Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

The Baylor Bears defense has taken a massive leap forward in 2016-17

For the first time in the Scott Drew era, the Bears defense is what is carrying Baylor's success.

The Baylor Bears for the past decade have been known as a team that excels on the offensive side of the floor, and survives on defense through an usual 1-1-3 zone defense.  That defense became a staple of Scott Drew's program during the back-half of the 2009 season, a year in which the Bears failed to live up to expectations and fell to the NIT.  The Bears, 15-3 at one point, would lose 6-games in a row and fall to 5-11 in Big 12 play.  

During the conference tournament though, the Bears unveiled a little used zone defense as their primary weapon.  This new defense carried them to the Big 12 title game, where Missouri defeated them 73-60.  Sticking with this new defense, the Bears would advance to the finals of the NIT, before falling to Penn State. 

KenPom Effeciency Ranks Blocks Leader
Year Offense Defense Tempo Player Block Rate BPG
2017* 21 4 326 Jo Lual-Acuil Jr.  12.0% 2.8
2016 14 84 262 Johnathan Motley 6.3% 1.1
2015 15 23 303 Johnathan Motley 6.8% 1.4
2014 9 70 313 Isaiah Austin 12.0% 3.1
2013 19 64 77 Cory Jefferson 6.7% 1.9
2012 12 37 128 Quincy Acy 6.7% 1.8
2011 93 79 209 Quincy Acy 5.3% 1.5
2010 4 42 224 Ekpe Udo 11.0% 3.7
2009 15 112 146 Quincy Acy 6.4% 1.0
2008 18 105 32 Mamadou Diene 9.7% 1.6

After almost 6 years of being a man-defense team, Scott Drew would stick with the zone defense in 2010, the Baylor Bears breakout year.  Behind transfer big man Ekpe Udoh and his elite rim protection (11th in Block % at 11%), the Bears would finish the regular season 24-6, and advance to the Elite Eight where they would lose a close game to eventual national champion Duke.  Since Udoh's departure for the NBA, the Bears have had some solid rim protectors, such as Quincy Acy and Isaiah Austin, with Austin rising up to be Udoh's equal in 2014. 

This year, Jo Acuil is matching what Udoh and Austin did for the Bears, providing them an elite rim-protector at the base of their zone defense. For the first time in the Scott Drew era, the defense is the one ranked with the nation's elite, ranking 4th on KenPom. 

How are the Bears so good defensively?  It doesn't start with Acuil, but it he is a big reason why. The biggest however as been the Bears ability to seamlessly switch between their man and zone defenses.  Scott Drew's defense now has even more looks, from two full court presses (one that slows the game down and one that traps and tries to force turnovers), a half-court trapping wrinkle to the zone defense, a traditional man-to-man defense, and their ever changing and adjustable zone defense. 

Only one other program in the nation attempts to play as many different types of defenses in a single game, Louisville under Coach Rick Pitino. The Cardinals have an elite defense this year, ranking 2nd in the nation, and Pitino is known as one of the best defensive coaches in the game. Since 2011, the Cardinals have not ranked lower than 5th in the KenPom defensive efficiency metric, a staggering amount of success on that side of the court. 

Scott Drew and his staff recognized this, and adjusted their defensive philosophy. If you are going to copy or try and mimic parts of your defensive strategy on anyone, Louisville is the school to choose.  In 2016, the Bears would struggle when forced into their man defense, as seen against Texas Tech late in the year, and Yale to end their season in the first round of the NCAA tournament. 

With an influx of an elite rim protector in Acuil, and the growth of Jake Lindsey and Ish Wainright into elite perimeter defenders, the Bears have the talent and the personnel to mix and match their defensive strategies to their opponent.  The lineup of Lindsey, Wainright, and point guard Manu Lecomte has simply suffocated the opposition, in a man or zone defense. 

A shift in strategy like this doesn't start in the season, but rather the offseason.  The entire summer was devoted to defensive fundamentals drills.  The results have been excellent, taking a defense that was average to elite in a single season.  

Baylor Defensive Improvements
Category 2016 2017
Adj. Efficiency 98.7 88.6
Effective FG % 51.2 43.4
Turnover % 19.8 18.9
3p% 36.9 30.1
2p% 49.1 42.3
Block % 11 14.5
Steal % 11.4 9.1
Fouls/Game 19.4 16.7
Points/Game 69.5 60.4

The Bears are challenging shots better at the 3-point line, a critical key for a zone defense.  They are blocking more shots, led by Acuil.  They are fouling less, meaning better fundamentals and defensive positioning.  The overall impact is a 9.1 point per game drop in points allowed.  

Wherever this season ends for the Baylor Bears, it will be the defense that carries them there.  Something that has never been said about a Scott Drew team. 

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