Madness has begun. After the shrimp cocktail appetizer of Tuesday and Wednesday's play in games, it is time for the big 100 Oz steak to be plopped down in front of us as we gorge on college basketball for the next four days. For the Baylor Bears, it is a slightly longer wait, playing first thing Friday morning against New Mexico State.
|Off. Adj. Eff.||22||70||11||42|
|Def. Adju Eff.||12||122||28||91|
As we discussed already with New Mexico State, they are led by senior point guard Ian Baker, the WAC player of the year. Anytime you have a senior star point guard, you have a chance in the tournament. Baker has been exceptional at creating his own shot and getting to the foul line over his career. What has held him back this year is his three-point shooting, though in past seasons he has been a very strong shooter.
The Aggies as a team are a poor 3-point shooting squad, making just 33.4% (242nd in the nation) on the year. Shooting guard Braxton Higgins has been their best deep threat, making 41.9% of his 191 attempts. Baker has attempted 185 this year though, making just 54 (29.2%) and that has dragged them down. No other player has made more than 21 three-pointers this year, and they don't really have a third guy to extend the defense.
What they focus on is the interior, making 2-point shots, especially at the rim. 37.6% of their field goal attempts are at the rim, and 24.1% are 2-point jumpers. They make 54.5% of these types of shots, 24th best in the nation. That is an interesting matchup for the Bears, whose shot-blocking ability and length allow them to challenge jump shots and shots near the basket. They are 15th in the nation in effective field goal % allowed (21st with a 44.2% allowed 2-point shooting) and are 27th in the nation in blocking percentage.
How the Aggies are able to score inside, and if the Bears strong interior defense can hold up, will be the key to this game defensively for Baylor. On the offensive side of the ball, the Bears matchup even better. The Aggies strength is taking away the 3-point shot. They don't block a ton of shots, and they don't turn teams over very much. They also lack size down low (a theme for this group of teams) to throw fouls and bodies at the Bears post players. Baylor should be able to get the ball down low to their variety of post players and do damage.
If Baylor advances past the Aggies, they will take on the winner of SMU and USC. The Trojans overcame a 17-point deficit in the play-in game Tuesday evening to defeat Providence. A very talented team that has struggled to put it together, USC is an interesting matchup for the red-hot Mustangs.
SMU, winners of 16 straight games, and the champions of the AAC, is one of the more under-seeded teams in the nation. As you can see from the metrics above, that is a profile slightly better than Baylor's, almost across the board. They are 30-4 on the year, and look more like a 3 or 4-seed than a 6.
The Mustangs are favored in this game, so we will look at them first. They really only play 6 or 7 players a game, with 4 starters playing over 80% of the minutes this season. Point guard Shake Milton and power forward Semi Ojeleye are their two star players, with Sterling Brown a dangerous shooter from deep.
Ojeleye, a Duke transfer, is one of the most under-the-radar stars in college basketball this season, putting up 19 points and 7 rebounds per game. A 43% 3-point shooter as well, Ojeleye plays a similar style of game to Johnathan Motley on the offensive end of the court, with maybe a bit less low-post and more depth on his jumper. A 40% shooting 3-point team, the Mustangs are full of guys that can drain it from deep, pushing the ball well at times in transition, the Mustangs will work for the shot if the quick one is not there. They are actually right around Baylor in terms of tempo and possessions per game (62.8 to 63.0).
The thing that hurts the Mustangs is a complete lack of depth, with just 6-players really carrying the load. Foul trouble or a bad shooting game from one of their dependable studs makes them a high variance team. They have also gone largely untested this season, with their two victories over Cincinnati being the only Top-25 KenPom wins on their resume. The next highest rated win? TCU at home, 74-59. Baylor, 2-0 against TCU this year, had 7 victories higher than TCU on their resume.
One of the few games the Mustangs actually lost this year was to USC, their opponent in the first round. The Trojans, loaded with as much talent as anyone outside of UCLA in the Pac-12, were once again a disappointment in 2016-17. A 14-0 start to the season had USC highly ranked, but then reality set in Pac-12 play, losing 4 of their first 7 games. They did rebound to win 5-straight in late January/early-February, but a 4-game losing streak ruined all of their momentum.
At 10-8, and losers to UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament, the men of Troy have struggled with the elite teams on their schedule, going just 2-6 against Top-20 KenPom teams, with a home victories over SMU and UCLA. They are the only other team that can match up with Baylor's size, with two 6-11 centers in Chimezie Metu and Nick Rakocevic manning the paint, along with star 6-10 forward Bennie Boatwright. Add in 6-5 Elijah Stewart and 6-7 Shaqquan Aaron at the wing, and this is a team that can match the size, and the depth of size, that is Baylor's strength.
The strength for USC offensively is they take care of the ball, committing the 16th lowest turnover % in the nation. They are a solid shooting team, not excelling at any level, but being above average in all. Defensively, they get killed on the glass and give up too many 3-pointers. They don't foul and are a good shot-blocking team.
Overall, this is a very difficult 4-team group in the East Regional. SMU has the profile of a 3-seed, while the Trojans have the talent of a much higher seed as well. Add in New Mexico State being led by a scoring senior point guard with some decent size, and this is going to be a challenging weekend for the Bears, but not an impossible one.
Baylor is still the most likely team to advance from this region, based on their depth and the benefit of playing SMU in the second game (if both teams advance). USC will pound the Mustangs down low and then try to make 3-pointers when SMU doubles down (they were 12-24 from 3 in their victory earlier this year over SMU). The Bears match up well against New Mexico State, though nothing can ever be taken for granted in the NCAA tournament.
It is why they call it Madness.