WHO: 1-seed Baylor Bears (34-1, 18-0 Big 12, 1st)
WHEN: 6:00 PM CT, Monday, April 1, 2019
WHERE: Greensboro Coliseum (Greensboro, NC)
RADIO: Learfield Sports affiliates (check local listings)
ONLINE AUDIO: TuneIn
1) Top of the Mountain
Baylor is an absolute monster this year. They're 34-1 on the season, the 1-seed in the Greensboro region, and the overall 1-seed in the entire tournament. They enter the game with Iowa on Monday night on a 26-game winning streak. Their closest game in the NCAA Tournament was their Sweet 16 win over South Carolina... which they won by 25 points. They won their other two games by 57 points and 39 points. They've only played six games decided by single digits (they're 5-1 in those games) and only three of those games have come since the calendar turned to 2019. In order to get to their first Final Four since 1993, Iowa will need to beat the best team they've played all season -- by far. No biggie.
2) Weakness? What weakness?
Baylor ranks in the top 10 in points per game (81.5, 7th best nationally) and in opponent points per game (54.3, 7th best nationally) and their scoring margin (27.2) is 3rd best nationally. That stunningly low opponent points per game average isn't a function of a slowed-down tempo, either; Baylor plays at a pretty brisk tempo -- 71.7 possessions per game, 97th nationally -- which is actually a little quicker than Iowa's own pretty fast tempo (70.5 possessions per game, 156th nationally). Baylor ranks second nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.76 a:to). In fact, Baylor and Iowa rank 1-2 nationally in assists per game: 22.8 per game for Baylor and 21.7 per game for Iowa. These are two very good passing teams. Baylor also ranks 1st nationally in blocks per game with a stunning 7.2 blocks per game, which could make things difficult for Megan Gustafson and Hannah Stewart inside.
The Bears rank 2nd nationally in rebounds per game (44.7), including 1st nationally in defensive rebounds per game (33) and 29th nationally in offensive rebounds per game (15). As you'd probably expect from their scoring average, Baylor shoots the ball from the floor exceptionally well -- their 50.1 FG% is 4th nationally. (Fun fact: Iowa is tops nationally in that category at 52%.) Their field goal defense is even more impressive, they're holding opponents to just 31.3 FG% from the field, which is best in the nation. They're holding opponents to 29.8% from 3-point range, which is 85th best nationally.
While Baylor's defense is stout, they don't force a lot of turnovers -- just 14.9 per game, which is only 229th nationally. They also don't turn the ball over very much themselves -- just 12.9 giveaways per game, 29th best nationally. Free throws are one of the few areas that look favorable for Iowa. Baylor does foul a fair amount on defense -- they average around 15-16 fouls per game, which could be beneficial for an Iowa team that ranks 13th nationally in free throw percentage (77.3%). They're also not a very good foul shooting team themselves, making just 67.8% of their free throw attempts (233rd nationally).
3) Battle of the Giants
Obviously Iowa is built around the incomparable Megan Gustafson, who has proven extremely difficult to slow down (let alone stop) this season. Most teams have defaulted to double- or triple-teaming her down low, at least for a while. Baylor may be one of the few teams that attempts to defend Gustafson straight-up. They can give that a shot because their star player is Kalani Brown, a 6-7 senior center. Brown will be a (literally) huge obstacle for Gustafson in the paint. Brown is far from the only size that Gustafson (and the rest of the Hawkeyes) will have to deal with, though -- 6-4 junior forward Lauren Cox will also be a force to be reckoned with down low. She actually leads Baylor in blocked shots this year (2.5 per game; Brown is averaging 1.6 per game).
Brown and Cox are also major threats on the other end of the floor. Brown is Baylor's leading scorer with 15.6 ppg on 61% shooting, while Cox is second on the team with 12.7 ppg on 51% shooting. Brown also averages 8.1 rebounds per game, while Cox hauls in 8.2 boards a game. She also deals out 3.7 assists per game, third-best on the team. Two other Baylor players, Juicy Landrum and and Chloe Jackson, also score in double figures. Landrum, a 5-8 guard, is averaging 11.5 ppg 43.8% shooting, to go with 5.1 rebounds per game and 3.9 assists per game. She's also Baylor's top three-point threat, making 40.5% from deep on 4.3 attempts per game. Jackson is scoring 11.4 points per game on 47.8% shooting, to go with 3.7 rebounds per game and a team-best 5.4 assists per game.
4) Areas to Exploit
So how do you beat Baylor? Again, only one team has done so this year -- Stanford, who topped them 68-63 in the early part of the year. In that game Baylor shot dreadfully (just 34.9% from the floor) and turned the ball over 15 times. Stanford didn't shoot the ball that well themselves (38%) and they were horrible at the free throw line (9/21, or 42.9%), but they did make a ton of 3s (13/30, 43.3%).
How about the games where Baylor won close? There are a few interesting potential trends from those other five single-digit games. In their 6-point win over South Dakota State, Baylor did shoot well from the floor (49%), but they were bad at the free throw line (12/23, 52%) and turned the ball over 17 times. SDSU also made 12/33 3-point attempts. In a 6-point win over Arizona State, Baylor again shot well (50.9%), but turned the ball over 16 times and allowed the Sun Devils to make 11/30 3s. Both SDSU and ASU were able to get several offensive rebounds (13 for the Jackrabbits, 11 for the Sun Devils), which helped them overcome bad overall shooting. In a 6-point win over Texas, the biggest problem for Baylor was again bad shooting -- they made just 41.8% of their shots from the floor. Texas also made 9/17 3-point tries. Finally, Baylor's 6-point win over West Virginia was mainly a result of more bad Baylor shooting (42%) and very sloppy play overall (19 turnovers for Baylor).
So what can we take away from all that? A few things maybe:
- Hope Baylor's shots aren't falling; Baylor's offense is hyper-efficient from the floor most of the time, but every now and then their shots simply aren't falling. Hopefully that's the case for Iowa tomorrow night.
- Iowa needs to make 3s. That's been an issue for Iowa all season, but good 3-point shooting has been a common element from many of the teams who have been able to beat or at least keep it close with Baylor. They need Makenzie Meyer, Kathleeon Doyle, and Tania Davis to make shots from outside.
- Pound the glass. If Iowa's shots aren't falling, they need Gustafson and Stewart to haul in some offensive boards to give the offense more opportunities. Several of the teams who have kept it close with Baylor this year have been able to off-set mediocre (or worse) overall shooting with second-chance opportunities via offensive rebounds. On the flip side, Iowa really needs to try and limit Baylor's second-chance possibilities as much as they can.
- Turnovers. Iowa needs to hope that Baylor is a bit sloppy with the ball or that they can force a decent number of turnovers themselves; turnovers could lead to some easier scoring chances for Iowa and, perhaps even more importantly, they'll curtail Baylor's own scoring opportunities. By the same token, Iowa also absolutely has to take care of the ball themselves. Turnovers have been a concern for Iowa a lot this year and a sloppy game tomorrow will almost certainly kill Iowa's upset bid. The Hawkeyes just can't give a team as Baylor too many easy scoring chances or deny themselves scoring opportunities.
Let's be honest: the statistical case for an Iowa win over Baylor is difficult to make. The Bears have been a juggernaut pretty much all season and they've been at or near their best in the NCAA Tournament. Baylor is lights out on offense and defense in most aspects and they have a tremendous amount of size and physicality to make things tough for Iowa. So the case for Iowa probably needs to be based on less tangible things. Iowa was lucky to escape a first round upset bid against Mercer, but they smothered Missouri in the second round and played their best game of the season in a commanding win over NC State. They're playing their best basketball of the season at the best possible time to do so. All season long this has felt like a special team; the best argument for an Iowa upset is leaning into that special feeling and hoping that destiny remains on Iowa's side tomorrow night.