SALT LAKE CITY — The Baylor men’s basketball team ran off the court in the Vivint Smart Home Arena following their 78-69 win over Syracuse Thursday night.
“We ain’t going home yet,” one player shouted as he entered the locker room. As soon as some teammates joined him inside, music began to blare. It could still be heard after the door was closed. And every time someone opened the door to go in, you could hear the players yelling and celebrating.
What wasn’t there to celebrate? The Bears, a nine-seed, had just beat eight-seeded Syracuse, a team everyone predicted would win.
But, Baylor’s celebration was shortly lived, as as soon as the team exited the arena for the night, its attention shifted to the game they had just one to the one it will play on Saturday — a much taller test against Gonzaga. GU is 4-0 against Baylor all-time.
What was notable about Baylor’s performance against the Orange was that the team hit 16 of 34 3-pointers. The Bears’ season average is eight. This was a big turning point for them, as they only took nine free throws, but managed to shoot over Syracuse’s zone defense over and over again.
Doing this against the Zags will be much tougher. GU has shut down opponents on the perimeter, allowing teams to hist just 31 percent of their shots. On Thursday, the Zags kept Farleigh Dickinson, a 40.4 percent 3-point shooting team, to just 28 percent.
Gonzaga’s defense goes beyond defending the 3-point line. The Zags rank eight in field goal percentage defense and have the fifth best defensive efficiency.
When it comes to Baylor’s offense, it is solid. The team shoots 34 percent from deep and 51 percent from the field. The Bears’ downfall is turnovers, averaging 13.3 per game. Their brightest spot is rebounding. Baylor is second in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage at 38.2 percent and have tallied double-digits in offensive rebounding in 14 of its last 18 games.
“They’re the best or very close to the best offensive rebounding team in college basketball,” Mark Few said. “We played North Carolina, that’s a team that’s an unbelievable offensive rebounding team here, but these guys are right there with them. And then when they’re making threes like they did last night, they are really dangerous.”
The Zags have struggled a bit on the defensive glass this season but have a large size advantage over Baylor. The Bears star 5-foot-6 Mark Vital as their four and bring 6-foot-7 Mario Kegler and 6-foot8 Freddie Gillespie off the bench.
Gonzaga’s size, particularly Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura, has been a key factor to GU’s success this season, and was on full display against FDU, with the two players seemingly getting anything the wanted.
If any Gonzaga opponent wants a shot a beating this team, it must slow Clare and Hachimura down.
Baylor switches between man and a 1-3-1 defense and has the 79th ranked defense on KenPom.com
“They close things up a little bit more, but it just comes with swinging the ball and playing together,” Zach Norvell Jr. said. “We seen it a little bit with BYU. But obviously it’s a little bit different.”
“The whole point of the zone is to take you out of your rhythm and possessions can seem like they are stagnant,” Corey Kispert added. “But as long as you get a good shot against the zone, it’s a win.”
At the guard position, Mason Makai is going to be the player Gonzaga has to watch out for. Against Syracuse, he scored a team-high 20 points. He has missed the last two years with injuries and has not played the best brand of basketball all season long, but he remains a threat on offense.
“He can help a team tremendously. He’s an elite level guard,” Few said. “I know he’s been battling injuries all year, but when you shoot the ball comfortably out to 30 feet like that — and it’s comfortable — he was hitting them from the logo last night That’s tough to face from an opponent’s point of view. Then he’s got a really good pull-up game, so that makes him very difficult to guard.”
Kendra Andrews is the Editor-in-Chief. Follow her on Twitter: @kendra__andrews.