The Cougs finally play basketball again after a week-long sabbatical. That break was all spent in preparation for the #11 overall Baylor Bears. The Bears are 7-2 with two close wins over UCLA and Gonzaga. WSU is in a bit of a slide, losing three of their last four and still struggling with the injury bug. Baylor is a buzzsaw and this is a team that could potentially win the National Championship, so WSU will have their work cut out for them.
The tip off at 7 PM PST from the American Airlines Arena in Dallas, Texas. It can be watched on ESPN 2.
Baylor is an elite offense, ranking 5th in Kenpom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, which means they can beat you in just about every way imaginable. They rank 7th nationally in overall effective field goal percentage, 12th in two-point percentage, and 71st in three-point percentage. They tend to start three and a half good shooters, which keeps the floor spaced out, and allows for open drives to the rim or finishes for their bigs. Their biggest strength is their guard play, which is evidenced by them ranking 21st in the nation in assist rate and 22nd in the nation in three-point attempt rate. Almost all of their shots are open, and their strength is great passing. They don’t usually post their bigs, so their guards have the control to create plays. This team also gets to the line a lot, 83rd nationally, and gets on the boards- 14th nationally. This team is an incredible offense in just about every facet.
Baylor’s offense is predicated on their strong guards running high volumes of pick-and-roll. They will almost always have four out on these plays, so any help leads to a long closeout. They will set screens on the wing, or above the break, and trust their guards to create from there.
Their guards are aggressive at hunting shots and creative in getting advantages. Most of their points in the paint come off either pick-and-roll plays like the one below, or offensive rebounds.
The Bears also trust their guards to win in isolation, which they normally do. All of Baylor’s guards are quick and crafty, allowing them to get by the first defender with ease. From that initial advantage, rotations start, and the guards makes plays that few teams in the country can.
Baylor also likes to identify areas to attack. Against Gonzaga, they went after Drew Timme relentlessly in an effort to create easy looks or cause him to foul. Against the Cougs, it could be any one of Jabe Mullins, Justin Powell, or Dylan Darling depending on the matchup they like.
Baylor, above all else, is just a team full of NBA talent and that boosts them a lot on offense. Those wing isolations and pick-and-rolls are more potent than any complex scheme because they have the guys to do it better than almost anyone else in the country.
Baylor will occasionally run some more complex sets, usually to try to get shot for a guard or force a double and leave their big open on a slip. This is a little floppy action that leads to a wide-open shot for one of their best shooters.
Baylor will also run specific sets to beat hard-hedges- which the Cougs often do. They will set two ball-screens (aka a boomer) in the middle of the floor. From this, they will pop one big and roll the other. The goal here is to take advantage of their big getting out on the floor either by screening him or creating an open look through miscommunication.
Baylor loves to play fast- ranking 43rd in average possession length on offense- and they will run whenever they can. Their shooting, passing, and athleticism is an Arizona-esque combo and that makes them deadly when running the floor.
Finally, WSU will need to be aggressive hitting the defensive boards, because Baylor will bludgeon teams on the offensive glass. They are relentless and athletic, so the Cougs will have to keep all five around to get boards.
The Bears are a good all-around defense and they use the same No Middle scheme that UNLV used. They rank 50th in the nation in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. They excel mostly with ability to create turnovers, as they rank 26th in the nation in opponent turnover rate. This aggressive style does lead to some of their other defensive stats being average or below. The Bears foul a lot, 322nd in the nation, and they give up a lot of open threes- 106th in opponent three-point attempt rate and 307th in opponent three-point percentage. They allow a solid number of offensive rebounds and they are not great at protecting the rim, but the turnovers and athleticism make them formidable. An interesting stat is that they force teams to beat them with passing, as they rank 344th in opponent assist rate.
As mentioned, Baylor runs a similar scheme on defense to UNLV, so if you want a deeper breakdown on the principles of a No Middle, you can read that here. https://www.cougcenter.com/2022/12/10/23502585/washington-state-basketball-preview-unlv-watch-for
The major difference between UNLV’s No Middle and Baylor’s No Middle is that the Bears tend to play much more compact. They love to plug the floor, double drivers and post players, and encourage mediocre shooters to shoot.
The general goal for Baylor’s defense is to force the ball to the baseline, help aggressively, and force dangerous skip passes. Baylor is a little less assertive with their baseline help than they have been in the past, but they’re still going to try and take away those drives and trust their athleticism in a scramble.
Just like with UNLV, the key to beating Baylor’s defense is making the extra pass quickly. When a guard or post tries to make the hero pass, it tends to lead to a turnover. When they make the safer pass and trust that person to make another quick pass, they can create an open look.
Unlike most No Middle teams, Baylor is not always icing ball-screens. They tend to leave it more up to their guards, letting the big sit flat behind the screen to help, no matter which way the guard goes. They will switch this up depending on matchup, but it is an interesting wrinkle they throw in.
Finally, Baylor is unstoppable when guarding in a scramble situation. They fly around the floor, wreak havoc, and force tough shots. They’re extremely agile, and they execute their scheme so well that teams have to be comfortable scoring in complex and weird situations to beat them.
Players to Watch:
Keyonte George is a future lottery pick, and an all-around dominating scorer. George is most noted for his shooting and isolation scoring. He is a 6’4 guard who will go from anywhere and at any time. His trigger is quick and his confidence is unmatched.
Adam Flagler is a 5th-year, redshirt junior who is noted for his epic shooting and solid passing feel. Flagler is awesome as a pull-up shooter and he punishes deep drop defense like few others in college basketball. He is also a solid point guard for this team, running pick-and-roll and consistently finding the open man.
Jalen Bridges is a West Virginia transfer and he is the best two-way wing on this team. He excels as a roamer in the No Middle, looking to get steals and get out and run. His jumper waxes and wanes, but if he is hitting from deep, he makes the offense truly unstoppable. He is a good driver who can score for himself, and he does everything a wing should do.
Players to Watch
Mouhamed Gueye is the Cougs best player and he has mostly had a great season so far. However, he struggled a lot against UNLV in what could have been a huge win for the Cougs. The No Middle got the best of him, and UNLVs doubling in the post was tough for him to beat. He had moments as a defender and passer, but it will have to be an all-around great game for Gueye if the Cougs hope to compete.
Justin Powell might be WSU’s most important player, even if he is not the best. He had a solid game against UNLV, but his turnovers were killer and it does feel like he has suffered the most from the losses of Jabe Mullins and Andrej Jakimovski. Without them, he becomes the only star shooter on the team, instead of one of three, and he becomes the true point guard rather than the committee that would be expected with a healthy Jakimovski. Sadly, it doesn’t seem like either will be back to take the load off of Powell, so he is going to have be on point as both a shooter and a playmaker.
TJ Bamba had a super-efficient scoring game against UNLV, but his 5 turnovers were all hard to see and they hurt the Cougs’ chances to win that game. Bamba is the only player on this team who can create an advantage in isolation, which might be huge for WSU in this game. More important than his offense, though, is his need to be on point defensively. It will be interesting to see who Kyle Smith matches him up with, but whoever it is, he will have to keep them in front and prevent easy penetration for basically 40 minutes.
What to Watch For:
Hitting shots, as simple as it sounds. It will be vital for WSU in this one. Powell, Bamba, and likely one other player are going to have to hit from deep efficiently. WSU is not going to win this game without a little -or a lot- of shooting luck. That doesn’t just cover open shots either. Someone is going to have to step up and hit some shots off-the-dribble, something not many have done effectively so far this season.
Controlling the tempo is the biggest key for WSU in this one. As much as I like it when WSU gets out and plays fast, they will not be outrunning Baylor. The only way WSU wins this game is if they for the Bears to grind out possessions on both ends. This will almost certainly mean sacrificing some offense, whether through rotational decisions or scheme decisions, but it is the only way the Cougs can leave Waco with a victory. Avoiding turnovers, winning the rebound game, running all the way through our sets, and guarding Baylor in their isolations are all things WSU will need to do to keep the tempo in their favor. If they do all that, they might have a chance.
Question of the Game:
Will the Cougs control the tempo?