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Baylor Was Known For Its Offense. Now It’s Winning With Defense.

The top-ranked Baylor men’s basketball team hasn’t lost in more than three months and is riding a Big 12-record 23-game win streak. This isn’t the first stint at No. 1 for the school under head coach Scott Drew, but this team is nothing like previous iterations of his Bears.

While a revered recruiting prowess and celebrated offensive sets have been Drew’s calling cards during his nearly two-decade stint in Waco, it’s the team’s abrupt defensive transformation and stylistic departure that has caught the national eye this year.

Armed with a position-fluid roster, Baylor allows 0.75 points per play, the best mark in the country, according to Synergy Sports. Since the stat was first tracked by Synergy in the 2005-06 season, only four teams have produced superior figures.1 It’s no coincidence that Drew implemented a no-middle defense this season, after Big 12 foe Texas Tech employed a similar scheme on its way to the 2019 national championship game.2

Over his career, Drew has demonstrated a willingness to experiment with different defenses, but in recent years he has typically opted for around a 50-50 split of man-zone defense. This season it’s been nearly all man, which Drew has run on 98 percent of defensive plays, according to Synergy Sports. The results have been devastating for opposing offenses.

Baylor puts the clamps down in a stifling man defense

Points per possession allowed by the Baylor men’s basketball team with the share of total plays in man vs. zone defense, since the 2009-10 season

Share of defensive schemes
Season PPP Allowed In Man In Zone
2019-20 0.75 98.0% 2.0%
2014-15 0.82 9.7 90.3
2010-11 0.83 34.5 65.5
2009-10 0.83 32.9 67.1
2012-13 0.83 92.7 7.3
2011-12 0.84 53.7 46.3
2016-17 0.85 51.4 48.6
2017-18 0.88 51.7 48.3
2018-19 0.88 60.8 39.2
2013-14 0.89 43.3 56.7
2015-16 0.90 45.4 54.6

Source: Synergy Sports

This season, 214 of the 353 Division I teams have an overall offensive rating of at least 100. In 19 of its 25 games, Baylor’s defense has held its opponents to an offensive rating of less than 90.

Against a set Baylor defense, opponents are flailing. In the half court, only Memphis and Virginia are allowing fewer points per possession than Baylor, which ranked 125th in the metric last season. It matters little what play call is dialed up: The Bears rank between the 80th and 100th percentiles in defensive efficiency against plays in transition, screens, isos, handoffs, jumpshots, post-ups and runners, according to Synergy Sports.

The thrust of the no-middle scheme, which was wonderfully outlined by hoopvision68, is to keep the ball away from the paint by applying dogged on-ball pressure. Drew’s team often forces action toward the baseline by literally positioning their feet parallel to center court or by hugging the hip of the opponent, goading ballhandlers into attacking what appears to be an open lane to the rim. Of course, this is by design, and the avenue quickly closes with help defense or, if the ballhandler hesitates, a hard double team. What was a passage to the basket often devolves into a low-percentage look, a forced crosscourt pass or a blocked shot.

Baylor’s roster is uniquely suited to excel with this approach. With a panoply of guards and length at every position, Drew has lineups that can — and frequently do — switch 1 through 4. But the tip of the spear is Davion Mitchell, who might be the best defensive point guard in the nation. “I’ve seen dudes almost tap out because he’s relentless,” Baylor forward Freddie Gillespie said. Like Patrick Beverley of the L.A. Clippers, Mitchell is comfortable getting nearly under the jersey of his opponent and is remarkably difficult to maneuver around.

It didn’t take long for players to get in sync under Drew’s new arrangement. The Bears cleverly rotate and force a lot of deflections with their timing, no doubt honed by having the most experienced roster in the Big 12.

Entry passes are typically a no-go.

Those two turnovers were committed by Iowa State guard Tyrese Haliburton, a likely 2020 lottery pick who finished 2-for-12 from the floor with four turnovers in the teams’ first meeting.

Facing this aggressiveness at all areas of the floor, turning it over against the Bears can seem inevitable. Baylor has jumped from 144th in steal rate a season ago to the top 25 this season. Five players average at least a steal per game. And it doesn’t get any easier for opponents when they get to the rim: Baylor ranks in the top 35 in block rate.

It’s been a historic season up to this point in Waco. Two of Baylor’s 10 best single-game efforts of the KenPom era3 in effective field-goal percentage defense came this season. One of those came against Arizona, an 18-7 team featuring a top-30 scoring offense and potentially three first-round picks, including a likely lottery pick running point. Two of Baylor’s 10 best single-game conference performances in defensive efficiency have come this season, too.

Against Kansas’s colossal dyad of 6-foot-10 David McCormack and 7-foot Udoka Azubuike,4 Drew countered with 6-foot-5 Mark Vital and 6-foot-9 Frankie Gillespie. McCormack and Azubuike combined for 6 points in a 12-point loss, tied for the team’s worst in Allen Fieldhouse since Bill Self was named head coach.

As the Bears chase what would be the program’s first Final Four appearance in 70 years, confidence is starting to creep in. They’re 10-0 in Quadrant 1 games and are projected to be the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. “We definitely can win the national championship,” Mitchell recently said. With a defense that strong, who could doubt him?

Footnotes

  1. Stephen F. Austin in 2012-13, Kentucky in 2014-15, and Kansas in 2005-06 and 2006-07.

  2. Baylor saw it twice up-close last season, after all.

  3. Since the 2001-02 season.

  4. A FiveThirtyEight favorite in the midst of one of the most efficient offensive careers in college basketball history.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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