In its first trip to the Big Dance since 1962, the Yale men’s basketball team will take on Baylor in Providence, Rhode Island, on Thursday. The Bears enter the game as the No. 5 seed in the West regional bracket and the No. 21 overall team in the country, according to the AP Top-25 poll.
Here are a few things to know about the Bulldogs’ opponent.
Baylor has played a tough schedule, but its resume against top opponents leaves much to be determined.
Baylor was the unlucky — or lucky — recipient of the third-hardest schedule in the country, according to RPI. With 16 games against top-50 teams in RPI, the Bears have played almost three times as many top opponents as Yale has.
That is not to say the Bears have pulled off any shocking upsets. The team went 5–11 against top-50 opponents, picking up wins against Texas (twice), No. 22 Iowa State (twice) and Texas Tech, but did not beat any opponent ranked higher than 23rd in RPI. The Bears got swept by No. 1 Kansas, No. 8 West Virginia and No. 7 Oklahoma, and early in the season, they also lost 74–67 to No. 5 Oregon, the current No. 1 seed in their region of the NCAA Tournament bracket.
Still, Baylor is a Big 12 program with big-game experience. Although the team suffered 11 losses this season, nine of those were at the hands of teams currently seeded No. 3 or better in the tournament. After a disappointing early exit from the 2015 NCAA Tournament, Baylor played through its grueling schedule to finish fifth in its conference before falling in the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament.
Baylor is one of the few teams that can challenge Yale on the glass, and vice versa.
Yale might be the best-rebounding team Baylor has faced thus far, but had Yale not played SMU early this season, the reverse would be true for the Bulldogs.
The Bears enter averaging a plus-7.9 rebounding margin, 15th in the nation. The team’s 13.7 offensive rebounds per game, also 15th in the nation, are a contributing factor. The Baylor big men — veteran forwards Taurean Prince, Johnathan Motley and Rico Gathers — are formidable on the offensive glass, a large part of the reason the Bears are third in the country with a 40.0 percent offensive rebounding percentage, according to the KenPom statistical database.
Gathers, in particular, is someone to keep an eye on. The six-foot-eight-inch, 275-pound forward is currently 49th in the country with a 9.1 rebounds per game average. The closest Bulldog is forward Justin Sears ’16, whose 7.5 rebounds per game put him at 153rd.
Baylor is not as strong on the opposing team’s glass, snagging just 71.2 percent of opponents’ missed shots, which puts the team at 126th in the nation. Due to its struggles corralling the ball, the team ranks 293rd in defensive rebounds out of 351 Division I teams, averaging 23.7 per game.
Though the Bears employ a unique zone defense, it is not always the most effective.
One of the team’s weaker areas, defense has become a sore spot for Baylor as of late. The team is 72nd in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.
In particular, Baylor struggles to prevent opposing teams from finding openings at the perimeter. The Bears’ opponents have made 36.7 percent of their three-point attempts, putting the team’s three-point defense at 289th. Though by no means the most formidable team from beyond the arc, Yale makes 37.4 percent of its three-point attempts and can pose a challenge to an already thin Baylor defense.
In part due to the nature of the Bears’ zone defense, forcing turnovers is not a core tenet of the team’s playing style. Baylor blocks 11.1 percent of opposing teams’ shots, 73rd in the country, and forces turnovers on 19.8 percent of their possessions, 70th in the country.
Baylor’s offense is predicated on sharing the ball — more so than just about any team in the nation.
KenPom has Baylor at 13th in the nation in offensive efficiency with 116.8 points per 100 possessions, adjusted for opponent. In addition to the team’s aggressiveness on the offensive boards, much of that production comes from its ability to spread the ball around the court — another point of similarity between the Bears and the Bulldogs.
Assisting on 63.8 percent of field goals, Baylor is 10th in the nation in team selflessness. The Bears’ 17.8 assists per game average was not only highest in the Big 12, but fifth in the NCAA. Point guard Lester Medford is the orchestrator behind the offense, dishing out 6.5 assists per game while averaging just 9.1 points himself — fifth on the team.
But when it comes time to stop passing and shoot, Baylor is capable of doing just that. Four players have scored 10 or more points per game — led by Prince, who averages 15.5 points per game — and all of them shoot better than 42 percent from the field. Yale, with three players averaging double-digits and all five starters shooting better than 43 percent, plays with much the same style.