The matchup that we’ve all been waiting for in the Big 12 will happen tonight, as No. 2 Baylor makes the trek up to Lawrence to pay their visit to No. 3 Kansas in Phog Allen Fieldhouse.
The Bears are currently sitting at 20-1 on the season and are tied with the Jayhawks for first in the conference regular season standings at 7-1, but given the way that they were smacked around by West Virginia and the fact that they just can’t quite seem to blow anyone in the conference out, there have been some questions about whether or not this Baylor team is “for real”.
(Hint: they are.)
But since it’s Baylor and since Baylor is coached by Scott Drew, the nation-at-large isn’t going to believe it until it’s proven to them. That’s not a knock on the program, that’s a fact of life. Bill Self has won 12 straight Big 12 regular season titles, Drew is the butt of every running ‘he can’t coach’ joke.
This is their chance to prove the doubters wrong, and while it is foolish for anyone to think that it will be easy to go into Phog Allen Fieldhouse and get a win, Baylor does matchup pretty well with the Jayhawks on paper.
It starts with that zone. Technically, what they play is probably classified as a 2-3 zone, but it morphs. Typically, they have a guard matching up with a player at the high post and the other guard matching up with the ball-handler, meaning that, often times, it looks more like a 1-1-3 or a 1-3-1 zone. This has two benefits:
- It makes it more difficult to get the ball into the paint, either via penetration or by passing the ball into the high-post. We generally think of a zone as being a defense that’s easy to shoot over, but that’s only the case when the ball gets into the teeth of the defense and shooters are left open when the defense collapses. Baylor’s zone is designed to make that difficult to do, which, when combined with the length they have on their front line, is why they are 13th nationally in three-point percentage defense. This is probably where I should note that Kansas is fifth nationally in three-point shooting. Strength vs. strength.
- Baylor’s zone means that Josh Jackson won’t have quite as easy of a time taking advantage of mismatches by playing the four. Baylor is one of the few programs that still starts two natural big men, a true center in Jo Lual-Acuil and a Player of the Year candidate in power forward Johnathan Motley. Those two would not be able to chase around Jackson, who will be a top five pick as a small forward prospect despite playing the four in a small-ball lineup for the Jayhawks. He’s going to have to deal with those big bodies defensively, but they aren’t going to be chasing him around on the perimeter.
Kansas is coming off of a win at Kentucky on Saturday, and that win came as a direct result of Self’s decision to play zone in the second half. I would fully expect him to do the same thing on Wednesday. Baylor, like Kentucky, is not exactly a team built to beat a zone – they have one player shooting better than 40 percent from three while Motley is a guy that could easily get Landen Lucas, the only big man on the Kansas roster with Carlton Bragg Jr. dealing with an arrest for possession of drug paraphernalia, into early foul trouble.
Going zone would help protect Lucas. It would help protect Jackson, too, and I have a hard time imaging a situation where Self doesn’t recognize that.
What’s truly interesting here is what happens if the Bears are able to get this win.
It would put them a game in front of Kansas in the Big 12 standings with a home game against the Jayhawks still on the schedule. It’s stupid to predict that Kansas will not win the Big 12 title – We’ve been here over and over again in recent years; remember when the Jayhawks were 2-3 in the Big 12 last season? – but being a game up halfway through the conference slate with a home game left against Kansas is where you would want to be.
Conversely? I’m not sure if Baylor can win the outright regular season title if the Jayhawks pick them off.
So there’s a lot on the line here, and that’s before you consider the No. 1 seed implications this season.
So yes, this a really important matchup. Phog Allen will be rocking. Two of the top three teams in the country will be playing.
PREDICTION: The line for this game opened at Kansas (-5.5) and has since moved to Kansas (-6.5). KenPom projects Kansas (-4). I would take Baylor (+6.5). Between the potential issues with front court foul trouble and the fact that the Bears should be able to take away the best Kansas matchups offensively, I think they’ll be able to keep this thing close.