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March 25, 2012
Plotting an Upset
How Baylor Can Beat Kentucky

by John Gasaway

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Like pretty much every other rational person outside of Waco, Texas, I expect Kentucky will win their Elite Eight game against Baylor today and go on to play in the Final Four.

Not exactly going out on a limb, right? I said as much two weeks ago when the pairings came out, I said so ten days ago when I had to fill out my bracket, and I said so three days ago when I had to make my Sweet 16 picks. I fully expect that the Bears will be sent home by John Calipari's team today.

But just because I expect something to happen doesn't mean it's a foregone conclusion. Sure, Kentucky's the best team in the country, but (take a deep breath, brace yourself) it's possible for the best team in the country to lose a basketball game. The Wildcats lost on December 10 to Indiana, and they lost on March 11 to Vanderbilt. It's possible.

Now the question is simply whether Baylor can beat the best team in the country. And while I don't like any team's chances against UK, I do think the Bears have a better shot at pulling off the upset than most opponents could claim.

If I were starting a team from scratch to beat Kentucky, I'd want them to match up with Calipari's team in both size and athleticism. I'm going to need a team that collectively does not foul too often. Give me a jet-quick pest of a point guard who can rocket the ball up the middle of the floor in transition. And I absolutely have to have an unconscious three-point gunner, one of those guys who makes fans of the other team groan even before he lets the ball go.

If you think that description sounds familiar, like a certain team that's been favoring "infragreen" uniforms of late, you're correct. Here's what I think that certain team will have to do to topple Kentucky.

Go fast
In their last two games against Iowa State and Indiana, the Wildcats have scored 189 points in 139 possessions. That works out to 1.35 points per trip, an astonishing figure that any opponent will be hard pressed to match.

There may be things you can do to limit Kentucky's scoring somewhat (see below), but I don't suppose it's realistic to completely shut down an offense this potent and this balanced. A better plan might be to score just a little bit more than they do, and I think the best way to do that is to speed up the tempo. If I'm Scott Drew I'm telling Pierre Jackson, the Bears' 5-10 point guard, to push the ball up the floor at every opportunity.

Here's a figure that might surprise you. In their 102-90 loss to Kentucky the other night, Indiana shot 61 percent on their twos. That's exactly 20 percentage points better than what UK's conference opponents were able to record during the SEC regular season. The Hoosiers scored a highly commendable 1.24 points per possession against Calipari's team, and they did it in part by attacking on offense before the Wildcats -- specifically Anthony Davis -- could get set on defense. The pace of the Sweet 16 contest was significantly faster than what we saw from either team during the regular season, and right from the start of that game IU head coach Tom Crean could clearly be seen encouraging his men to speed up the tempo.

True, foul trouble for Davis helped Indiana's offensive numbers along, and if you can duplicate IU's performance there by all means do so. Davis picked up his second foul against the Hoosiers just six minutes into the game and then sat on the bench for the rest of the first half. It seemed like a big deal at the time, and, sure, if you have a choice between facing this defense with or without Davis, you'll take "without." But keep in mind Davis played a completely "normal" second half -- he didn't pick up another foul the entire night -- and IU was still able to score 43 points after intermission. Whether Davis is on the bench or trailing behind the play, the key is to shoot when he's not in your vicinity.

Get the ball to Brady Heslip and hope he's still white-hot
Regular readers will remember my old statistical friend points per weighted shot, a metric created by John Hollinger and renamed by yours truly. A while back I used PPWS to look at some of the college game's past greats like Christian Laettner and Danny Manning. So when I tell you that Heslip's PPWS in Baylor's six-game postseason (including both the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments) currently clocks in at a gravity-defying 1.54, you can gain some appreciation of what the 6-2 sophomore's been able to do in March. Heslip doesn't shoot as often as a featured scorer, and in fact in the postseason he hasn't shot as often as either Jackson or Perry Jones III. But Heslip's no role player either. In fact he's been his team's leading scorer since the close of the regular season. In the last six games Heslip has hit 54 percent of his threes, and he's now averaging almost eight attempts per contest from beyond the arc. You can make a case that no player nationally has had a larger impact on his offense in the postseason. Heslip's a wild card in this game, and I guarantee you he's making Calipari nervous right now.

Take care of your defensive glass, and don't foul
If you're looking for seeds of optimism in UK's incredible run on offense, well, those are not easy to find. But one thing we can say is Kentucky's actually been fairly normal the past two games in terms of two-point shooting. They've been able to score points well in excess of "normal" anyway because they've recorded both offensive rebounds and free throws in abundance. Baylor's front line -- the 6-11 Perry Jones, 6-7 Quincy Acy, and 6-9 Quincy Miller -- can help their team's chances immeasurably by getting defensive boards and by not fouling. Neither activity looks particularly glamorous, but against the Wildcats they're essential.

If Baylor does everything on this list...they still might lose. Indiana did at least some of these things and lost by 12. But by going fast, getting the ball to Heslip in rhythm, taking care of their defensive glass, and staying away from fouls, the Bears will at least have given this thing their best shot.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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<< Previous Article
UK Hits 100 (03/24)
Next Article >>
Foul, Survive, Advance (03/25)

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