Friday, January 25, 2019

Game Preview: at Baylor

Let's step out of conference, shall we? Following a decisive home win vs a ranked Ole Miss team, Alabama will take some momentum to Waco, Texas for a Saturday showdown against the Baylor Bears (KenPom: 45; NET: 52) as part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. The Bears enter the game with a record of 12-6, 4-2. Game time is 11 A.M. CT. The game will be televised on ESPNU.

My Two Cents: Alabama played its best forty minutes of the season on Tuesday night vs Ole Miss. The team was balanced on offense, but it was the effort on defense that really set the tone of that game. Bama's length was a nightmare for Ole Miss, and it was yet another reminder of what this team can accomplish if defensive efforts like the 2nd half vs Tennessee and Tuesday night become commonplace. The team hustled after loose balls, dominated Ole Miss on the glass and in the paint, forced Ole Miss into a 25% turnover rate, and played with an edge to them that, frankly, has been rare for this program in recent years. Perhaps it was the dust-up that happened between the teams before tipoff, or maybe this team is just coming into its own. Whatever it is, if Alabama can bottle what we've seen over the last three halves, there won't be a bubble to worry about come March.

There are some college basketball fans that describe Baylor head coach Scott Drew as a "bad coach". It's a reminder that people typically don't think or research what they're talking about, whether it's basketball or any other subject. Drew inherited a Baylor program that came as close to the NCAA death penalty as you can come without actually receiving the penalty. What he has done in the years since is not something a "bad coach" could do.

A quick history lesson: the program was put on probation following a scandal involving former head coach Dave Bliss. A Baylor played named Patrick Dennehy was murdered in 2003 by a teammate, Carlton Dotson. In the ensuing investigation, it was discovered that Bliss had made improper payments to players, ignored reports of widespread drug and alcohol use among his players, and engaged in recruiting violations. The most egregious offense Bliss committed was lying to investigators, telling them that Dennehy was a drug dealer as a way of covering up the origin of the improper payments. Furthermore, he instructed players to also lie and tell investigators that Dennehy was a drug dealer. When it comes to scumbag pieces of you know what in not just the coaching community, but the human race as a whole, Dave Bliss is near or at the top of the list. The NCAA slapped a 10-year show cause penalty on Bliss, but rocketing him into the sun would have been a more appropriate punishment. As further evidence of the depth of corruption in our society, Dave Bliss would coach again after the Baylor debacle at a number of jobs, including a a college prep school and a high school.  

At first glance, Scott Drew was out of his mind to take the job. The program had been gutted by the NCAA sanctions, and it looked as if it would take a decade before Baylor basketball would be competitive again. In Drew's first four years in Waco (2003-2007), the program won a total of 36 games. Most coaches would have bolted, but Drew stuck it out. In his fifth season, the program began a stretch where it would reach the postseason ten out of the next eleven years. In that span, the program has reached the NCAA Tournament seven times, including two Elite Eights and two Sweet 16's. The program also won an NIT championship in 2012-13. At a program like Baylor, particularly coming off the crippling sanctions, those kind of results should get you a statue. Instead, it feels like Drew, even among his own fanbase, is constantly swimming upstream. This season, the Bears lost one of their top players (Tristan Clark) for the season, but still find themselves a half game out of first place in the Big 12 standings. Scott Drew is a good coach.

Baylor's offensive numbers don't jump out at you, but they make up for it with good defensive numbers. What they do best on the offensive end is, you guessed it, rebounding. The Bears are 5th in offensive rebounding rate at KenPom. They also make 52.6% of their 2-point shots. The other numbers aren't eye-popping though. They don't shoot the three particularly well (31.7%), or free throws (67.2%), and their turnover rate is above average (20.6%). Baylor struggles in its first-shot offense, but are able to offset that by hitting the offensive glass to create second and third opportunities. If Alabama can continue to hit the glass effectively, Baylor could struggle to score efficiently. I know this is getting old, but keep an eye on the rebounding stats on Saturday.

Defense is a different story, the Bears have excelled on that end of the floor. They're ranked 54th in opponent effective field goal pct (47.4%), they force their opponents into a 21% turnover rate, which ranks them 67th. They limit their opponents to just 45.2% from 2-pt range (the national average is 50.3), and they're very good at limiting shots at the rim with a 14.9% block rate, which is 11th in the country. Finally, they're ranked 69th in steal pct. Without looking at every opponent on Alabama's schedule thus far, I can't say with certainty that Baylor is the best defensive team Alabama has played, but they're up there.

Where it appears that there are holes in Baylor's defense is at the 3-point line (opponents average 34.1%, which is right at the national average of 34.2), and their opponents get to the foul line way too much (currently ranked 253rd in opponent free throw rate). The stats to keep an eye on in this game are rebounding, free throw attempts, and turnover rates between the teams. Baylor plays at a slower tempo (ranked 282) than Alabama does so they're going to be content to play a game in the 50s/60s, and force our guys to consistently have to score in the half-court.

Players to Watch: After averaging 15 points and 3 assists in the non-conference, Kira Lewis has cooled off slightly in conference play. Through six conference games, he's averaging 11.5 points and 1.6 assists. He's not playing badly, don't get me wrong, but his production has dipped a little in recent weeks. This isn't a total surprise. Being as young as he is, and not taking part in the summer conditioning program, while playing in a power conference against teams with high-major players and coaching staffs very familiar with scouting each other, it's not a shock that the season may be catching up with him after such a fantastic start. Unfortunately, Kira has become a key part of this team and they'll need him to finish strong as the season moves into the final stretch.

There's no one guy that Baylor leans on for production. With Tristan Clark out, Baylor is playing a much smaller lineup. Their leading scorer is Makai Mason, a 6'1, 185 lb senior guard. Mason is averaging 15.7 ppg, 2.9 apg, 2.7 rpg, 35.2% from 3. King McClure is a 6'3, 215 lb guard, averaging 10.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.7 spg, 38.2% from 3.

The other guard is a guy that Bama fans will recognize: Jared Butler. You may remember that Butler originally committed to Alabama, and even spent the summer in Tuscaloosa before eventually being released from his NLI. The reasons for his departure have been discussed, but I never saw an official release from the program about it so I won't go into it here. Butler has worked his way into the starting lineup and is averaging 8.2 ppg, 2.3 apg, and 2.2 rpg. Wouldn't it be ironic if he's the difference in the game tomorrow?

Prediction: When I look at these two teams on paper, I think Alabama is the better team in this match-up. Unfortunately, the better team doesn't always win. Baylor is a well-coached, experienced, gutty team that has overcome a lot of obstacles so far to put themselves in position to compete in the Big 12 and a return trip to the NCAA Tournament. The margin for error for them is slim, but bad teams don't win four out of five in the Big 12 (the lone loss was to Kansas). Baylor also has the advantage of playing this game on their home court. I think this will be a close, back-and-forth game that will go down to the wire. I won't be shocked if this Alabama team, playing extremely well right now, leaves Waco with a win, but something's telling me to go with the home team.

Baylor - 72 - Bama - 68        

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