Submitted by Kelso Sturgeon on Friday, December 30, 2016 at 12:06 PM
The Baylor basketball team has been an unexpected force in the non-conference portion of their schedule. Starting the season unranked, the Bears have blown through a good schedule to remain undefeated and rise to #4 in the polls. The betting market isn’t as sold as the pollsters though. Baylor’s NCAA basketball championship odds are still 35-1,which puts them 13th—including behind two teams they’ve beaten in Louisville and Oregon.
Baylor’s history offers good reason for skepticism. The program has been a pretty consistent winner since 2008 under the coaching of Scott Drew, but they’ve also been a tease team that under delivers in both big regular season games and in March Madness. Drew has reached a couple of Elite Eights, but not since 2012 and never the Final Four. The last two years Baylor lost its first NCAA game as a 3-seed and 5-seed respectively.
But teams with a history of disappointment can eventually break through—just ask fans of the Chicago Cubs. And this edition of Baylor basketball is pretty good.
Let’s begin with the fact that the Bears have some experience. Their top five players are all juniors or seniors. Baylor has muscle inside. Their best player is power forward Jonathan Motley, who averages 16 points/8 rebounds per game. They have a seven-footer on Jo Acuil, who adds 11/8 to the cause. Ishmail Wainwright is a contributing rebounder from the small forward spot.
Baylor has had good frontcourts in the past though and it hasn’t translated to success. This year’s team has some real talent in the backcourt. Manu Lecomte is a good playmaker, with five assists per game and a pretty decent three-point shooter at 37%. And Allerik Freeman is a big-time marksman, hitting a surreal 47% from behind the arc. The Bears can do everything well on a basketball floor and the individual parts have meshed well, as evidenced by their national rankings of 10th in offensive efficiency and 12th in defensive efficiency.
As alluded to at the top, these numbers have come against good teams. Baylor held Oregon to 33% shooting in an easy 66-49 win, a victory that looks more impressive in light of the Ducks’ upset of undefeated UCLA earlier this week. Motley had a big game against Michigan State with 26 points, keying a dominant second half in a 73-58 win.
Against Louisville, the Bears were down fifteen points at the half before rallying to win 66-63. And the Baylor defense was again in lockdown form against Xavier, holding the Musketeers to 31% shooting in an easy 76-61 win.
Those are some impressive wins by decisive margins. They’re done with things like defense and strong second halves, things that are good bellwethers for March success. And the difficulty of the schedule hasn’t resulted in Baylor overlooking some sleeper spots on the schedule—beating Florida Gulf Coast and Virginia Commonwealth isn’t dazzling on the surface, but both are programs good enough to beat a powerhouse in a trap spot. The Bears didn’t fall into the trap.
It’s easy to dismiss the importance of conference races and championships. But I think it’s at least worth keeping an eye on whether Baylor can get the clutch Big 12 wins that have eluded them as surely as March success has. One may be a harbinger of the other.