Much of the early college basketball season has been about the strength of the blue blood programs at the top of the rankings. Villanova is back at #1 with a team just as competitive as the one which one the championship last April. Duke has the most talent in the nation. UCLA, Kentucky, UNC, and Kansas all appear to be forces to be dealt with in March.
One team though has started undefeated with three victories over top ten ranked opponents. This team ranks in the top 25 nationally in a host of categories: offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, 2-point field goal percentage, assist rate, effective field goal rate allowed, 3-point percentage allowed, and block rate. Based on the first third of the season, no one has played as impressively as the Baylor Bears. Their resume includes wins over Louisville and VCU, plus 15+ point wins over Xavier, Michigan State, and Oregon. Scott Drew’s team has risen to the top 5 of the AP Poll by out-working and out-playing a collection of quality opponents.
The Bears’ success has been built on a foundation that can carry them in conference play and a postseason run. That foundation is built on three pillars:
1. Ball Movement and Unselfishness
The Bears have 9 players averaging more than 10 minutes per game and 8 of those players contribute double-figure scoring per 40 minutes. The only one who doesn’t might be the nation’s best glue guy, Ishmail Wainwright (who provides 8.4 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and 2.8 blocks per 40 minutes).
Every player understands his role in Scott Drew’s offense. Baylor plays the 19th slowest pace in Division I, with every Bear willing to make the extra pass to find the open scorer. They’ve notched the 13th best assist rate in the nation, leading to the 10th best field goal rate. No one on Baylor’s roster is taking an iffy shot if there’s a chance for a great one.
This mindset is led by transfer point guard Manu Lecomte. Two years ago at Miami, he played 22 minutes per game and averaged less than two assists. After taking his redshirt season, this year he’s playing 28 minutes per game and averaging 5.4 assists. On a per play basis, his assist rate has doubled from his time with the Hurricanes. Lecomte uses his quickness to penetrate defenses and find teammates who are in a position to score.
While Lecomte is the straw that stirs the drink, the rest of the Baylor rotation is just as unselfish. Against a zone or man-to-man, the Bears look to optimize every possession with a quality look at the basket. This high-low set against a Xavier zone is a perfect example of how quickly and efficiently Baylor moves the ball:
Baylor mixes man-to-man with a match-up zone that really frustrates opponents. Drew’s rotation features a host of long, rangy athletes who make the zone defense a malleable weapon for the Bears. They can pack the zone inside the arc and force opponents to shoot long jumpers, or they can extend the zone to create pressure and force turnovers.
Even when opponents find a gap or a Baylor player is caught taking a risk, the Bears have the benefit of an elite rim protector in the paint to make seemingly easy baskets into something much more challenging. Jo Lual-Acuil leads the nation in total blocks, blocks per game, and block percentage. He’s a legitimate 7-footer with a quick jump that can erase any shot near the rim.
This is particularly helpful when Baylor plays zone. It allows the rest of the Bears to play a little more aggressively and pressure the ball and passing lanes. If they get beat, Big Jo is on the back line ready to defend the paint. Lual-Acuil ranks in the top 10 in the country in defensive rating and defensive box plus-minus. He’s stopping everyone and everything so far this season.
Johnathan Motley had finished in the top 10 in the Big XII in blocks per game the past two seasons, but no longer needs to play that role. Instead, he is free to roam the zone, using his athleticism and wingspan to make plays and protect the defensive glass. His defensive rebounding rate is 6th best in the Big XII and despite playing 8.1 more minutes per game, he is still committing the same number of fouls, thanks to his evolved role on defense.
3. Johnathan Motley
In today’s college basketball landscape, you can’t be anything more than a pretty good team without a top level player. Motley has been that and more for Baylor. He’s averaging 16.0 points and 8.7 rebounds on 51/36/70 shooting and causing havoc on defense and in transition. He’s a Swiss Army knife for Baylor, cleaning the glass, scoring within the flow of the offense, and defending multiple positions. The 6-10, 230 lb power forward is a match-up nightmare, especially in the open floor. Finding Motley and preventing him from establishing position on the block has proved to be a tall task (no pun intended) for even the best big men in the nation. In five games against top 60 competition, Motley has scored at least 15 points, shot better than 45%, and grabbed at least 6 rebounds in all five of those games. He’s been an absolute rock for the Bears, but is capable of a breakout performance, like his 26 point game against Michigan State or his 19 points and 5 offensive rebounds against VCU. Though the core around him is talented, energetic, and fiery, Motley is the battery at the center making sure everything continues to spark.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to SALTMoney.org, Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.