1. Basketball season is a grind. From mid-November through March (hopefully well into March), each team is together, practing and playing 1-2 games per week. There are well over 30 games, with 31 just for the regular season, not adding in any postseason tournaments. Five months of basketball. It is a longform story much more than a quick poem. Teams can struggle early on and suffer awful losses before turning their season around and making runs to titles. Teams can be Top-5 and undefeated going into the New Year, and fall off the map and miss out on post season glory. It happens all of the time, and both have happened to the Bears.
There are ebbs and flows in every season. High points and low ones as well. The Bears are in a low one right now, scuffling with a tough schedule, and some due to poor play by key contributors. They are not executing their zone defense at a high level and stagnant at times on offense. This is a team that is in a lull, so how do the Bears pull themselves out of it?
2. With 3 losses in 5-games, including their first two-game losing streak of the season, the Bears hit the road to take on the Kansas State Wildcats, a team fresh off of a home upset win over top-ranked Oklahoma. While the Wildcats are just 14-9 on the season and 3-7 in Big 12 play. This is a tough spot for the Bears, especially against a team that has historically given them fits (see their 2OT win over KSU earlier this year in Waco as an example).
The problems for the Bears are all over the floor, but lets start with the defense. In Big 12 play, the Bears are allowing a 55.3% effective field goal rate, the worst in the Big 12. They are allowing 42.7% shooting on 3-pointers, also worst in the Big 12. This is a defense that has been slow to react to ball movement and is simply not getting out on 3-point shooters. I personally think some of that is bad luck, as they are leaving the guys they want to be shooting from deep open, those guys are just hitting them. Is that a factor of leaving them too open? Possibly. It is a problem though right now, and it is sinking the good work the Bears are doing on the defensive end of the floor.
They are still dominant on the glass, allowing just a 25.2% offensive rebound rate, a tremendous mark for a zone defense. That is the top rate in the Big 12. They are also forcing an incredibly high amount of steals, at an 11.7 rate, slightly trailing West Virginia. That is the same WVU team that plays a press and trap style defense, designed to force turnovers.
However, the tremendous 3-point shooting by the opposition is making this an average defense. If the Bears keep playing like this, and run into a cold 3-point shooting team, they will dominate. However, in their last 3-losses, the Bears have allowed 7-14, 8-17 and 16-28 from behind the arc. Combined, that is a 52.54% rate from behind the arc. Insane. Baylor has to find a way to slow down the 3-pointers or they will continue to struggle on defense.
3. Is this a question of changing from zone to man defense? I don't know. The Bears man defense has been spotty at best, getting torched late by Oklahoma. However, that came after 30+ minutes of the Sooners getting anything they wanted against the Bears zone defense. Baylor tried the man defense in the second half against West Virginia, and got some positive results as well, but it was still too little, too late in their comeback.
Personally, I think the personnel of this team is more suited for man defense. With Ish Wainright and Taurean Prince both being very good defenders, and Al Freeman improving greatly this year, this could be a top tier man defense. With so much time and energy put into the zone defense, there is a sunk cost. The practice time and familiarity in man defense is just not there. They struggle with ball-screens and back door cuts when manning up. For better or worse, this has been a zone team under Drew. They showed significantly more man defense in non-conference play, but have reverted to a primarily zone team since then.
I would love to see the Bears mix up the defenses more, switching from zone to man, and throwing up some of those lovely suprise trap looks that Drew used to perfection at times last year. Those have been missing this year, and something that I hope comes back. Still though, this will be a zone based team, and the improvement has to come from the execution of the plan, moreso than wholesale changes of the scheme.
4. The problems for Baylor are not just limited to defense though, as the offense has become more and more stagnant at times. Per the always great Shehan Jeyarajah, the Bears are averaging 22 assists per game in their victories. When they lose, the assist total plummets to 12.3 assists. That is a staggering fall, and shows the Bears falling into too much isolation plays and not enough movement away from the ball. It is also showing a lack of post touches, something that West Virginia tried to take away with hard doubles whenever the Bears got good position down low. Rico Gathers finished with just 5 points against the Mountaineers, while Jonathan Motley only had 3. Against Texas, Rico Gathers had 20-points, but the rest of the post players were greatly limited.
This offense is not designed to do isolations at the top of the key for Taurean Prince or Al Freeman the majority of the time, though both are very good in that role. The offense runs better with motion, with back door cuts, and with penetration to not only attack the rim, but to draw defenders into the paint for kickouts to open 3-point shooters. We have seen little of that in recent weeks. Simply put, when the Bears have struggled to get an offensive rebound the past few weeks, their offense has been poor. Of course, when you lead the Big 12 with a dominant 38.8% offensive rebound rate, the chances are you will get more than your fair share. While that is a great supplement to the offense, hitting your first shot is still the best scenario, and it is something Baylor has not done enough of recently.
Even with all of these struggles recently, the Bears are still a top-25 team, and are still firmly in the NCAA tournament picture. THey are probably a 5 or 6 seed right now, with some opportunity to move up. Of course, missed opportunity could cause them to fall. They are 17-6 so far this year, and with 3-more wins, will more than likely be in the dance. Their seed might not be great, but a 9-9 finish in Big 12 play is very much worth an NCAA tournament invite. With games against Texas Tech, TCU and home games against Iowa State and Kansas, there are chances for a big move up. They just have to get out of this lull and start playing Baylor basketball again.
5. Ranking the Big 12
- West Virginia
- Iowa State
- Kansas State
- Texas Tech
- Oklahoma State