By Shehan Jeyarajah
The key to Baylor basketball’s NCAA Tournament run to the Sweet Sixteen has been stellar defense. Baylor typically plays a base 1-3-1 defense, which effectively utilizes sophomore center Isaiah Austin’s length. Austin, standing at 7-foot-1 with a wingspan of 7-foot-3, has developed into a feared shot-blocker.
“They’re super long and sit back in the zone,” Nebraska guard Shavon Shields said after a loss. “They’ve got a bunch of long athletes who are really talented. We were shooting a lot of outside jumpers and looked really stagnant and lost on offense.”
Austin led the Big 12 with 3.2 blocks per game in conference play. Over Baylor’s last 12 games before the NCAA Tournament, Austin increased his blocks to 4.3 per game.
Senior power forward Cory Jefferson adds a wingspan of 7-foot-2. On the perimeter, 6-foot-6 forward Royce O’Neale and 6-foot-7 forward Taurean Prince can wreak havoc. The zone defense does a sound job of hiding defensive liabilities and poor match-ups.
All season long, defense has been a barometer of Baylor’s play. In nine conference wins this season, the Bears have held opponents to 41.2 percent shooting from the field and 35.6 percent from the three-point line.
When Baylor does not defend well, it has had a difficult time staying in games. In nine Big 12 losses, the Bears let opponents score 76 points per game on 48.6 percent from the floor and 39.8 percent from three.
Baylor’s defense has been even more stifling over its seven wins to close Big 12 play. Over that stretch, opponents were held to 40.5 percent from the field and 35.6 percent from the three-point line.
Until a second-half collapse against Iowa State, the Bears’ dominant defense keyed a surprise run in the Big 12 Tournament.
Baylor has made little defensive adjustments throughout the postseason, which was accentuated in a big win over the No. 16 team in the country, Creighton.
Forward Doug McDermott, the leading scorer in the country at nearly 27 points per game, was held to 15.
“Generally they have the tandem on the top where their guards are in a tandem,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said after their loss. “They spread that out a little bit, especially when Doug was on the top of the floor, and then they shrunk it when we ran Doug to the middle of the floor.”
The Bluejays, a team that typically shoots over 42 percent from the floor, was held to under 21 percent.
This came a game after Nebraska was held to 4-for-21 from the three-point line.
“We thought we could get a few easier looks from the perimeter to start,” McDermott said. “They made it tough. They forced us to get it in the middle of that zone, and it’s hard to score over those guys. They’re so long and athletic and contest every shot in there.”
Despite its success in the zone this season, Baylor coach Scott Drew likes having the ability to make changes and attack teams in different ways.
“When we got Kenny back [from injury], I think everybody recommitted themselves to the defensive end,” Drew said. “We’ve played man; we’ve played zone during that stretch after 2-8. Our man won us several games. It’s great to have two defenses to go to.”
Baylor will look to keep its strong defensive performance going as they travel across the country to play No. 12 Wisconsin at 6:47 p.m. today at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.