NCAA BASKETBALL: JAN 30 Indiana at Nebraska

Understanding Baylor

For two teams who represent opposite sides of the coin in terms of what they do well, Nebraska and Baylor share a lot of similarities when it comes to the trajectory of their seasons in 2013-14.

Baylor (24-11, 9-9) played the fifth-toughest schedule in the country according to RealTimeRPI.com, and put together a string of pretty impressive early season wins. The Bears beat Colorado, Louisiana, Dayton and Kentucky — all tournament teams — and lost by seven to Syracuse all before December was even half over. The 12-1 start earned Baylor a No. 7 ranking in the week 10 AP poll.

Then came the crash. Baylor started Big 12 play 2-8 and was in danger of being out of the tournament before winning 10 of its last 12 games and advancing to the Big 12 Tournament championship game.

Nebraska (19-12, 11-7) meanwhile had no tournament hopes to speak of until it beat Michigan State on Feb. 16. That win over the No. 9 Spartans on the road, the third in a five-game winning streak, pushed the Huskers into the conversation and the win at home over No. 9 Wisconsin to end the regular season sealed the deal. After starting 0-4 in Big Ten play, the Huskers went 11-4 the rest of the way.

But you already knew all of that, so let’s get into what is a pretty fascinating match up. It’s a close one. The Power Rank gives Nebraska a 42.9 percent chance of beating Baylor. Nate Silver’s recently relaunched FiveThirtyEight.com has the Huskers with a 30 percent chance of winning. Most interestingly due to its novelty and purported precision is RealTimeRPI.com, which has Nebraska winning 70-69 with a 51.8 percent probability of winning (more info here).

In other words, this has the makings of a tightly contested game so let’s dig in. The chart below shows how each team performed this season, both offensively and defensively, using Dean Oliver’s “Four Factors of Basketball Success:”

Chop that graph up and you’ll see that Baylor decisively wins five categories, Nebraska decisively wins one and there are basically two tossups. (Note: The numbers above are not adjusted for strength of schedule and Baylor has a slight SOS edge.) It wouldn’t be inaccurate to view this game as a match up of Baylor’s better-than-average offense against Nebraska’s better-than-average defense.

It’ll be strength-on-strength when Baylor has the ball. The Bears rank 87th nationally in effective field goal percentage, while the Huskers’ defense ranks 99th. On the other end, Nebraska isn’t particularly adept at shooting (222nd in eFG%) while Baylor’s shooting defense is slightly better than average (123rd). The Huskers are probably good enough to limit Baylor somewhat offensively, but points could be at a premium when Nebraska has the ball.

Which brings us to Nebraska’s biggest strength — the Huskers don’t turn the ball over much and force quite a few defensively. Nebraska turns the ball over on about 15 percent of its offensive possessions while Baylor’s not particularly good at forcing them, which should help Nebraska control the game a bit for an offensive perspective. Defensively, Nebraska’s forcing a turnover on about one in every five opponent possessions, a rate that ranks 85th nationally. Baylor values the ball pretty well, but this is a slight edge for the Huskers and one they’ll need to exploit on Friday.

The reason why is because the Bears are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country. “They block shots and then they offensive rebound like mad,” Tim Miles said yesterday. “If we let it become a volleyball game when we’re playing defense, we’re in trouble.”

You don’t need me to reiterate it when you’ve got the coach’s words, but I’ll do it anyway: There is no bigger concern in this game for Nebraska. Even if the Huskers are able to force some tough shots — and I think they will — that’s only half the battle. The second part will be ending possessions and, while Nebraska’s decent in terms of how many offensive rebounds it has allowed this season, Baylor’s bigger up front and — how should we put this? — really, really good at getting on the offensive glass. The Bears’ offensive rebound rate (39.6 percent) ranks third nationally and is second-best among teams in the tournament.

The free throw match up also swings in the Bears’ favor. Nebraska gets to the line better than most but also sends teams to the line too often and foul trouble would be an absolute back-breaker for the Huskers in this game. Meanwhile Baylor doesn’t do the latter while getting to the line more often than Nebraska does. How this game is officiated, which neither team can control, will be a big factor.

HOW YOU’LL KNOW NEBRASKA’S IN GOOD SHAPE

The easiest way for Nebraska to counter Baylor’s above-average shooting ability and ridiculous ability to get second-chance opportunities via offensive rebounds is by simply taking away the Bears’ opportunities to shoot (and thus rebound some of those shots). Literally in this case. Baylor enters the game averaging nearly 12 turnovers per game. The Huskers were 13-6 (.684) this season when forcing 12 or more turnovers. But that’s merely what you’d expect from both Baylor and Nebraska statistically. Should the Huskers be able to force a few more — remember, Nebraska has a slight edge there — things get even more promising: Nebraska is 9-3 (.750) this season when forcing 14 or more turnovers. Baylor’s turned it over that often 10 times this season, but, not surprisingly, hasn’t had 14 or more turnovers in its past nine games. If the Bears’ turnover numbers are starting to climb, Nebraska is giving itself a chance.

WHEN TO WORRY

There’s no question here, it’s the offensive rebounds. Just look at the graph above. However deep Baylor goes in this tournament, it’ll have an offensive rebounding advantage over every team it plays unless it faces Kentucky in the Final Four. Now, Nebraska isn’t weak here. The Huskers do a good job limiting second-chance opportunities, but they’ll have to be extra-sharp in this regard on Friday. Remember, this is a young Nebraska team and there are few things more demoralizing than playing solid defense for 30 seconds, forcing a contested shot, then having all that work go to waste by giving up an offensive rebound. If that’s happening often early in this one the Huskers are in trouble.