Final Four Preview: (1) Baylor vs. (2) Houston

When Baylor has the ball

Aside from Gonzaga, no offense left in this field is scarier to process than Baylor’s. It would be one thing if the Bears were an offensive rebounding machine (they are) that generates a lot of high-percentage looks in the paint (they do) on a roster with at least three, possibly four three-level scorers (which they have). But for them to also have the highest three-point percentage in college basketball at 41.1%? Just brutal to consider if you’re an opposing coach.

Fascinatingly, the Bears have frequently run out lineups this year with multiple non-shooters. None of Mark Vital, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, or Flo Thamba have made a three this season, and collectively, they’re responsible for just 28 Other Twos. Considering the Bears only really go eight-deep on the average night and Vital in particular is a very good defender, Scott Drew and company have to make lots of snap decisions as to how many shooters they’re able to put out at once. Of course, it’s a good problem to have when all of your shooters are hitting at least 38% of their threes.

Six Baylor Bears have made at least 16 threes this season, and four (Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler, MaCio Teague, and Adam Flagler) have hit at least 42. The Bears’ version of going “small” means they just play Matthew Mayer (6’9” mullet man) at power forward, a player who is 28-for-70 (40%) from deep. Coupled with this is the problem that all of Mitchell, Butler, and Mayer are fantastic off-the-dribble shooters, meaning that you can’t leave them alone even for a second. But if you overcommit – and many teams will – that leaves Teague, a 39.6% three-point shooter, wide open for one of his many Shawn Marion-esque jumpers.

I think this matchup is wonderful for many reasons, but one of them is that it’s a game involving two teams that force lots of off-the-dribble jumpers, two offenses that take lots of them, and two defenses that don’t allow many catch-and-shoot attempts in the first place. Houston is more willing to give up three-point attempts than Baylor is, but as pointed out by Jordan Sperber in a fabulous YouTube breakdown, the Cougars are so good at quickly rotating on skip passes that it isn’t often the opponent gets off a wide-open three-point attempt by design.

Considering one of Houston’s best attributes is the post double, it has to be mildly comforting for Scott Drew that Baylor barely runs post-ups at all in the first place. Synergy credits post-ups as being just under 2% of all Baylor possessions, which means you might see a couple on Saturday but not many. Instead, Baylor will look to create open threes off of off-ball movement and on-ball screens. Houston has been elite in defending ball-screens this year, but they also haven’t faced a team with as many great pull-up shooters as Baylor has. (Unless you’ve played Baylor, you have also not faced a team like them.) The more guarded, off-balance threes Houston can manage to force, the better their odds are of playing on Monday.

Threes make up about 38.4% of all Baylor shots, but an important distinction between Baylor and Houston is the Bears being a bit more fond of actually getting to the rim. 35.5% of all Baylor shots are layup/dunk/tip attempts, versus 25.8% of Houston’s. Baylor’s simply quite a bit better at applying pressure to the rim in a non-rebounding situation, whether that’s off of a cut to the basket or one of their ball-handler options using their speed to get all the way to the rim. If you collapse too hard on the ball-handler, instead of a three, you could be looking at Vital or Tchamwa Tchatchoua streaking to the rim behind you:

Or, as of late, Baylor’s just started clearing things out and letting Davion Mitchell’s utterly insane speed carry them to an easy two points. There are times where it seems like Mitchell is the closest college basketball has gotten to its own Rickey Henderson-like figure.

Houston has to find a myriad of ways to defend this that at least somewhat work, but again, it helps Houston immensely that they’ve been great at defending both basket/flash cuts and on-ball screens all season long. The Cougars rank in the 98th-percentile in pick-and-roll defense and 96th-percentile in cuts, which, uh, seems good. Despite not having a player taller than 6’8”, it seems like everyone on Houston’s roster minus 6’1” Marcus Sasser is capable of blocking a shot when called upon. That’s of serious importance against a Baylor offense that has had 10.6% of its two-point attempts blocked.

Similarly, as best as they can, Houston has to find a way to help on these ball-screens without overcommitting and without opening up an easy driving lane to the basket. This is obviously easier said than done, but they’ve done this plenty in 2020-21. Houston’s allowed a FG% at the rim nearly 7% better than Baylor’s, and to go with that, almost no guard has scored with regularity in the paint against Houston this year. It’s simply very hard to do so when all those arms are there, you know?

All this being said, Baylor’s going to find plenty of pockets of success. They’re too talented and too deep not to, and it helps that they very rarely turn the ball over. Like Houston, they’re also an elite offensive rebounding team, though they aren’t quite as great at it and Houston’s defensive rebounding is markedly better. However, the Baylor path to victory here is pretty easy to see if officials call a tight game. Only 15 teams in America gave up a higher defensive Free Throw Rate than Houston, in large part because the style of defense the Cougars play requires full-on aggression at all times. If they stopped even for a second, they wouldn’t be Houston. God, I can’t wait to see this matchup.

NEXT PAGE: Lineup notes, key matchups, three predictions

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