Happy Friday, ‘Nova Nation! It’s supposed to be in the 70’s today here in New York City - hardly feels like March anymore - oh, but it is.
The #5 Villanova Wildcats will face off against the #1 Baylor Bears this Saturday from a haunted Hinkle Fieldhouse. The ‘Cats have fluctuated between a 6-7 point underdog this week and it will take a hell of an effort to knock off the Bears, widely considered the second best team in the country for most of the season.
I have found myself completely flummoxed as to what to expect. In the past, I have approached “underdog” games (though recently few and far between) with somewhat of a calm confidence because I knew what to expect from Villanova. However, over the past three weeks I have been watching a completely different team than the one I watched from November-February.
With my own team being somewhat of a moving target, it has been difficult to get a true reading on my feelings for this game.
I really had to mullet over.
At the beginning of this week, I had settled into an inner calmness akin to the type of calm that washes over a small town before a nuclear bomb goes off in a movie. Or before a tsunami is seen over the horizon.
Not anymore. Let me explain.
But first things first.
Baylor University, the largest Baptist university in the world, is located on a 1,000 acre campus in Waco, Texas. The school has about 20,000 students and, before we really get started, here are three (erm, four) random Baylor alums:
- Willie Nelson
- Chip and Joanna Gaines
- Trey Wingo
This is the Bears’ 13th NCAA Tournament appearance and the 9th under head coach Scott Drew. Drew, a former assistant at Butler University (and an alum), is the brother of Bryce Drew, tournament legend and current head coach of the Grand Canyon University Antelopes.
Put simply, Scott Drew brought Baylor Basketball back from the dead. Drew was hired in 2003 in the wake of the murder of Patrick Dennehy, a Baylor player killed by his teammate Carlton Dotson. Dave Bliss, the head coach at the time, was forced to resign after it was found he had encouraged players to lie about their knowledge of the events and to portray Dennehy as a drug dealer. Bliss was also found to have been making impermissible payments to several players on the team in violation of NCAA regulations. The school self-imposed several punishments including a scholarship limit and one-year postseason ban - just in time for Scott Drew to arrive in Waco. (If you are otherwise interested in this story, I recommend the documentary “Disgraced” on Showtime)
Since then, Drew, a two-time Big 12 Coach of the Year, has coached Baylor to a 366-215 (.630) record over 18 seasons including 9 NCAA Tournament appearances.
The 2020-2021 Baylor Bears finished the season 24–2 (13–1) with their lone regular season loss coming at Kansas in February. The Bears’ second loss came at the hands of the Oklahoma State Cowboys and (likely) first overall pick Cade Cunningham in the Big 12 Tournament semi-finals.
Baylor is led by a three-headed-guard-monster consisting of Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell, and MaCio Teague. Jared Butler, a 6’3 junior, is a talented combo guard that can play on and off the ball. Butler is averaging 16.9 points, 3 rebounds, and almost 5 assists per game. Presently ranked 7th in KenPom’s Player of the Year rankings, Butler is efficient and dangerous from all areas of the floor. Capable of pulling up from anywhere, Butler is presently shooting 41% from deep and has an eFG% of 62.7. On the defensive end, Butler is a menace, ranking 32nd in the country in Stl%.
Davion Mitchell, a 6’2 junior point guard, is an elite three-point shooter, presently hitting at a 46% clip - good for Top 25 in the country. Mitchell averages 14.1 points, 3 rebounds, and 5 assists per game. Like Butler, Mitchell is efficient (eFG% of 63.5) and is a key target on many of Baylor’s off-ball motion plays. Mitchell is also a factor on the defensive end - averaging over 2 steals per game.
Finally, MaCio Teague, a 6’4 senior guard, is averaging 16.1 points and is skilled at scoring off the dribble. Teague is always in motion - looking to open things up for Butler and Mitchell.
Baylor’s trio of guards pose big problems for Villanova for a number of reasons. First, Butler and Mitchell as going to attempt to wreak havoc on a revolving (and sometimes shaky) rotation of ‘Nova ball-handlers. While Jay has trusted Chris Arcidiacono’s ball security over the past few weeks, these Baylor guards are a whole different ballgame. In a game where Villanova will likely be tasked with keeping up with a high-scoring Baylor offense, lost possessions and glacial half-court sets could be hazardous.
On the offensive end, the Baylor guards are lethal from deep. The Bears lead the nation in 3P% and absolutely bury opponents from beyond the arc. As we know, Villanova’s perimeter defense is suspect (to say the least). It will be interesting to see how Jay approaches this clear pitfall - my gut says the only way ‘Nova will overcome Baylor’s three point shooting - assuming it shows up as usual - is to match it.
If you tuned into any of Baylor’s first two tournament games, you likely noticed they have a Plan B when the open three isn’t there - they dump it in for a demoralizing alley-oop. Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, a 6’8 forward with a 7’4 wingspan, is an absolute rim rocker with a 40 in. vertical. He’s developed a decent mid-range shot and is a great finisher under the rim. The Baylor guards are skilled enough to test a defense - to see if the defense will extend to cut off the three. If so, the ball goes over the top and inside. This game will be an incredible test of both Jay’s defensive game plan and Villanova’s discipline.
Finally, I will highlight Matthew Mayer, a 6’9 junior averaging just over 8 points a game - scored 17 points against with Wisconsin in the Second Round. ‘Nova fans are likely familiar with Mayer’s energy off the bench as he dropped 10 against the ‘Cats in the 2019 matchup.
Ok. That’s a lot of depressing content to take in. I didn’t even cover everyone. Take a deep breath. None of this should be surprising given that we know Baylor is a national title contender. We know they have great guards. We know they have a great coach. We know they are a great team.
We also know they aren’t perfect.
Every team has weaknesses and it is an opponent’s job to exploit those weaknesses - force a team to be uncomfortable. Baylor arguably has two “weaknesses” - turnovers and guard play at the rim. While Butler, Mitchell, and Teague are lethal from outside, they are all relatively undersized and lack true rim-runner speed. They struggle a bit in traffic and are prone to turnovers when things get physical. If Villanova is successful, at all, in running Baylor off the three point line, there is a chance the ‘Cats can make these guards uncomfortable inside (so long as Jay has a plan to prevent the lob over the top). Hey, I never said it would easy.
Frankly, this game will come down to three-point shooting. Baylor can, and will try to, run Villanova out of the gym from behind the arc. Villanova - a program typically defined by the three - has struggled mightily to establish some consistency from downtown, a struggle exacerbated by the loss of Collin Gillespie. That being said, the ‘Cats went 15-30 from deep against the University of North Texas.
But, you know what? Teams have been coming at our heads for the last five years - we’ve been in Baylor’s position. It’s not comfortable. We’ve been saddled with the pressure of being the better team - being the contender - avoiding disaster. When you’re in that spot, you can play tight. You are tempted to slowly control and manage every little element of the game lest it devolve into chaos.
When you’re on the other side? You have nothing to lose. The mental benefit of playing without pressure is an immense advantage - especially for a team like Villanova that has the talent to pull an upset - a team that has a shoot ‘em mindset somewhere deep in its DNA.
It’s time to add another signature run.
It’s time for some Hinkle magic.