If the first weekend of the 2021 NCAA tournament taught us anything, it’s that nobody knows anything. So here’s one more reckless assertion quite possibly doomed for the ash heap of history after the tournament’s final weekend.
Gonzaga, we think, enters the Final Four as an overwhelming favorite. According to my friend Ken’s laptop, the Bulldogs have roughly a 60 percent shot at winning it all. That’s a notably robust figure with two games yet to be played in a bracket that includes both a No. 1 and a No. 2 seed in the other semifinal.
A 60 percent win probability is perhaps counseling us to be wary of the social media zeitgeist in at least one respect. It has become fashionable over these past few days to say see, we were right all along. Gonzaga and Baylor really are the two best teams. But both Ken’s odds and the ones at FiveThirtyEight show a single heavy favorite more than they do a clear top two. We may well have been right two or three months ago, but Baylor this season has presented us the challenge of assessing two different teams over time.
Pre-COVID Baylor was kind of like pre-Army Elvis. That team had an edge that has now been softened, at least statistically. In January, the Bears were absolutely obliterating opponents with: 1) insanely accurate shooting; and 2) a pressure defense that forced an exceptionally high number of turnovers.
After COVID, BU has been able to reassemble one half of that combination. Scott Drew’s guys are very much forcing turnovers left and right. The conventional wisdom would say Baylor can’t possibly continue to make opponents give the ball away on 25.8 percent of their tournament possessions. I’m not so sure. We know the Bears did force Big 12 opponents to commit turnovers 25.1 percent of the time before COVID, and that was on a healthy sample size of 622 possessions. Wisconsin, Villanova, and Arkansas all took excellent care of the ball the entire year, and BU extracted turnovers like a vampire from all of them in the tournament.
The one facet of Baylor’s game that has left the building, however, is the Gonzaga-level shooting accuracy. That’s gone, and it might not have time to come back in the next 40 to 80 minutes. The current team you see before you is a mere shadow of the January version of this same rotation, one that in Big 12 play was draining 43 percent of its threes and 56 percent of its twos.
Two months ago, forcing turnovers was but one more almost superfluous flourish to Baylor’s historically dominant performance. Today those takeaways are a lifeline. In a turnover-neutral setting, this team would be outscoring its tournament opponents by a razor-thin 0.03 points per possession.
Baylor just gets more chances to score
Points per possession and per “effective” (turnover-less) possession, tournament games only
Opp. Efficiency Opp. Effective PPP PPP Margin PPeP PPeP Margin Baylor 1.12 0.90 +0.22 1.25 1.22 +0.03
Give the Bears credit. Part of this disparity in scoring chances has been created by this offense’s ability to play UCLA-level zero-turnover ball. Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler, and MaCio Teague sow chaos on defense, and then these very same ball-hawkers turn around and play flawless turnover-free ball as though they were being drilled and monitored by John Beilein or Bo Ryan. It’s been an incredibly powerful combination.
How powerful? Baylor’s turnover disparity accounted for 86 percent (0.19 out of 0.22) of the Bears’ per-possession scoring margin over Hartford, Wisconsin, Villanova, and Arkansas. Most everything you see in terms of scouting BU will be about the other 14 percent, which is fine. After all, maybe the next game will be played at or near turnover parity. We don’t know. But, so far, most of the Bears’ scoring advantage over its tournament opponents has been attributable to straight turnover margin.
Then again BU’s excellence in gaining an advantage in opportunities is but the most extreme example of an unmistakable trend at the 2021 Final Four. Every team except Gonzaga is modeling itself on Baylor, albeit each in their own fashion.
The NCAA tournament can be a shot volume showcase
Shot volume index, tournament games only
Opp. SVI SVI Margin Baylor 104.9 85.8 +19.1 Houston 105.4 91.7 +13.7 UCLA 104.0 96.2 +7.8 Gonzaga 99.8 94.0 +5.8
Houston inflates its shot volume and depresses that of its opponent with outstanding rebounding at both ends of the floor. The Cougars have also given the ball away on just 14.7 percent of their tournament possessions.
A missed shot for Kelvin Sampson’s team against Baylor will be the basketball equivalent of a four-yard gain on first down. The series of downs is just starting, so to speak, and UH is now in pretty good position. A shot on the rim means, first, the BU defense did not force a turnover. Second, it signals that Justin Gorham or Fabian White can now get to work doing what they do, namely, dominating the offensive glass.
In my colleague Jeff Borzello’s excellent compilation of Final Four scouting reports by anonymous coaches, one AAC coach suggests, somewhat counterintuitively, going small against Houston. Doing so, the coach says, induces Sampson to do the same and removes one large offensive rebounding body from the floor.
As for Jeff’s section on how UCLA has made it this far, that’s where coaches throw richly deserved praise in the direction of Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez. Still, I confess my first thought on how the Bruins have reached the Final Four was oriented more toward zero turnovers and zero made threes by opponents.
The NCAA tournament can be a three-point defense lottery
Tournament games only
Opp. 3FG% UCLA 24.7 Baylor 26.8 Gonzaga 28.0 Houston 34.3
UCLA’s games against Alabama and Michigan both came down to the final possession in regulation, and the Crimson Tide and Wolverines shot a combined 10-of-39 from beyond the arc. Even one more make from either opponent could have been significant, but the hoops gods willed otherwise. (Those same Naismithian deities were also impishly messing with the Tide at the free throw line.)
One safe bet for the Bruins’ game against Gonzaga is that Mick Cronin’s offense won’t commit many turnovers. Mark Few’s defense has been very good in the tournament and indeed its bottom line number is just as good as those posted by the more vaunted and visually impressive likes of Baylor and Houston. Yet the one thing that the very good Zags defense is not (that the Bears and Cougars defenses very much are) is disruptive. Major-conference tournament opponents have made their twos against the Bulldogs, cumulatively speaking.
Gonzaga’s cardinal strength on that side of the ball in the tournament has instead been surprisingly good defensive rebounding. By “surprisingly” I mean specifically I was something of a skeptic on this front four games ago. Sure, their whole-season and WCC percentages on the glass look fine, I thought, but what happens when an opponent actively pursues offensive boards?
The game against USC moderated my skepticism. The Mobley brothers and their teammates actively pursued offensive boards all season long and indeed excelled at getting them, but they could gain zero purchase on that front against the Bulldogs. Maybe the numbers are a bit off because USC was down 20 pretty much the whole game. Well, that’s kind of the analytic challenge with Few’s guys. Everyone’s always down 20 against them.
One thing Gonzaga throws at opponents is the dual-edged knife of guards who get defensive boards. Early in the tournament the award-winner in that category was Joel Ayayi (22 defensive boards in three games), and then against the Trojans it was Jalen Suggs (nine). A guard getting a defensive rebound is both denying the opponent a second chance and triggering the fast break instantly and, in the Zags’ case, skillfully.
Tyger Campbell will walk the ball up in the backcourt against the Bulldogs because UCLA wants to walk the ball up. That’s the pace Cronin favors, and the Bruins are still here in April. Gonzaga plays it a different way, and this is best seen when either Ayayi or Suggs grabs the defensive rebound. Often when a big on a normal team gets the defensive board, we’re presented with that one- or two-second interlude where he’s looking to pass to a guard while also being harassed for the ball by an opposing player. Ayayi and Suggs do away with that pause and instead rocket the ball right up the backs of the retreating defense.
Even when the defense gets back and forces the Zags to play half-court, the results are about what you’d expect from a heavy favorite to win it all. The Bulldogs carved USC to pieces whether the Trojans were playing man or zone. Drew Timme is a two-point machine, Corey Kispert’s hitting half his threes in the tournament, and everyone in this rotation shares the ball. There’s a reason they’re 30-0.
Of course, the last two teams that made it this far with a zero in the loss column both fell in the national semifinals. UNLV lost to Duke in 1991, and Kentucky was defeated by Wisconsin in 2015. Maybe that’s the ruling precedent straight from the hoops gods and Gonzaga will follow suit.
There is, however, a different precedent that is no less applicable. The Zags have recorded an outrageously large scoring margin while blowing their first four tournament opponents away in much the same manner as North Carolina in 2009 or Villanova in 2018. Pick your tea leaves.