Villanova faces its final marquee non-conference opponent on Sunday and it’s a rematch of the team that ended their season last March in the Sweet 16.
The Wildcats (7-2) plays the reigning national champions, the No. 2-ranked Baylor Bears (8-0) in a true road game in Waco on Sunday, at 3 p.m. ET. The game will be on ABC.
While Davion Mitchell and Jared Butler are in the NBA, Scott Drew has reloaded and has, what appears, another team capable of making a deep run come tournament time.
Baylor is second in the country in point differential +27.6 and they’re tied for eighth in opponents’ points per game at 56.4. They sit at ninth in defensive efficiency according to KenPom and none of their opponents have scored more than 63 points in a game this year, while limiting their foes to only 39% from the field. They’re also in the top 10 in forcing turnovers, generating 20 per game.
A lot of this success on defense comes from their “no-middle” defense where their on-ball defenders keep their feet pointed to the sideline constantly to try and force all the drives in that direction. Because their defenders have an idea where the ball will be forced to, they send help a lot because the help already knows where it’s going. This could be the biggest decider in the game. ‘Nova is an elite passing team and if they can make the right passes, they should have some good open looks. If they shoot like they usually, do it will help negate this great Baylor defense.
Much like last year, Villanova does an impressive job of taking care of the ball. It has one of the lowest turnover rates in the country, coughing the ball up on just 13.3% of possessions (ninth-best). This is right around where the ‘Cats finished last season, as they ended with a 13.4% turnover rate, but they weren’t immune to Baylor’s impressive defense and turned it over 16 times in that NCAA Tournament game — albeit Villanova’s leading point guard, Collin Gillepise didn’t play in that game.
Baylor’s length adds to their defense and is a huge advantage for them in any game, in fact they’re probably one of the longest teams in Division I. Their starting big, Flo Thamba, has a 7-foot-7 wingspan. Then their two bigs off the bench, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Jeremy Sochan have 7-4 and 7-0 wingspans respectively. Their two starting forwards, Kendall Brown and Matthew Mayer, add 6-11 and 6-10 wingspans. This Baylor team has legit NBA size any and everywhere.
Their “no-middle” concept on defense was taking off before this length and now with it, their defense has become arguably the best in college basketball. This defense will use its length on help situations throughout the game to try and swarm ‘Nova into making forced plays. It will be up to ‘Nova to make this help defense pay by withstanding the pressure, making accurate passes to the open man and knocking down shots.
Baylor plays two guys at least 20 minutes per game off the bench and another at 10. That’s seven guys in their rotation that get a good amount of burn. They aren’t just warm bodies though, their first three players off the bench average a combined 31.7 ppg and all shoot good percentages.
Their best offensive player and leading scorer is sixth man — “sixth starter,” if we’re being honest — LJ Cryer. The former 4-star guard is a real three-level scorer at the collegiate level. He uses a nice hesitation dribble to get to the rim and has great shoulder positioning when finishing. He also has a nice step back jumper in the mid-range and is more than capable of hitting spot up 3-pointers. How Nova defends him will likely decide if Baylor’s offense is efficient or not.
Their two leading rebounders come off the bench as well in Tchatchoua and Sochan. Baylor is in the top 25 in rebounding nationally and 15th in offensive boards at 13.8 per game. ‘Nova will need to channel a similar effort on the glass from Tuesday night and be closer to the +18 in boards against Syracuse, rather than the -12 they were to Purdue.
Two big advantages that Nova has in this game is 3-point shooting and free throw shooting. Baylor isn’t scary from beyond the arc at 34% from that range which ranks 137th. While they have Cryer and Mayer who can be threats from deep, this isn’t their strength at all. They’ve had three games this year at 31% or lower.
While the 3-pointer isn’t their strength, Baylor is a much worse free throw shooting team. Their 65.6% ranks them 292nd in D1. They have five players in their rotation that all shoot 66% or worse. Baylor gives up 12.9 free throws per game. We know what kind of free throw shooting team ‘Nova is so if the ‘Cats can get to the line it could be a huge advantage for them.
I like the ‘Cats to be in position to win this game down the stretch. Baylor’s length will give them trouble, but I think Villanova will knock down enough shots to help deal with it. ‘Nova excels at passing around until they get a good look that they like so Baylor’s “no-middle” defense won’t have as great of an impact that it usually does. I think it will be effective still, but Nova doesn’t have downhill guards that operate in the middle as it is, so nothing is being lost there. If the ‘Cats hit some 3-pointers early, then Baylor may back off on the help defense some, which could allow Gillespie and Moore to operate off screens more.
The biggest concern for the ‘Cats I believe is the combination of Baylor’s size and depth. Purdue was able to throw four guys with great size to keep Nova off of the glass and Baylor could do this as well. We could see DaDa match or at least get close to his season high of 11 minutes to help give Eric Dixon some relief.
Whatever the outcome on Sunday. one thing is for sure, playing three top 10 teams before conference season starts means ‘Nova will be ready for anything in March.