If everything had gone according to plan, it would be hard to talk yourself into the idea that this Kansas team could beat this year’s Baylor team anywhere, including at Allen Fieldhouse.
As it turns out, though, the Jayhawks just might be catching BU at an opportune time for an upset.
Few scenarios are foolproof in these pandemic times. It turns out even playing basketball games can be a challenge. The Bears looked to be on par with Gonzaga throughout December and January, making them one of two obvious favorites to win the 2021 national championship. Then came February and a slew of postponements, some of which have since become cancellations, for Baylor.
The No. 2-ranked Bears, still undefeated heading into Saturday’s marquee battle with the No. 17 Jayhawks, went a full three weeks without playing a game as they dealt with COVID-19 protocols within the program. Prior to the pause, it was business as usual, with BU winning 83-69 at Texas. But when the Bears finally returned to action this week in Waco, Texas, they had to fight their way back from a 17-point hole in the first half to defeat lowly Iowa State (2-17 overall, 0-14 Big 12).
Surely the Bears will regain most, if not all, of their offensive and defensive powers before long, despite the layoff. But have they yet?
KU’s second shot at acquiring its most impressive victory of the season could come easier this time around, with the Bears rounding their way back into form. Still, easier is a relative term. Even if the Bears remain without high energy reserve big man Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, who missed the ISU game due to COVID protocols, and they’re some watered down version of their former selves, they still were so clearly superior to KU before their pause that nothing about this game will be trouble-free for the Jayhawks.
There’s too much to like about how Baylor (18-0 overall, 10-0 Big 12) has performed all season to think this game will be anything other than a grind. KU coach Bill Self identified a few of the things the Bears do best, all of which should have the Jayhawks wary about the task at hand.
“We’ve got to be able to run offense without turning the ball over, because they do force a ton of turnovers. And we certainly don’t need live ball turnovers, because they’re so good in transition,” Self said Friday during his video press conference.
Per KenPom.com, the Bears rank third in the nation in opponent turnover percentage (25.9%), as well as third in steal percentage (13.6%).
Veteran KU guard Marcus Garrett, who is about to play his eighth career game against Baylor, brought up the Bears’ defense (10th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom) when describing what impresses him about the Bears this season.
“They defend as a unit. They talk,” Garrett said, adding the Bears are “connected” on that end of the floor, which makes them particularly difficult to score against.
“It seems like their switches are so together,” the KU senior said. “They talk on defense and you can just tell they’ve been together for a while.”
Garrett, no doubt, will spend much of Saturday night doing all he can to keep BU junior guard Jared Butler in check, after the 6-foot-3 Butler lit up the Jayhawks for 30 points on 7-for-9 3-point shooting in the first meeting this season.
Self said KU will have to defend the arc to be successful, and called Baylor (42.1% on 3-pointers in Big 12 play, 43.2% on the season) “the best 3-point shooting team, maybe in America.”
The Bears were only 8-fo-25 from 3-point range against ISU in their return. And they barely won the battle of the boards, 36-35, out of character for a team that is averaging a +4.1 rebound margin in Big 12 play.
Just because the Bears have unpaused or rebooted and returned to actually playing games again doesn’t necessarily mean they’re back to performing at the same level. Maybe the tuneup versus ISU will be all they needed. But if multiple players had COVID, that also potentially complicates the team’s re-acclimation. Some professional athletes who have contracted the virus, including the Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum and the Washington Wizards’ Russell Westbrook, have said publicly that they still dealt with the effects of COVID after recovering and returning to play. It’s awful that such a thing would happen to any athlete or team at any point, let alone during a season, but the virus’ impact on the Bears might still be lingering.
The point is a Bears victory over KU is no longer inevitable. There is some mystery to Baylor right now. BU is still the favorite, a rare feat for a visiting team entering Allen Fieldhouse. But KU has a clear advantage in the continuity department. The Jayhawks have been playing basketball without a pause all season — a key to their recent resurgence, especially in how they’ve progressed defensively.
No one could see it coming back in January, but a lot has changed for both teams since then, and the Jayhawks now have a realistic shot at toppling one of the two best teams in the country.
With the momentous rematch between the Big 12’s two dominant teams drawing nearer by the hour, it’s important to remember that Kansas should be bringing a much different look into Round 2 with Baylor.
It was during the two teams’ first meeting on Jan. 11 that Devon Dotson suffered a hip pointer late in the first half. KU’s starting point guard and leading scorer would only play eight minutes in the second half due to the pain and clearly wasn’t himself during the 67-55 Baylor win at Allen Fieldhouse. The injury would force Dotson to miss KU’s next game, at Oklahoma three days later.
To say that Dotson’s injury altered the trajectory of the first matchup between the Jayhawks and Bears would be inaccurate. Baylor led by as many as 17 points in the first half, before Dotson got hurt, and BU took a 12-point lead into the locker room at halftime.
The hip injury did, however, keep the Jayhawks from being able to run out their best lineups as often as Bill Self would have liked against the Bears.
In recent weeks, as the Jayhawks (23-3 overall, 12-1 Big 12) have rattled off 11 consecutive wins since losing to Baylor (24-1, 13-0), Self has relied on some combination of four guards and 7-footer Udoka Azubuike to wear down lesser opponents on both ends of the court. And the best lineups, of course, always feature Dotson, KU’s fastest guard and leading scorer (17.8 points per game in Big 12 contests).
Because Dotson’s availability was altered, the Bears only saw a little more than 11 minutes of the very best units KU can put on the floor.
As Self has almost completely gone away from the two-big lineups that he even used as a starting five earlier in the season, the best combinations game in and game out have included Dotson, Marcus Garrett, Ochai Agbaji, Azubuike and either Isaiah Moss or Christian Braun.
Listen here to our latest KU Sports Hour podcast, breaking down the KU-Baylor battle:
Against Baylor, KU’s lineup of Garrett, Dotson, Moss, Agbaji and Azubuike played 8:55, outscoring the Bears, 17-14, in that time. Swap in Braun for Moss and the 1B lineup spent 2:15 on the floor, with BU holding a 7-4 advantage.
Look at those same lineups in more recent KU games and you’ll see that the Jayhawks typically get to play longer with their most effective groups than the 11:10 they had versus Baylor.
In their past five outings, the Jayhawks used their two best lineups 18:02 against Texas, 16:05 at TCU, 22:02 at West Virginia, 22:19 against Oklahoma and 14:02 versus Iowa State.
Sometimes it’s the Moss lineup that works better and other days the one with Braun does the trick. But Self always has time to figure out which one will be best for a given opponent in the flow of each game.
When its two best lineups were on the court, KU outscored Texas by 10, TCU by 9, WVU by 19, OU by 26 and ISU by 10.
Baylor is obviously better than every other Big 12 opponent on KU’s schedule. The Bears’ defense, led by Davion Mitchell, Freddie Gillespie and Mark Vital, has proven fierce in the half court, regardless of the level of competition. Much like KU, Baylor’s defense (No. 3 in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom.com) has made it elite this season, as the Bears take a Big 12-record 23-game winning streak into Saturday’s rematch in Waco, Texas.
Dotson and Garrett will have to find the driving lanes that seem so impassable against Baylor’s perimeter defense in order for the Jayhawks to find success offensively. And every KU guard will have to be ready to knock down 3-pointers off whatever penetration and Azubuike post touches KU can muster.
With a healthy Dotson in the mix for the rematch, the Jayhawks should at least get more cracks at solving the Bears.
And they won’t be wasting any time with lineups that don’t function at all.
KU started Azubuike and David McCormack earlier in the season. That two-big look didn’t do the Jayhawks any good against Baylor.
The starting lineup of Garrett, Dotson, Agbaji, McCormack and Azubuike played two stretches against Baylor, totaling 5:20. The Jayhawks were outscored, 13-3, a virtual disaster offensively and a bad matchup defensively versus the Bears.
On Saturday, Baylor won’t see that KU lineup, but the Bears should get plenty of chances to try and prove they can stop the Jayhawks when they’re at their best.
KU’s most effective lineups
Garrett, Dotson, Moss, Agbaji, Azubuike
• vs. Baylor on Jan. 11: 8:55, outscored BU, 17-14
• vs. Texas on Feb. 4: 10:55, tied UT, 17-17
• at TCU on Feb. 8: 9:40, outscored TCU, 18-9
• at West Virginia on Feb. 13: 16:12, outscored WVU, 29-10
• vs. Oklahoma on Feb. 15: 22:19, outscored OU, 54-28
• vs. Iowa State on Feb. 18: 10:02, outscored ISU, 24-21
Garrett, Dotson, Braun, Agbaji, Azubuike
• vs. Baylor on Jan. 11: 2:15, got outscored by BU, 7-4
• vs. Texas on Feb. 4: 7:07, outscored UT, 18-8
• at TCU on Feb. 8: 6:25, tied TCU, 6-6
• at West Virginia on Feb. 13: 5:50, tied WVU, 10-10
• vs. Oklahoma on Feb. 15: did not play
• vs. Iowa State on Feb. 18: 4:00, outscored ISU, 15-7