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Know Your Opponent: Baylor Bears

The Illini will get their first real test of the season.

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at Washington Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Illini fans have waited for more than a decade to watch big-time college basketball. Wednesday night, it will finally happen.

No. 5 Illinois and No. 2 Baylor will meet in Indianapolis on Wednesday to face off in the annual Jimmy V Classic. For Illinois, this will be the first real test in what is expected to be its best season since 2005.

Baylor is coming off its best season in school history, finishing 26-4 overall and 15-3 in the Big 12, and the Bears would have likely been a No. 1 seed had the NCAA Tournament been played. This season, they have picked up right where they left off with a 2-0 start, including an 86-52 dismantling of Washington. Baylor was without head coach Scott Drew for its first two games after he tested positive for COVID-19, but he is expected to be back on the sideline against the Illini after a 10-day quarantine.

Players to Watch

Baylor returns 4 starters from last season, led by preseason Big 12 Player of the Year Jared Butler. The junior guard led the team in scoring last year and was a first team all-conference selection. He then entered the NBA Draft this summer before deciding to return to school, and now he is a preseason All-American. If that sounds familiar, you’re not crazy; Butler is basically Baylor’s version of Ayo Dosunmu.

The Bears also return their second- and third-leading scorers in guards MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell. Both Teague and Mitchell were All-Big 12 players (second and third team, respectively) last year, and they combine with Butler to form a nightmare trio for opposing defenses.

Baylor’s three-headed scoring monster is complemented by senior wing Mark Vital, who is the exact definition of a “glue guy.” He only scored 6.1 points a game last season, but the 6-foot-5 forward averaged 6.2 rebounds, and his 1.7 steals and 0.6 blocks per game earned him a spot on the Big 12 All-Defensive Team.

Rounding out the starting lineup is junior center Flo Thamba, who can best be described as off-brand Mo Bamba.

Scott Drew’s squad did suffer the departures of All-Big 12 center Freddie Gillespie and Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year Devonte Bandoo, but a pair of transfers are already contributing for the Bears.

Sophomore guard Adam Flagler appears to be Baylor’s sixth man, and he is its third-leading scorer through two games. UNLV transfer Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua also comes off the bench, and he is averaging 9 points and 8 rebounds per game so far.

Scott Drew may also give a few minutes to freshman LJ Cryer, who was a top-100 point guard out of high school.

Elite Defense

Scott Drew has long been known as an offensive-minded coach. From 2012-19, his Baylor teams had a top-25 offense in seven out of eight years (per Bart Torvik), but Baylor’s defense finished in the top 25 just once in that span, when it finished 25th in 2015. In 2019, Baylor had the 98th-best defense in the country, on par with Illinois at 97th. And if you remember that Illini defense, it was bad. But in 2020, Scott Drew turned his defense into the third best unit in the country, allowing 12 fewer points per 100 possessions than it had the year prior. So how did he do it?

He did what coaches do: copy other coaches. Drew saw Chris Beard lead Texas Tech to the national title game on the back of its best-in-the-country “no-middle” defense, so he took Beard’s no-middle defense to Baylor. And boy did it work.

The philosophy of Baylor’s “no-middle” defense is exactly what it sounds like: keep the ball out of the middle of the court. To do this, defenders on the wing will align themselves parallel to the sideline to deny any dribble penetration in the middle. This means ball handlers will often drive to the baseline, but Baylor aggressively sends help on baseline drives, forcing the ball handler to either take a contested shot or make a tough cross court pass. On wing ball screens, Baylor uses “ice” coverage, forcing the ball handler to reject the screen (and thus stay out of the middle) by placing his defender between the ball and the screener. Ice coverage may look familiar to Illini fans, as it’s the same coverage Illinois uses on wing ball screens. Here’s a great video that goes into far more detail about Baylor’s defense.

Forcing lots of missed shots and lots of turnovers is incredibly difficult for a defense, but Baylor managed to do just that last season, finishing 16th in defensive eFG% with 45.2% and 23rd in defensive TO% with 22.7%. Nearly a quarter of Baylor’s defensive possessions ended in a takeaway, and when its opponents did get a shot off, they scored a measly 0.90 points per field goal attempt.

How They Match Up

As good as Baylor is, I do think this is a great matchup for Kofi Cockburn. The one starter the Bears lost from last season is center Freddie Gillespie, and this is just Flo Thamba’s third career start. I’m not sure that Thamba is ready for the challenge of defending Kofi just yet. Also, perhaps the one weakness in Baylor’s no-middle scheme is that it can struggle to finish possessions with rebounds. Baylor ranked just 260th in DRB% (percentage of opponents’ misses that you rebound) last season, and Scott Drew’s teams have never been great on the defensive glass. Kofi is elite as an offensive rebounder, and I imagine he will rack up quite a few offensive boards. He might get a few blocks too, as Baylor has been one of the 15 worst teams in offensive block percentage (percentage of two-point attempts blocked) in the country in each of the past two seasons.

The matchup on the whole is much tougher, but there are a few things the Illini can do to come away with a win. The first is to get out in transition whenever possible. Nobody in the country is better in the fast break than Ayo Dosunmu, and Baylor’s defense is a whole lot easier to score on before it gets set. But in order to have many transition opportunities, Illinois will need to win the defensive glass. Illinois is a fantastic rebounding team, but Baylor has been in the top 10 in ORB% (percentage of your own misses that you rebound) for seven years running. The strength versus strength battle on the defensive boards is the number one thing I’m watching for in this game. In half court sets, Illinois will need to make its threes. Baylor is as good as anybody at stopping dribble penetration, and sometimes a three is the only good look available. Illinois has been much improved from behind the arc so far this season, making 46.9% of its three-point attempts through three games; it’s time to see if that improvement is real.

Even if the threes aren’t falling, the next-best offense might be to just keep shooting and hope you grab the rebound. Last year, Baylor was 260th in the country in DRB%, and the Bears lost their best rebounder in Gillespie. And Illinois was 9th in ORB%. Illinois should be able to get plenty of points off of offensive rebounds.

The last thing the Illini need to do is simply to not beat themselves. Illinois had a lot of turnovers last week come from sloppy mistakes. Thanksgiving is over, but Baylor will feast on any mistake that you make. Baylor will likely beat you even if you do play a clean game. You don’t stand a chance if you give them the ball for free.

Prediction

I would love to say that I think the Illini will win this game, but I just don’t think I can pick against Baylor. In my mind, Baylor is at least the second-best team in the country, if not the best. So this pick is nothing against the Illini; I’m as high on them as anyone. But Baylor is ranked No. 2 for a reason. Never have I hoped so much to be wrong.

Baylor 74, Illinois 72