Matchups matter somewhat less in college basketball than in the NBA, but they matter nonetheless. Ken Howlett took care of many of the pregame facts in his earlier post, so what we propose to do hear is take a look at the player matchups.
First of all, Baylor is a talented team, and they are significantly more experienced at college basketball than Kentucky. With that said, Kentucky is more talented, as evidenced by the fact that Kentucky has more high-school all-Americans on their bench than the Bears have on their entire team. But that doesn't automatically give Kentucky the advantage.
Even if we consider the matchups in a man-to-man basis, Baylor plays a mix of zone and man, and will quite likely play more zone than man in this game to prevent the Wildcats from constantly attacking the rim off the dribble, something that would likely put Baylor at a disadvantage. So we'll look at the matchups keeping this in mind.
Kenny Chery vs. Andrew Harrison: Chery is a 5'11" junior who is taking over the point from the redoubtable Pierre Jackson, who graduated last year. Chery is a similar sized player, and has a game similar to Jackson, albeit with less skill and experience. He is the team leader in assists, but so far lacks the 3-point shooting of Jackson, and is a less dynamic offensive player.
Harrison is taller and a better shooter, in theory, than Chery, but Chery represents exactly the kind of point guard that has given Harrison trouble all year, and has gotten him into foul trouble. I expect that to happen tonight as well, and I expect Harrison to be sitting with 2 fouls at the half.
Gary Franklin vs. Aaron Harrison: Franklin is a senior off guard who does what he does very well, which is shoot the ball from the 3-point arc. Franklin was a backup last season, but is transitioning to the starting spot this season. Franklin is smaller and quicker than Aaron, but unlike his brother, Aaron hasn't really had as much difficulty guarding smaller, quicker players. Also, Franklin is somewhat foul-prone, and will have difficulties of his own defending the taller, stronger Harrison.
The main thing that Harrison must do is find Franklin at all times, because he's shooting over 40% from the arc.
Royce O'Neale vs. James Young: O'Neale is a transfer from the University of Denver. His size is a perfect matchup for Young, although O'Neale isn't quite as athletic and talented, but he is an outstanding shooter from everywhere on the floor. Whether or not he can face down Young's defense and still maintain his astonishing 77.8% true shooting percentage is something we'll discover tonight. O'Neale shoots a startling 73% from the 3, although he doesn't put up many, averaging just over one 3-point shot per game. O'Neale is really not a big scorer on this team, but is a good defender, leading the team in steals, and does the little things that help his team win.
Young is a much more dynamic player in every area except defense. The question is, can O'Neale defend the talented Young effectively? My suspicion is probably not so much.
Cory Jefferson vs. Julius Randle: Let's get one thing straight -- has the height and skill to compete with Julius Randle, and that is quite a thing to say. He is also much more experienced as a senior, and that will matter. What he cannot do effectively without help is defend Randle, because he's just too light. Randle is 250+ pounds, and Jefferson is comparatively light for a power forward at 220#. Anytime Randle and Jefferson go head to head, it has to be advantage to Randle. Jefferson, like Randle, is a good rebounder and does not take many 3-point shots. But Randle is a much better rebounder than Jefferson on a per-game basis.
Isaiah Austin vs. Willie Cauley-Stein: This is flat-out the best matchup on the floor in every way. These two players are nearly the same height, both are sophomores, and both are complimentary-type players. They are very similar in block percentage (Austin 12.7, WCS 13.9), and Austin, despite being the lighter player, had more high-school accolades than Cauley-Stein. Austin was a consensus top 5 national recruit in 2012, and there is no doubt that he is the most talented player on Baylor's squad.
Cauley-Stein, however, has been on a tear, and is obviously considered a higher draft pick at the moment than Austin. WCS is also the best floor-running big man in America, which is really going to test Austin in ways he maybe hasn't been. But Austin's talent cannot be denied.
Dana O'Neill intimated in her column the other day that Baylor was a deep team, and indeed they are. However, Baylor has only played 9 deep all season, and Kentucky has been consistently nine deep off the bench including three McDonald's All-Americans, and has played 10 players significant minutes.
Baylor has four players, Brady Heslip, Ish Wainwright, Rico Gathers, and Taurean Prince, who see significant time off the bench. two of these players, Heslip and Wainwright, average over 20 minutes per game, and the other two just at 15 min/gm. Heslip is a 3-point specialist, averaging over 52% from the arc, while Wainwright is more of a Chane Behanan type player, 6'5"/245#, a bruiser who gets rebounds and defends. Gathers is a big guy at 6'8"/270# who understandably snares a lot of boards, and Taurean Prince is a tall 6'7" wing who can shoot, but at 210# is very thin.
What Baylor's bench really has is almost equivalent size to Kentucky. Almost. They are deep, but Kentucky is, in fact, deeper and more talented. Also, in point of fact, Baylor is not significantly more experienced off the bench other than Heslip. I'm calling this a draw, because it's arguably as close as UK will ever get to a draw off the bench.
Statistically, Kentucky is the superior team. Using Ken Pomeroy's statistics, Kentucky will have the following advantages, sticking with efficiencies and the 4 factors:
- Offensive efficiency: 120-113
- Turnover % 19-23
- Offensive rebounding %: 48-41
- Free throws per FGA: 66-54
Baylor has the following advantages:
- Defensive eFG%, 41-44
Ultimately, Kentucky is statistically superior to Baylor in most categories. Baylor is a significantly better 3-point shooting team at 43%-32%, but Baylor gets much more of their scoring from the 3 than Kentucky does. Kentucky does more of their damage inside the arc. Neither team shoot free throws well, and the difference between them in that stat really isn't significant.
The one team that is most similar to Kentucky that Baylor has played is Syracuse, and the Orange defeated the Bears 74-67 on a neutral floor. The Bears will have a theoretical advantage in Arlington, especially considering the incriminate weather that much of the Midwest has suffered, preventing the usual Blue Mist from being a major factor in the AT&T Stadium.
If Baylor zones Kentucky, it will be very interesting to see how well Kentucky attacks it. Baylor is very long, and has plenty of shot blocking inside. Kentucky was very sharp on offense against the Providence Friars' zone, and if they can be as efficient against Baylor, the Bears will have to play their best game of the season by far even to be competitive.
With that said, consistency hasn't been the hallmark of the Wildcats so far this season, so for them to reprise the Providence game would seem less than likely. What that suggests is that both teams will have some success, and some failures. Ken Pomeroy has Kentucky about 61% to win this game, and that sounds about right. An upset by Baylor here would not in any way be shocking.