The Baylor Bears find themselves at 6-3 early in the 2012-2013 seasons. They have been up and down all year, with their high points coming to open the season with a big win over Lehigh and then the stunning upset of Kentucky on the road. However, mixed in with those times of celebrations have been 3 troubling losses and a few lackluster games.
Baylor's three losses include two head-scratching defeats at home, previously a place where non-conference teams came to lose. Northwestern and College of Charleston have both waltzed into the Ferrell Center and came away happy. The loss to the Cougars was especially stunning as the Bears lost to a mid-major that lost to St John's earlier in the season, which the Bears beat easily. Yes, Baylor was without starting shooting guard Brady Heslip. Yes, they were coming back from the Thanksgiving break and a trip to Charleston. But they came out flat and got beat by an inferior team.
Against Northwestern, they came up against a team that was looking for revenge after the Bears destroyed them last year up in Chicago. Northwestern came out with an edge, and Baylor had no answer until they were down by 18 points late. Even then, they started to play with emotion and cut it to a 2 point game late, but did not have enough time for the miracle comeback.
So, what did we learn from those two games? First, the Bears are not good enough to beat any teams that are even close to good when they don't have energy and focus. They took College of Charleston lightly, and came out flat against Northwestern. Both of those games were very winnable.
Secondly, this is a team that is just not very good at shooting right now, especially from the perimeter. They make just 33.5% of their 3-point shots (169st in the country) yet they take the 20 of these shots per game. The worst part is, they are 17th in the country in 2-point field goal percentage at 55.5%. They make 59.6% of their non-blocked 2-point shots (24th in the country). They are a very efficient scoring team when they get the ball inside the 3-point arc.
But the offense isn't the major issue. According to TeamRankings.com, they are the 21st most efficient offense in the country. Even though it seems that the Bears turn it over quite a bit, they are actually quite good at protecting the ball. A Baylor offensive possession ends with a turnover roughly 15% of the time, good for a Top 50 ranking in the NCAA. They only average 12.1 turnovers per game (52nd best). Turnovers are not an issue either for the Bears, as they have been in past seasons.
So, what is troubling this team, outside of the hard to identify effort and focus traits? Personally, I think this team is still searching for what it is. They are selfish and unselfish at the same time, and I think that comes from the fact that most guys have their minds decided about what they are going to do on a play before it even happens. Shooters know they are going to shoot, even if the defense challenges the shot well and it is better to pass. Guards have their mind made up to pass or shoot before they even get into the lane, before they even see what the defense will do.
Why is that? Is it because of the youth of the post players and several other key members of the rotation? Is it because we are a guard driven team led by a sporadic fireball of a point guard that can make you tear your hair out with terrible passes and shots, and then turn around and score 11 points in 2 minutes and throw in 2 or 3 brilliant passes in the same timeframe? Is it because both of our primary outside shooters have struggled for large parts of games and force the issue sometimes?
Personally, I think most of the blame should go to the strength of our team, the two guards that were supposed to come back and light the world on fire; Brady Heslip and Pierre Jackson. Heslip especially has struggled with his 3-point shot, making just 37.1% of his 3-point shots. If you take out his one brilliant game against St Johns where he was 8-12, he has just shot 31% from downtown. When Brady isn't hitting his outside shot, he just does not add enough in other parts of his game to be valuable. He only has 15 rebounds and 7 assists on the season total. He also is not a strong defender, especially in a man defense. When he is not draining 3-pointers, he is a drain on the Bears.
Now, before I go too far with my next target, let me say this. Pierre Jackson is our best player. He might also be our most important. Saying that, he has not played very well this year, despite leading the Big 12 in scoring and assists. Sure, his 19.8 points per game, 6.2 assists, 3.7 rebounds, and 2.1 steals look great, but in context, I think there are a lot of empty numbers there.
First off, his shooting is about 16 points lower this year from the field. He has also had issues with turnovers this year at terrible times, though he is averaging .5 less per game this year so far. In the 3-game stretch that we have talked about the most (C of C, Kentucky, Northwestern) he made just 18 of 53 (33.9%) from the field. Worst of all, he took 21 3-pointers and made just 5. Pierre abandoned the best part of his game, the ability to take anyone off the bounce.
For some reason, the Bears have moved away from the pick and roll with him, especially against Lamar and Northwestern. They did this after Colorado exploited that look by trapping on Pierre hard and forcing him to make a pass out of a double team, usually over a bigger defender. They would force him towards the half court line, thus eliminating him from the offense. We have not seen much pick and roll since then, though I think it might be their best play, especially with a post player such as Isaiah Austin who is a perfect guy to use in that set, as he can hit the jumper, roll to the basket and finish with the dribble or find a cutter with his passing ability.
With our perimeter players struggling, defenses are packing the paint, especially off of A.J. Walton, and making the Bears beat them from the perimeter. Baylor's guards are not that great without the ball, and Heslip especially requires screens to get open. With the loss of Perry Jones and Quincy Acy, the Bears lost two very good screeners down low. This is the weakest part of Austin's game, as he just does not have the size to do a good screen at this point. When the Bears bring in Rico Gathers, you will notice that Heslip (or Gary Franklin if he is in) get better looks off of their baseline breaks, as Gathers is very good at screening.
The final aspect I want to talk about is the Bears defense. Right now, they are struggling as they really lost their identity moving away from the 2-3 hybrid zone that defined this team the past few years. Personally, I am happy we moved away from it, as I think our personnel fits a man defense better. But our players just are not comfortable in a man defense yet. They are slow to help and are terrible at fighting through screens, Pierre Jackson especially. Pierre gets caught up in the screener too much, and just does not have the size to go through, so he has to go under too much giving his man open jumpers. This is the one area where Pierre's size really hurts him. The only guard that I have seen that knows how to work screens is AJ Walton, and even he has moments where he seems to give them screen by turning his body to the screener, giving the ball handler a great lane to penetrate. I don't know if he is trying to bait the offensive player into something, but it rarely works to the Bears advantage.
Along with their inability to handle screens, both Pierre Jackson and AJ Walton take too many chances on the perimeter, thus leaving their post players in bad help situation. However the post players usually do not do themselves many favors with how they attack these situations. Both Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin are aggressive with block attempts, which usually leaves the offensive glass wide open for the opposition.
Most of these issues are fixable. It is way too pessimistic to think that two great shooters like Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip won't start shooting 3-pointers better. You also have to imagine that Cory Jefferson, though a junior, will continue to improve with more playing time and a young stud like Austin only has better basketball in front of him. I am still confident that the Bears will be a really good team at the end of the year. They have hopefully learned some lessons about the energy level required to win, and with games against BYU and Gonzaga coming up, they sure will have tests to prove those struggles are behind them.