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TCU Basketball Preview: Baylor

Strap in, it’s time for Big 12 basketball

TCU Basketball vs Baylor, February 24th, 2018. Fort Worth, TX.
TCU Basketball vs Baylor, February 24th, 2018. Fort Worth, TX.
Melissa Triebwasser

Game Time: 3:00 PM CST | Location: Ed and Rae Schollmaier – Fort Worth, TX | TV: ESPNU | Series: Baylor leads 100-83 | Game Line: TCU -8.5

It’s Big 12 basketball time in Fort Worth! The TCU Horned Frogs (11-1) will host the rival Baylor Bears (8-4) to kick off conference play. Due to a canceled matchup against Hawaii Pacific, we haven’t seen the Frogs since their Diamond Head Classic victory over Indiana State on Christmas day. In the 83-69 rout, five Frogs ended in double figures: Alex Robinson (15), Kouat Noi (12), JD Miller (12, with 10 rebounds), Jaylen Fisher (11), and Kendric Davis (10). The game was almost an exact mirror of their first matchup with the Sycamores, with both teams starting cold and TCU eventually pulling away.

Baylor took care of business in their last game of 2018, blasting a bad New Orleans team 84-44. Tristan Clark had a massive game, as he was the leading scorer (17), rebounder (12), and shot blocker (5). Also in double figures were Jared Butler (16), Makai Mason (13), and Mario Kegler (10). It was a complete domination inside, as Baylor held the Privateers to 9/39 shooting from two point land, and won the rebounding battle 42/36. Looking at the Bears’ resume, there are some head-scratchers, namely the home losses to Texas Southern and Stephen F. Austin. They also dropped tougher games against Ole Miss on a neutral court and on the road against Wichita State. They own two impressive wins over Pac-12 teams, besting Oregon and Arizona, and several complete wins over lesser competition.

Clark has taken on a much larger role as a sophomore, leading the team in scoring and rebounding out of the center position. He has slid over into that role in more of a small ball role compared to Jo Lual-Acuil’s presence in the middle a season ago. He’s third in the nation in eFG%, thanks in large part to his near 80% shooting from two. He uses his athleticism to cause havoc on the defensive end, resulting in a 26th ranked block rate, and is coming off a stretch of three very impressive games. Baylor’s point guard, Makai Mason, may seem like a familiar name. That’s because he was once a Baylor killer, dropping 31 points for Yale to upset Baylor in the first round of the NCAA Tournament 2 seasons ago. Now a grad transfer, Mason has stepped up in the biggest games of the season so far, dropping 22 on Arizona and 14 on Oregon. He isn’t a great distributor, with a near 1:1 assist to turnover ratio, and he’s shot only 32% from three this season, but the seasoned guard knows how to play on the biggest stage. The name King McClure should definitely be familiar to Frog fans, as he is the only returning senior on the Baylor squad. He’s been a pest defensively, with a 3.8 steal rate (71st nationally), and has shot just under 40% from three. However, he’s struggled over the past month, scoring in double digits just once and really only contributing skills and decent rebounding.

Mark Vital also returns to start at the three, and the high flying sophomore has thrived since being put in the starting lineup partway through last season. He has mastered the art of getting to the free throw line, sporting a 96.3 free throw rate (3rd nationally), and has shot a team leading 52 free throws despite having only 54 shot attempts. He’s a great offensive rebounder, 23rd nationally in offensive rebounding rate, but his actually shooting from the field leaves a lot to be desired. If Vital is bullied out of the paint and isn’t getting to the line, he becomes a massive liability on the offensive end. Mississippi State transfer Mario Kegler rounds out the starting five for the Bears. The former blue chip recruit was a full time starter as a true freshman for the Bulldogs, and has returned from injury over Baylor’s last six games. He’s most valuable on the boards, he’s challenging Clark for the team lead, but his value on the offensive end has been hampered by an ice cold start to the season from three. He takes over 3 a game, yet has made only two, resulting in a ghastly 9.5% mark from three. As such, his efficiency marks are dreadful, hurt additionally by his high turnover rate. Considering he hit a respectable 35% during his one season in Starkville, it seems unlikely he will continue to be that bad from three, but he has not been an asset in that department so far.

Freshman Jared Butler plays a fair amount as a backup combo guard, and has played reasonably well. He can’t shoot at all from three, 24%, and 11 of his 20 assist have come against two terrible teams (New Orleans and Southern). However, his high free throw shooting suggests his three point shot may come around, and his value on the defensive end as a freshman is quite impressive. Devonte Bandoo, a JUCO transfer, started the season red hot as a starter, but cooled off considerably off the bench in December. A major reason for this drop off: only 2 made threes all month, both coming in the last game against New Orleans. It remains to be seen if Bandoo can return to his early season form, but that would be a huge boost to Baylor. Another freshman, Matthew Mayer, similarly enjoyed a nice five game stretch in November before falling back down to Earth. He has potential as a future three point specialist, actually shooting a better percentage on threes than twos (34.5% to 31%). He’s provided very little over the past month, but you always have to be careful against a guy who can shoot like he can.

Baylor rolls out three other reserves as well, though they play more limited roles. Darius Allen actually started the first game of the season, but he only just returned against New Orleans after missing five games. The JUCO guard hasn’t done anything of note this season, except sport a surprisingly strong block rate for a player his size. Freshman Flo Thamba is huge, 6’10 with a 7’5 wingspan, yet has struggled for consistent playing time due to foul trouble. He grabs offensive boards very well, and on the rare occasion he shoots it typically goes in, but inconsistent playing time has hampered the development of such a raw player. Finally, Freddie Gillespie also returned against New Orleans after missing extended time, but has only scored in two contests this season. He similarly struggled with foul trouble early on, and I’d be surprised if he played more than five minutes on Saturday.

Baylor’s calling card this season has been lockdown defense. Ranked just above the Frogs, the Bears have turned in impressive efforts against Arizona (49 points) and Oregon (47). Across the board they are solid: 3rd in block rate, 13th in two point percentage allowed, 17th in eFG%, 31st in turnovers, and 78th in three point percentage allowed. Now, this has come against a pretty weak schedule, and those numbers will rise against Big 12 play, but they are against D-I competition and that is always impressive. The defense helps shield against an offense that cannot drill their three point attempts. Their 29% from three as a team ranks 325th nationally. As a result, the Bears get a hefty 54% of their points from two, a category where they actually rank well (50th). They need to make their shots, because the problems are compounded by their 64% free throw shooting, good enough to also rank in the 300s. This is not a Baylor team built for a shoot out, and Scott Drew has recognized this, slowing their pace down to one of the slowest nationally. When you have such a good defense, this can work (opponent tempo ranks 334th), but if the dam breaks it’s all over.

Three Things to Look For

Get Out and Run

The Frogs have been deadly in the open court this season. Look at plays like Kouat Noi’s steal and dunk on the inbound against Indiana State for example. Baylor’s offense is too limited to waste away possessions, so the Frogs should focus on winning the transition game. This is doubly good for the Frogs, since transition defense has been such a big point of emphasis this season. Also, look at the strengths and weaknesses of each team: Baylor ranks 294th in turnovers and TCU’s defense ranks 68th in forcing them. It should be easy for the Frogs to set their defense, and focus on getting runout opportunities on the other end.

Don’t Panic

This is by far the best defense the Frogs have seen this season. For a team that has had everything come easily on offense over the past month, it may be a shock to face some adversity on that end. However, TCU has Alex Robinson, and as such I think they can break down the Baylor defense and eventually find their rhythm. Let’s not forget, the inverse is also true: Baylor hasn’t faced an offense as dynamic as TCU this season.

Corporate Knowledge

For the first time I can remember, TCU has the size and experience advantage on the Bears. While I’ve harped on size all season, I think it’s important to touch on what legendary coach Gregg Popovich calls “corporate knowledge”. TCU’s guys have grown together and completely bought into Jamie Dixon’s system, and that’s when teams can transcend good and become great. Essentially, guys know where they’re supposed to be; they trust each other and the pieces click. TCU has this in abundance, giving them the keys to crack Baylor.

Prediction

I mean, I don’t want to brag guys, but I did get the score prediction exactly right for the Indiana State game. Clearly I should just say we will win out and hoist the trophy in April. All joking aside, I feel really good about TCU’s chances on Saturday. Across the board I think TCU out-skills Baylor, and I think Coach Dixon has his guys locked in moving forward.

Alex Robinson is my pick to click for obvious reasons. I think he can abuse Mason on the offensive end and set up other guys to thrive against a tough Baylor defense. The Frogs cover the spread and are feeling good about themselves headed into their toughest matchup of the season.

Prediction: TCU 74, Baylor 62

Here are the game notes, courtesy of GoFrogs.com:

  • TCU will open Big 12 Conference play against Baylor on Saturday at 3 p.m.
  • The Frogs are 15-21 in Big 12 play under Jamie Dixon after going 9-9 last season, the most in its six seasons of the Big 12.
  • TCU has won 10 of its last 11 home games and its last four Big 12 Conference games.
  • Senior guard Alex Robinson ranks second in the nation at 8.6 assists per game. He is No. 2 all-time at TCU with 521 career assists. Robinson was Preseason Honorable Mention All-Big 12 and on the watch list for the Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year award.
  • Kouat Noi is averaging 13.7 points per game off the bench which ranks second on the team. He’s made a 3-pointer in 12-straight games dating back to last season.
  • Jaylen Fisher is averaging 12.1 points and has made at least one 3-pointer and scored at least 10 points in each of the last eight games. He leads the Big 12 at 44.1 percent from 3-point range.
  • TCU has an average winning margin of 20.5 in its eight-game win streak and has won seven of the eight by double digits.
  • The Horned Frogs rank third in the nation with 20.1 assists per game, rank eighth in assists-turnover ratio at 1.62, 19th in field goal percentage at 49.4 and 23rd in 3-point percentage defense at 28.3.
  • For just the second time in school history and the first time since prior to the 1998-99 season, TCU begun a season ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 at No. 21. The Frogs were ranked for three-straight weeks to begin the season, topping out at No. 18, and are currently receiving votes in both polls