After losing a deflating game to the South Carolina Gamecocks on their home floor in Gainesville the Gators turn their sights to the Baylor Bears when they kick off the Big 12-SEC Challenge on Saturday, January 27. With the rare opportunity to pick up a quality out of conference win in January at stake the Gators will look to improve the disjointed offense they showed against the Gamecocks while also trying to defend the 3-point line at a higher level on their side of the floor. With both leagues considered to be some of the strongest in college basketball the Big 12-SEC Challenge will be a legendary battle for basketball supremacy and a victory for the Gators won’t just be another addition to their quality win total but an RPI boost for the entire conference, ultimately helping the entire league. Leading in to this marquee matchup, here is the scouting report.
Sitting at 12-8 on the season the inability to close out tight games has been what has kept Baylor from being in the national spotlight, instead relegating them to a disappointing 2-6 in the Big 12. Wichita State (69-62), TCU (81-78 OT), West Virginia (57-54), Kansas (70-67), and Kansas State (90-83) were all losses that came in games Baylor was in until the final possessions and if the Bears were able to win even one or two of those games their season outlook would look a lot different. All of those games were quality win possibilities they let slip which now leads them to a situation where they really need a win at Florida to better their NCAA Tournament hopes.
Surprisingly enough when the Bears head to Gainesville it will only be the second time these two programs have ever faced each other. The first and only game played between the Bears and Gators took place on December 30th, 1981 on a neutral floor and saw Baylor sneak out a 72-71 victory. I truly hope that someone, somewhere remembers this game and is still mad about the outcome and is looking for the Gators to get some sweet revenge a few decades later.
If there is one thing the Baylor Bears and coach Scott Drew are known for around the college basketball world (other then their yellow-green highlighter colored jerseys they often wear) it is the frantic, confusing zone defense they play. A shapeless formation that seems to change throughout the possession to confuse opponents, the Baylor zone is a defensive metamorphosis that is extremely difficult to prepare for. Often times zone defenses have a distant shape like a 2-3 or 1-3-1 making it possible to scout against knowing roughly each player’s defensive assignments. Baylor, on the other hand, constantly shifts the starting positions of players in a blob of fortification that doesn’t give the offense any strategic place to start. Though it is tough to peg exactly what Baylor is doing from a tactical standpoint, it’s easy to see what they are accomplishing. They always make sure to stack the strong side of the floor making dribble penetration or feeding the ball into the post a difficult endeavor. Packing the paint to defend against anything at the rim, Baylor is willing to give up three-point shots. This is great news for Florida as they have shot jumpers at high rate against zone defenses (49.5%) and could have success against a defense that can sometimes be impenetrable with the dribble. Baylor doesn’t exclusively play zone but they do it a lot (41.8% of the time) but even when they play man they use a lot of the same principles, clogging the paint to protect the hoop and often switching both on and away from the ball to confuse opponents and make it tough for them to run offense. Anchoring the defense for Baylor is 7’0” senior Jo Lual-Acuil Jr., a player whose length and anticipating when patrolling the middle of the court makes him the cornerstone of the Bear’s defense. If Florida is able to get past defenders to get to the rim you can be sure Lual-Acuil Jr. will be there to welcome them, but the meeting won’t be cordial. In addition to Lual-Acuil Jr., Tristan Clark (6’9”, 240), Terry Maston (6’8”, 225), and Nuni Omot (6’9”, 210) are physical menaces that will try to turn the game into a cage wrestling match. Coming off a game with South Carolina where Florida wasn’t able to step up to the physical challenge they will need to be prepared for a gritty Baylor team who would be more then happy to play this one in trenches. 12th in the country in rebounding margin the Bears are a team committed to ending possessions with a defensive rebound. Often times zone playing teams can struggle to rebound but Baylor’s length, physicality, and sheer will to grab misses makes up for any rebounding miscommunications a zone can sometimes have. Who will step up offensively for the Gators against this difficult defense? We’ll see on Saturday.
Known primarily for their defense, Baylor’s offensive abilities have not gotten the attention that they deserve. Led by senior point guard Manu Lecomte, a player with a penchant for hitting tough shots in the clutch, the Bears play an efficient brand of offense with multiple ways to score. A threat in transition every time they secure a defensive rebound, Manu Lecomte, King Mcclure, Mark Vital, and Nuni Omot are quick and crafty on the fast break and do an incredible job of not settling for jump shots but getting all the way to rim for layups. Florida is going to struggle to offensive rebound against the size of Baylor so I think it would be more fruitful for them to not send as many players to the glass but instead fall back and be ready to defend in transition. Although they’ll look for a quick basket if there are numbers, if nothing easy is there Baylor will really slow down and get into long offensive sets. Often times the goal of these sets is to get the ball down low for a post up for one of their dominant big men. Jo Lual-Acuil Jr., Terry Maston, and especially Tristan Clark are all tremendous low post scorers who can take advantage of defenders one on one to get an easy bucket at the rim or to get fouled. Florida is going to have to make protecting the paint a priority as Baylor’s trio of post players combines to average 33.9 points per game with almost all of them coming from the low block. You’ll likely see the Gators double team down low but what can’t happen is allowing wide open jump shots out of these double teams like they allowed against South Carolina. They don’t take a lot of attempts, but Baylor is a decent 3-point shooting team at 35.5% with Manu Lecomte being their best sharpshooter at 39.2%. The other threat the big men pose is on the offensive glass where the Gamecocks corral 35.3% of their missed shots. Florida is going to be undersized at all the forward positions on Saturday but if they can be diligent in finding bodies to box out when a shot goes up then they should be able to compete on the glass. Knowing the advantage South Carolina has down low the Gators could look to shoot some passing lanes and be aggressive in trying to get steals as the Bears have been prone to some turnover problems in the past. The Gators could have some trouble guarding Baylor straight up due to their size so forcing some turnovers and getting some layups off them could help balance out the easy points Baylor will likely get inside. How they choose to try and defend will be interesting to see.
Keys For the Gators
Establishing some offensive rhythm against a strong defensive team that does everything in it’s power to make it’s opponents confused and uncomfortable with the ball. I’m sure the coaching staff has been deep into their scout for this one and hopefully they have concocted a solid game plan for how to attack Baylor’s amoeba-type zone. Egor Koulechov hasn’t shot the ball well in a few games but if he can find his touch it would do wonders in stretching out the Bear’s defense and hopefully open up some lanes for Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen to drive. Defensively, Florida’s frontcourt has to be ready for another battle. Dontay Bassett was able to provide some valuable bench minutes against South Carolina and if he can give some similar production on Saturday it would be huge for the Gators’ rotation.
Big 12-SEC Challenge Picks
I thought it would be fun to make my predictions for all the games in the Big 12-SEC Challenge for you guys to see and possibly roast me for afterwards for bad picks! Here we go.
Baylor at Florida: Florida
Tennessee at Iowa State: Tennessee
Texas A&M at Kansas: Texas A&M
Georgia at Kansas State: Kansas State
Oklahoma at Alabama: Oklahoma
Oklahoma State at Arkansas: Oklahoma State
TCU at Vanderbilt: TCU
Ole Miss at Texas: Texas
Texas Tech at South Carolina: South Carolina
Kentucky at West Virginia: West Virginia
I’m predicting the Big 12 wins 6-4, but remember that the Big 12 only having 10 schools means that some of the SEC’s teams don’t play. Auburn who currently first in the SEC isn’t playing and Missouri and LSU are teams that the SEC probably would rather have playing in place of Vanderbilt and Georgia, so the Big 12 isn’t getting the SEC’s best.
How do you think Florida’s game against Baylor will shake out? Leave a comment here or post on the Gator Country forums.