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

No long-winded introduction here; this is merely the game I’ve been hoping to see since the Field of 68 was announced. (Though I’m still a little sore over Ohio State blowing it in the first round. I root for you people once and that’s how you repay me?) These are two shot volume machines, with Houston being the very best team in America in terms of generating shots per 100 possessions. Baylor hits a ton of threes; Houston brutalizes you for 40 minutes. It’s the most enjoyable matchup of styles we’ll get until the title game.

When Houston has the ball

No proper Houston preview can start without heading directly to their prime strength (and Baylor’s main team weakness): rebounding. Or, if you prefer, shot volume versus shot efficiency. I started noticing a very specific trend that I decided to call The Houston because no other team does it so frequently and so brutally. To achieve The Houston, you need to rebound 35% or more of your misses and turn it over on 16% or less of your possessions. Houston did it 15 times this season. No other team in America got past eight.

It’s why the Cougars’ struggles in actually hitting shots has been the B-story of sorts. In the NCAA Tournament alone, Houston has posted 63, 62, and 67 points in their last three games, with an eFG% of 44.1%, 44.2%, and 41.1% along the way. They went 9-for-30 on two-pointers against Oregon State and 14-for-37 against Rutgers. By all means, teams that post those numbers generally shouldn’t be anywhere near the Final Four. And yet: here’s the Houston Cougars, who have only posted a sub-1 PPP five times this year and keep getting there because of an absolutely bonkers amount of offensive rebounds.

The Cougars have rebounded 39.8% of their misses, the second-highest rate in college basketball and the highest by any Final Four team not named North Carolina since 2014. This is important, because we should note that offensive rebounding percentage has slowly dwindled over the last 15 years and tied for an all-time low this season at just 28%. Offensive rebounds will always be important, but they don’t hold the same level of importance that they did in, say, 2006. You can’t tell Kelvin Sampson and the Houston Cougars that, though. You certainly can’t tell their opponents this March, either. Houston has attempted 51 more field goals and 13 more free throws than their NCAA Tournament opposition because they are demolishing the glass:

Houston has been held below a 30% OREB% twice all season, the last of which was over two months ago against Temple. It really hasn’t mattered as to who the opposition is, either. Houston has played teams ranked 25th (Boise State), 31st (Memphis, twice), and 38th (Western Kentucky) in defensive rebounding; the Cougars went for 41.7%, 36.6%, 37.9%, and 35.3% OREB%, respectively. They’ve gone 43% or better in three of four NCAA Tournament games.

This is a serious problem for Baylor before we even get to actual attacks/counterattacks strategy. The Bears rank 273rd in defensive rebounding percentage, easily the lowest ranking of the remaining Final Four teams. In the team’s first loss to Kansas in late February, the Bears allowed the Jayhawks to rebound an astounding 48.3% of their misses, which helped Kansas overcome a 3-for-16 day from deep and Baylor winning the turnover battle 14-3.

If that level of poor defensive rebounding shows up, the Bears may be done before the game even starts. Even if their normal levels attend, it’s going to be very tough. Of Baylor’s four NCAA Tournament opponents, only one (Arkansas) ranked above the national average in offensive rebounding. They haven’t really faced a tough test on this front since playing West Virginia in early March, but even Arkansas and Villanova easily beat their season averages in terms of offensive rebounding. Villanova, a team that averaged rebounding 27.8% of their misses this year and is not exactly tall, got back a third of their missed shots. Arkansas: 37.9%.

If Baylor can’t clean this up, the game really could swing Houston’s way to an extent a lot of people may not expect.

Beyond the rebounding battle, there’s two clear areas where Houston has to succeed: finding open shots from deep and avoiding getting themselves into a mid-range chuck-fest. Houston would be a fairly ideal underdog in a different setting for two reasons: they keep the tempo very slow (64.9 possessions per game, 319th of 347 teams) and they jack up lots of threes. 42.5% of all Houston shots are from downtown, and their 34.9% hit rate is a bit above the national average.

The primary shooter is Quentin Grimes, the Kansas transfer who entered late-bloomer status this year and quietly became one of the best players in college basketball. Grimes is shooting 41.2% from deep on 240 attempts, and as evidenced by Houston’s run so far, he’s very unafraid to shoot. Grimes has taken a hilarious 39 three-point attempts in four games, but he’s backing it up by having hit 17 of these so far (43.6%). In fact, Grimes has hit at least four threes in seven straight games and nine of the last ten despite being the primary offensive focus for opponents to gameplan against, which is very impressive.

Grimes has been lethal this year in the Cougars’ rare transition runs: 30-for-59 in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock and 69-for-181 on all other attempts. It’s not natural for Houston to run and gun, but when you have a shooter as good as Grimes, you’re kind of obligated to do it occasionally. Watch for Houston to push the pace off of steals and, every now and then, off of a particularly bad Baylor miss.

Baylor’s defense has been excellent this season, and aside from a blip in February/March due to their three-week COVID pause, they’ve been hard to score on. The most successful team to do so in this Tournament was easily Arkansas, who didn’t shoot particularly well from deep but worked to push the pace off of misses + rare steals. By doing so, it earned the Razorbacks several open layups when Baylor wasn’t settled, as well as forcing some key Bear defenders into foul trouble. Still, this is a Baylor defense that’s excellent at guarding threes and even better at forcing the right people to take them.

Lastly: ball screens. We haven’t seen Houston run a massive amount of these over their last couple of games, as both Syracuse and Oregon State went heavy with zone defense in an attempt to force the Cougars to shoot over the top of them. Houston has a good zone offense, but zones take away Houston’s two most efficient play types: transition ball and the pick-and-roll. Houston’s ball-screen offense ranks in the 80th-percentile, per Synergy, with the ball handler having a ton of success. The main ball handlers this season have been DeJon Jarreau, Marcus Sasser, and Grimes, with Grimes/Sasser being more likely to pull up for threes and Jarreau being more likely to take a mid-range jumper.

Baylor’s goal in this game should be taking away these jumpers from Jarreau and forcing him/Sasser to shoot over the top of them instead. Neither Jarreau (35.2% 3PT%) nor Sasser (32.6%) are quite as automatic from deep as you’d hope, but both are solid rim scorers, and everyone in Houston’s main rotation converts at least 57% of their attempts at the rim. The problem: they don’t get to the rim all that often (25.8% of all attempts). If Baylor can drag Houston’s possessions out and force them to take 25-footers deep in the shot clock, it’s an optimal outcome for Scott Drew and company.

They just have to remember to rebound. Good luck!

NEXT PAGE: When Baylor has the ball