To preview the Elite Eight game, SB Nation Dallas staff writer Willie Funk brainstormed with Jeffrey Chao, a college basketball writer whose covered the Big 12 and Kentucky all season for Barking Carnival and A Sea Of Blue.
Jeffrey Chao: So, how about those games on Friday? Both Baylor and Kentucky held double-digit leads for a good portion of their respective games, but neither seemed really in control, nor really in danger. I'm not sure I can better explain it than that.
As a Kentucky fan, as I was watching the Baylor-Xavier game, I couldn't help but think that I would rather go up against the Bears in the Elite 8. I feel that the two key problem spots for the Wildcats are (1) if Anthony Davis gets into foul trouble against a powerful big man, and (2) if Marquis Teague's inexperience is exploited in the point. With senior big man Kenny Frease in the middle and last year's A-10 Player of the Year Tu Holloway at point, I thought Xavier could cause Kentucky some serious problems.
As for Baylor, I had long pegged them as a Final Four "sleeper" team because of the ridiculously athletic and talented frontcourt. However, that frontline is at a disadvantage against just two teams in the NCAA: Kentucky and North Carolina. Simply put, Kentucky is better than Baylor at every position. Perry Jones III has the talent to be the top pick in the NBA Draft, but that honor will go to Anthony Davis, my pick for best player in the country. Quincy Acy is better than any power forward in the Big 12 not named Thomas Robinson, but he's not nearly as skilled as Terrence Jones. And Quincy Miller's distinct skill and size advantage at small forward is nowhere near the awesomeness of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Heck, even Baylor's key backup big, Anthony Jones, doesn't shoot the three as well as Kentucky's Kyle Wiltjer.
With just an average backcourt and a frontcourt that isn't as good as its opponent, do the Baylor Bears stand a chance against Kentucky?
Willie Funk: The Friday games were pretty interesting. In the late game, Tyshawn Taylor's defense continued to serve as a litmus test for evaluating opposing guards' true talent. Lorenzo Brown was doing a lot for his stock, but Taylor proved his limitations as a good, not great point guard at the next level. When he was faced with someone of Taylor's athletic ability and length, he couldn't just get to any spot he wanted. C.J. Leslie also got a taste of reality going against an NBA athlete in Thomas Robinson. Those were my big takeaways from that one.
The Kentucky-Indiana game was a real treat -- a well played, high scoring game with about 10 future NBA players involved. A really high level game. Zeller was probably the biggest challenge Davis will see all tournament, though Perry Jones could give him problems if he plays right. Jones is notorious for his lack of assertiveness, but he has a slight strength advantage on Davis. If he can get position and hold Davis off down low, he has the athleticism to finish against anyone, Davis included. The real issues are whether he's willing to do that and if his teammates are interested in moving the ball. I think Quincy Miller will be the rare wing that could give MKG fits -- he has the height, length and post game to still be productive against an all-world 6'7" defender. Heslip will be a disaster defensively, so Scott Drew has to to be thinking about throwing Deuce Bello in for a few extra minutes. I like your point on Jones and Acy. They really are the same player, just 30 pounds of muscle and a couple inches different. Along those lines, I really like Jones. He's the most monstrous athlete in the college game. If he could shoot consistently, he'd challenge Anthony Davis for the #1 spot in the draft.
I think the game comes down to 2 things. One, how will Baylor defend? They need to mix the zone with some man -- they were a different team against Xavier when Drew mercifully abandoned the zone, and you could really see what they were capable of. They won't have the athletic advantage against Kentucky, so they'll have to play some of that terrible zone. But as a fan, I would love to see them go man up with the most athletic frontcourts in the country. NBA scouts will all be watching. The other determining factor will be which point guard plays better. Pierre Jackson took a couple contested threes with about 30 seconds on the clock last game -- you will not beat Kentucky doing that. Kick starting the break with a long rebound and giving Kentucky extra possessions will not win Baylor this game. He needs to control the pace of the game and make sure he works it in to the post with Jones and Miller. Regardless of the competition, the game plan has to be to go down low. Jackson's streaky and won't be operating with a lot space. If he takes more than 10-12 shots, they're in trouble. I've seen Teague play awful and I've seen him play really well. If he's right, they roll, but I'm still not sold on him. If Pierre Jackson plays really well and gets Teague to make some bad decisions, the complexion of the game changes. The guy would could be the X factor is Miller. If he can use his height advantage against MKG effectively and he gets the ball, Baylor has a real chance. He has a good post game and soft touch, so I'd watch that match-up closely.
In the end, it's hard for me to see Baylor scoring consistently enough to win. They had to lean on Heslip to get by Colorado, and he won't be a factor against Kentucky's athletes. They don't use their talent effectively in the half court (read: Scott Drew is a remarkably incompetent coach). They just can't piece it together. Baylor hasn't played well against high level teams this year, either. The win against Kansas was an exception -- and I'm inclined to see that as a fluke rather than the team coming together at the right time in light of their blowout loss to Missouri in the Big 12 Championship game. Against a well coached and talented team, I could see them losing by 20. But I could also see them keeping it close and having a chance at the end. Hard to say.
How do you see the Teague-Jackson match-up plays out? Think that's the key.
Jeffrey Chao: Texas fan, stathead, and Burnt Orange Nation contributor Jeff Haley wrote a really good piece about Kentucky for Team Rankings which hypothesized that the way to beat Kentucky was to push tempo. Indiana tried that yesterday and were rewarded with 92 points. The Hoosiers also got Davis in foul trouble, pretty much the only team to do that all year. Of course, Indiana gave up a C-note and still lost.
I definitely think the Jackson-Teague matchup is one Baylor needs to win. Jackson is a dynamic passer and playmaker, but he also makes too many bad decisions in his first year of D-1 ball. It's important to note that defensively, Teague has the size to disrupt Jackson and never let him get in rhythm. Even if Teague just plays him to a draw, that's a plus for UK.
Your idea of playing Deuce Bello is a good one; I felt like he should have gotten more minutes all year. Drew will likely task A.J. Walton to track the offensively quick Doron Lamb as well. To counter, I think Calipari puts Darius Miller at shooting guard and/or point forward. Aside from a couple lackluster SEC Tournament games, Miller has been money throughout conference play, and his size at the top of the key is impossible to handle.
That's the thing about Kentucky. There's just too many weapons and too many ways for the Wildcats to beat you. Their two losses this year almost felt like "perfect storm" moments. Does Baylor have enough firepower, wiles, and will to beat the Cats? I say yes to the first, but no to the last two. Baylor stays feisty, but I like Kentucky to win by double digits.
By the way, regarding your "Scott Drew is incompetent" meme, my favorite Tweet about the Elite 8 was one from Andy Glockner. Paraphrasing, he basically said it was cool there were 7 great coaches ... and Scott Drew. That said, Baylor has made two Elite 8's in three years and look poised to stay in the upper echelon of the Big 12 for the foreseeable future.
Sounds like you're leaning towards a Baylor loss. What do you think the Bears need to pull out an unlikely victory?
Willie Funk: I'd be hesitant to push the tempo against a team with that much talent. That's that many more opportunities for mistakes and poor decisions from Lucky Pierre. But if they are going to have any chance to win a few things are going to have to happen first.
Baylor's backcourt has to play the game of their lives. A.J. Walton is going to have to make Teague, Lamb, or whoever is running the offense uncomfortable. If he can force turnover and Jackson plays efficient basketball, it changes the game. With every other match-up on the floor, it will be a competitive game; if they win the battle of the backcourts, it's dead even, if not in Baylor's favor. Jones is going to have to assert himself. What that really means is that he's going to have to get the ball. With Davis out, it opens up the middle for Acy as well. With Davis in the game, Acy's entire game is neutralized. He's a energy guy who gets dunks. His high motor game won't be enough to get him clean looks with Davis in the middle.
Just as important is Quincy Miller going to work on MKG. This is their only mismatch. He has to use his length effectively. If he tries to attack MKG from the perimeter he won't have any impact on the game. Gilchrist is just too quick for Miller to get by, and Miller doesn't have the quicks to create a clean look against him. If he works him on the block and is finishing his looks from in close, he can be a reliable source of points -- key in a game in which scoring could be hard to come by for the Bears.
Solid shooting from three would also be huge for Baylor, but it will likely have to come from people not name Brady Heslip. There's nowhere to hide him on defense, and he can't get his own shot. The Bears are going to need Anthony Jones' length and shooting off the bench. Frankly, Jones should take Heslip's spot in the starting lineup -- especially in light of Darius Miller bringing it on. He really has impressed me as of late as well. However, I doubt Scott Drew will see the obvious wisdom in doing so. And in regard to the outside shot, Lucky Pierre needs to limit himself to quality looks. And make them.
At the end of the day, however, Jackson will struggle against the larger athletes of Kentucky, and the Bears will lose by 12. They have the talent to run with Kentucky, but they're weak in the backcourt -- the one place you can't afford to be in March.