while they’re busy raining down threes on the other end. And while Scott Drew typically has good rebounding teams, Baylor isn’t nearly as good on the defensive glass as they are on the other end. KenPom ranks Baylor’s defense 78th nationally, so while they’re well above the average D1 team defensively, by Big 12 standards they’re downright bad.
I would feel better about this game if Kansas was a bit more consistent offensively. The Jayhawks absolutely have the offensive firepower to put up big numbers against Baylor. The question is whether we’ll see the Kansas team that torched a great OSU defense in Stillwater Tuesday, or the team that mustered 53 points just two weeks ago against Iowa state, which was the third time in league play they’ve scored under a point per possession. Simply put, if KU’s shots are falling and they’re getting the ball where it needs to be, they can outscore this Baylor team. It’s just hard to say on a given day whether they’ll do that reliably.
Kansas also has the defensive talent to slow Baylor down, but the most exciting defensive development for the Jayhawks has been Ernest Udeh Jr turning into a defensive buzzsaw at center in the minutes he gets. That’s not something that will come in quite as handy against a Baylor team that’s perfectly content to let their shooters fire away from the perimeter. Baylor does attack the basket, which could play to Udeh’s strengths, but they’re adept at drawing fouls, and most of KU’s wings and big men have a tendency to find themselves in foul trouble at times. When Baylor drives, Udeh, KJ Adams, Jalen Wilson and Kevin McCullar are all going to have to find ways to stop them without racking up fouls.
KU has looked better of late, with McCullar becoming more of what we hoped we were getting offensively, Gradey Dick learning new ways to score when opponents take away the three, and Dajuan Harris scoring enough to make teams think twice about leaving him to crowd the paint. If this team were at 100%, I would take the Jayhawks. However, both Harris and McCullar suffered ankle injuries Tuesday night against Oklahoma State, and while neither was reportedly in a walking boot after the game, they were obviously affected by the injuries, both of which came in the 2nd half. McCullar’s ability to defend both on the perimeter and around the basket is going to be important against Baylor, and if he’s at all limited it will hurt the defensive effort. He’s prone to foul trouble as it is, and if he’s a half step slow because of his ankle, it may lead to even more fouling. If Baylor really struggles to shoot, Kansas has a great chance at this one, but without knowing how close to 100% Harris and McCullar will be, and given just how good Baylor is offensively, I think the Bears get the season sweep in this matchup.
Baylor 80, Kansas 77