The Curious Case of Baylor Basketball

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The Curious Case of Baylor Basketball

In the movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the main character Benjamin Button is born an old man, but he biologically grows younger.

Baylor Basketball has done the same. After reaching the NCAA Tournament last year, the Bears entered the 2008-2009 season rich with experience and talent. But as the current season grew older, the Bears looked like they grew younger in the way they have played.

In fact, Baylor's turnaround in the wrong direction is as close to inexplicable as the de-aging of Benjamin Button.

Baylor's disappointing output of 17-12 overall and a mere 5-10 league record is such a dramatic drop-off from last year's final success, that Coach Scott Drew's team takes the title of "Most Disappointing Team" from Notre Dame and Georgetown with ease.

With the strength of the Big East, and the fact that both the Irish and Hoyas lack depth while Georgetown is also very young, the downfall of those teams is understanding.

Baylor's is not.

In the preseason, most pundits considered Baylor to be the second or third best team in the Big XII behind Oklahoma and maybe Texas. But now, the Bears are close to the basement of a conference they occupied since before the invention of the Internet.

One Bleacher Report writer in his countdown of the top 25 teams in the country in the preseason said Baylor should make "A strong NCAA Tournament run. A Sweet Sixteen appearance is likely, but a trip to the elite eight isn't too far-fetched."

That same writer was quoted in ESPN the Magazine's College Basketball Preview Issue saying, "My breakout team is Baylor. The four incredible guards, Curtis Jerrells, Henry Dugat, Tweety Carter, and LaceDarius Dunn will be one of the best backcourts in the country. Add in stud forward Kevin Rogers and you get a team that can really score. If they play any semblance of defense, they could easily make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament."

Oh $#!& that was me.

When looking at the parts the Bears began the 2008-2009 campaign with, it looked pretty clear: Baylor Basketball was going to be a force to be reckoned with.

Last year's 21-11 team soared to heights fans in Waco hadn't seen since the late 1980s. That squad returned nearly its entire nucleus. Only guard Aaron Bruce, who was nothing more than a role player, graduated leaving Scott Drew with six of his seven leading scorers.

Curtis Jerrells is one the league's best point guards while sophomore LaceDarius Dunn is one of the league's most explosive scorers. Fellow guard, Tweety Carter drills over 40 percent of his three-pointers and his an offensive rating over 120.4 which is 75th best in the country.

Those three lead an offensive that as a whole ranks 32nd in the country, but only has one player with an offensive rating below 100 and that's seldomly used freshman, Fred Ellis.

Baylor's one weakness was its defense. The Bears at times didn't show up to protect their basket, ending the year with a defensive rating of 97.8, which ranked 105th in the country. BU's defense also proved to be the reason its season would end in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against Purdue. The Boilermakers would drop 90 points, something Purdue hadn't done all year.

This year's defense which seems like it would be the logical reason for Baylor's drop-off is just barely worse. 2009's defensive efficiency is 98.9 which is basically an extra basket every other game.

So here's where the Baylor quandary comes into play. How does a team that returns the overwhelming majority of its star and role players go from Sweet 16 or even Elite Eight hopefuls to worrying if it can even garner an NIT bid?

The first possibility is a "luck factor" that can deflate or inflate a record by a game or two. But last year's Baylor team actually should have won one more game while this year's record is actually indignant of how the team has played according to efficiency models provided by Ken Pomeroy.

The second possibility is tempo. Last year's Baylor team played very up-tempo at 71.9 possessions per game, 23rd fastest in the country. This year's Bears play significantly slower 68 possessions per game, 112th fastest in the country.

But if you look at Baylor's 2009 gameplan and its 2008 gameplan, you'll see that in 2009, the Bear's worst games came in games the team was sped up in, but it's the complete opposite in 2008. Defensively, there is no trend evident between defensive efficiency and tempo.

So slowing things down a bit doesn't seem like that is the problem.

Finally, there are two more factors that stand out as potential reasons for Baylor's leap to Big XII obscurity.

The first is Scott Drew's decision to not use his bench in 2009. Last year, Drew used a rotation of players that went anywhere from nine to 11 players deep. 32.8 percent of the available minutes went to reserves, a mark that stood 115th in the country.

This year's squad doesn't have that same kind of depth. Drew has developed a rotation of seven, sometimes eight players and uses his bench just 22.6 percent of the time, 320th in the country. The top five returning players in Drew's rotation are all playing at least four more minutes per game this season.

Baylor has relied significantly less on centers Josh Lomers and Mamadou Diene and have only added in freshman swingman Quincy Acy to the rotation. But the frosh's production has slowly decreased as the season has progressed.

Baylor relies on a lot of individual creation on offense. The team's guards produce the majority of the offense through driving to the hoop for a basket or kicking for a three-pointer. Tired legs make those three-pointers and drives harder to complete.

BU noticeably swooned in the second half in losses to Wake Forest, South Carolina, Texas (at home), Kansas (at home), Texas Tech (on the road), and Oklahoma State (on the road). In half of Baylor's 12 losses, the Bears severely struggled offensively. If the Bears have the depth to hold on and compete to until the end in half of those six losses, Baylor could be sitting at 20-9, and 8-7 in the Big XII with a home game against Nebraska left. That profile would be good enough to earn the Bears a second consecutive NCAA Tournament bid.

There is one more difference between last year and this year that has played a major role in Baylor's decline.

The Bears have played a strong schedule in 2009. But when breaking the schedule down, BU has played teams that are equally as good defensively in 2009 as the teams the school played in 2008. The difference in the schedule strength comes against the opposing team's offense.

The opposing offenses in 2008 sported a 106.8 offensive efficiency, 68th hardest in the country. This year, that number actually down at 106.3, but when compared against the rest of the country, it's 26th hardest.

Bad defensive teams are more likely going to struggle when they play more offensive minded teams than defensive minded teams. It allows more teams to exploit Baylor's defense and add to their growing number of losses.

Baylor has been so good offensively the past two years that the Bears have put up extremely strong offensive numbers against very strong defensive squads.

So maybe the Curious Case of Baylor Basketball isn't so curious after all. Baylor's offense revolves around shooting three-pointers and getting to the hoop which requires the team to be fresh. With a significant drop-off in depth, the Bears can't score in the second half when their tired as easily.

With an opposing schedule full of teams that are better at scoring the ball than last year, Baylor is in big trouble especially in the second half. An inability to close games out in the second half is the main reason Baylor stands at 17-12 instead of a record that would suggest the Bears could be headed to a Sweet 16 like many thought before the season tipped-off.

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