The Numbers Behind Baylor's Surprising Success
If I told you at the start of the season that a team from the Big 12 would be ranked second in the country in January, you probably wouldn’t have batted an eye.
But if I then told you that team was Baylor, your eyes would presumably start batting a lot.
The Bears are 13-0 and ranked second in the Associated Press Poll, one spot ahead of preseason conference favorite Kansas. Baylor joins reigning national champion Villanova and Gonzaga as the only unbeaten teams in the nation, and their efficiency on both sides of the ball is helping the program blaze new ground.
No. 2 - highest ranking in program history. https://t.co/88G9PdyLkV #WSS #SicEm 🏀 pic.twitter.com/NorTre9oiB
— Baylor Basketball (@BaylorMBB) January 2, 2017
Baylor checks in at No. 3 in coaches top 25, tying its highest ever in that poll: https://t.co/UGZFum3qjB #SicEm 🏀 #WSS
— Baylor Basketball (@BaylorMBB) January 2, 2017
Scott Drew’s squad was fifth in the preseason Big 12 poll, behind the Jayhawks, who were picked unanimously to win the conference. West Virginia, Texas and Iowa State were also picked ahead of the Bears.
So how did the Bears jump from a team projected to finish in the middle of the pack to one which could end Kansas’ 12-year run as regular-season conference champions?
An Even Better Offense
Last season, Baylor finished ranked 24th, per KenPom, checking in 14th in opponent-adjusted offensive efficiency and 84th on defense.
The Bears were not great at putting the ball in the basket (tied for 97th in effective field goal percentage) and struggled with ball security (162nd in turnover rate), but they were dominant on the offensive glass. Only West Virginia and SMU had a better offensive rebound rate than Baylor’s 40.1% clip (Baylor also played the nation’s hardest slate of opposing defenses, per KenPom).
The Bears were led by center Rico Gathers, whose 18.5% offensive rebound rate led the nation. Frontcourt mates Johnathan Motley and Taurean Prince joined him in the Top 10 in the Big 12.
Only Motley returned this season, theoretically weakening the Bears’ greatest strength.
They have indeed "dropped" here, from the 99th percentile to the 97th. Baylor is again one of the top offensive rebounding teams in the nation, ranking 12th with a 38.3% rate.
Motley has led the way with a 14.0% offensive rebound percentage, which is second among Big 12 players. Terry Matson (13.4%) and Jo Lual-Acuil (10.7%) have helped make up for the departure of Gathers and Prince. Matson was a role player for the Bears last year while Lual-Acuil is a junior college transfer who is thriving in his first Division I season.
The sustained offensive rebounding prowess is only part of why the Bears have jumped to seventh in offensive efficiency at KenPom. They have also become a much more efficient shooting team and one that owns the 19th best effective field goal percentage in the country (56.7%).
Over the past two years, the Bears have done most of their damage inside the arc, ranking 320th in three-point attempt rate last season and tied for 254th this season. They are performing considerably better on these shots in 2016-17, as they are tied for 18th in two-point percentage (56.2%), 98 spots better than their ranking last year (105th, 51.0%).
This jump has primarily been driven by improvements at the rim. As was the case last year, the majority of the Bears’ field goal attempts come on two-point jump shots, according to Hoop-Math.com (40.4% of their attempts have been these kind of shots, the 12th-highest rate in the country). They are shooting 44.4% on these shots (sixth in the country), after shooting 40.4% on them last year (which tied for 31st).
At the rim though, Baylor is converting on a staggering 74.0% of its shots, which is eighth in the country. Last year, the Bears hit 61.5% of them, which was tied for 108th.
Lual-Acuil is 38 for 42 (90.5%) on these shots, and Motley is 39 for 56 (69.6%) from this range.
In terms of turnover rate, the Bears are now above average in this regard and are tied for 97th in turnovers per possession. Last year, point guard Lester Medford had a 21.5% turnover rate, which was partially offset by a 34.1% assist rate.
This year, new point guard Manu Lecomte (a transfer from Miami) has posted a 32.6% assist rate, but he is only running a 15.7% turnover rate.
Defense is Now Top Notch
Per KenPom, Baylor’s defense has improved by 8.3 points per 100 possessions from last season.
Things start here beyond the arc. In 2015-16, opponents torched the Bears from three-point range as Baylor tied for 289th in three-point percentage allowed (36.5%). This contributed to them allowing a 51.0% effective field goal percentage that was tied for 249th.
This season, opponents are only shooting 29.4% on threes against Baylor. Knowing what we know about three-point volatility in basketball, we should expect this number to regress towards the national average.
Still, Baylor’s improvement on defense isn’t all random variation as they are also forcing teams to struggle inside the arc. They rank 16th in two-point field goal percentage with their big men deterring shots at the rim.
Lual-Acuil is second in the nation with a 15.9% block percentage, which looks even more impressive given opponent’s reluctance to attack the rim against him and his teammates. Opponents are only taking 17.6% of their shots at the rim against Baylor, the lowest rate in the country, according to Hoop-Math.
The Bears instead funnel opponents to the mid-range to take the most inefficient shot in basketball, where opponents are making just 35.8% of their attempts.
Baylor’s success certainly looks sustainable, with newcomers like Lual-Acuil and Lecomte more than compensating for the loss of the Bears’ veteran leaders from a year ago. The pair actual leads the team in Win Shares, according to Sports-Reference.com, while Motley ranks third.
A challenging conference slate awaits them, but KenPom projects they will be favored in all but two of their remaining games, pegging them to finish with a 25-6 record. Our projections also have them as a two-seed in the NCAA tournament, so these Bears are no fluke.