No one said life on the top would be easy. The newly top-ranked Baylor Bears will hit the road Tuesday night to take on the 10th ranked West Virginia Mountaineers. WVU (13-2, 2-1) enter the game as a 6 point favorite against the undefeated Baylor Bears.
The Mountaineers have been a top-10 team all season, falling this week after a road overtime loss to Texas Tech. Their other loss is a neutral court game against Temple, which gets weirder each week. Outside of those two losses, the Mountaineers have played a relatively average schedule. Their best win is over 19th ranked Virginia, but after that it is TCU and Oklahoma State (ranked 31st, and 37th in KenPom).
West Virginia is one of just two teams on KenPom with a top-10 offense and defense, joining top ranked Kentucky. They are ranked 2nd overall on KenPom, with the Bears down at 7th. Baylor is not far away from joining the Top-10 offense/defense club, as their defense is ranked 5th and their offense is 16th.
Bob Huggins team has continued to rely on an aggressive pressing defense that forces the most turnovers in the nation. Their average defensive possession is just 15.7 seconds, the 7th shortest in the nation. That is in stark contrast to what the Bears want to do, which is force offenses to work for good shots. Baylor's defensive possessions last 18.8 seconds, the 3rd longest in the nation.
These two Top-10 teams are very good, and for very different reasons, starting with the tempo of their defensive pressure. West Virginia thrives on turnovers (32.8% turnover rate, best in nation), but struggle with allowing offensive rebounds. The Bears do a tremendous job of challenging shots (6th best effective field goal rate allowed) and blocking shots (16.5% block rate, 4th best). That they do this without fouling is tremendous and a testament to Jo Acuil, who is third in the nation in block rate, but still only commits 2.9 fouls per 40-minutes.
While the two teams differ on defense, they both use a balanced attack on offense to carry the scoring load. The Mountaineers have four players scoring over 9.9 points per game, with sophomore forward Esa Ahmad at 12.9 points. The Bears have four players scoring over 10.8 points per game, with Jonathan Motley scoring a team high 15.8 points.
These are two balanced offensive attacks, with multiple weapons on the floor. Daxter Miles is a premier threat outside the arc, making 45% of his 3-pointers. The focus of this offensive attack though is attacking the basket and forcing foul shots. They have taken 412 free throw this year, 27th most in the nation. Over 43.3% of their shot attempts come at the rim, compared to just 25.1% for Baylor.
A hostile environment against a very good team is what awaits the Bears, their price for being the top-ranked team in the nation. Some are already assuming it as a loss, and one that precluded them from voting the Bears at the top of the polls. A win would cement their status at the top of the college basketball world.
Keys to the Game
1. Interior Scoring - As stated above, the Moutaineers make a living at the rim, with over 43% of their shot attempts coming from that part of the court, according to Hoop-Math.com. Posts Esa Ahmad and Nathan Adrian are both attempting over half of their shots at the rim. These are two of the better low post scorers in the Big 12, and maybe the best post duo in the conference outside of Baylor's Jonathan Motley and Jo Acuil.
Adrian is a tremendous offensive rebounder, while Ahmad is solid. Both do great work in making West Virginia the best offensive rebounding team in the Big 12 (41.2%, 5th in nation). The Bears are good (36.1%, 23rd), so this will be a good battle inside between four top post players. The inside battle will define this game. One big advantage the Bears have is shot blocking, as both Adrian and Ahmad are much weaker at that part of their game when compared to Motley and Acuil. The combined block rate for each duo is 3.7% to 19%. Motley by himself blocks a higher percentage of shots, and Acuil is the 3rd best in the nation.
2. A game of Tempo - We saw this against Iowa State a little bit, a team that wants to get out and run versus a team that slows it down. However, that is a misnomer. The Bears will push the ball on offense, but their defense is designed to limit possessions and milk the clock. West Virginia's offense and defense are both designed to push the tempo, acting in concert with one another, but it is their defense that sets it all up. They average 71.7 possessions per game, compared to just 63.7 for Baylor. The Bears will have to take care of the ball (something they have done very well this year) and beat the press of WVU. Once they do that, the Mountaineers will continue to trap and swipe at the ball, so expect back cuts and slipped screens. The Bears cannot get in a running game with the Mountaineers.
3. Hit Outside Shots - The last two games have seen a downturn in outside shooting for the Bears. They are just a combined 6-24 from behind the arc against Iowa State and Oklahoma State. Starting shooting guard Al Freeman has not hit a field goal in two games, going 0-8 in 47 minutes of action. The Bears will have to the open outside shots they get after breaking the press. Baylor came into Big 12 play averaging 7 made 3-pointers per game. They are shooting 36% from behind the arc. Making jumpers will allow more space for their post players, where Baylor is making 74.6% of their shots.