5:15 PM EST, CBS – Line: Baylor -6.5, Over/Under: 139
After a thoroughly chaotic first weekend of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, the Sweet Sixteen marches on with just a bit of chalk as the top-seeded Baylor Bears look to advance against the fifth-seeded Villanova Wildcats in the South Regional Semifinal from historic Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. Like most teams around the country, this was far from a smooth season for Villanova (18-6, 11-4 in Big East), who after jumping out to an early 8-1 start saw their campaign placed on pause on December 24th following a series of positive COVID-19 cases, and wouldn’t be cleared to return to the hardwood until nearly a month later on January 19th. With that said, the Wildcats have and continue to make the most of difficult situations, finishing first in the Big East for a third consecutive season, despite being eliminated early in their conference tournament as (eventual champion) Georgetown narrowly bested them in a 72-71 affair in the quarterfinals from Madison Square Garden. While we highly doubt that Jay Wright and Co. were sweating their early exit, for after all most conference champions approach their respective tournaments with a sense of ambivalence, the bigger concern was the loss of (Senior Guard) Collin Gillespie (14.0 PTS, 42.8% FG, 37.6% 3FG, 3.3 REB, 4.6 AST, 1.0 STL, 20.5 PER), who suffered a torn MCL (on Senior Day no less), mercilessly ending his tenure with the program. One of a pair of Seniors within the rotation, Gillespie was second on the team in scoring (14.0), while operating as their chief playmaker in dishing out 4.6 assists per game as well as joint-leader in steals (1.0) and their most prolific sniper from beyond the arc (41). Adding to the concern was that ‘Nova would go on to lose each of their next two contests following his injury, with a close defeat to Providence (54-52) preceding that ousting at the hands of the Hoyas. In both cases they struggled mightily on the offensive end of the court, shooting a miserable 38.3% from the field, including only 27.1% from downtown, while handing out just 10.5 assists. Needless to say, there were plenty of things to work on in lieu of the NCAA Tournament, and thankfully for everyone involved they’ve managed to correct their issues, as they’ve now advanced to the second weekend for the fifth time in the last eight years. However, nobody is going to lament how difficult their early schedule has been thus far, for quite frankly Wright and Co. couldn’t have asked for a more favorable draw; Villanova outlasted twelfth-seeded Winthrop in a 73-63 affair in the First Round, followed by an 84-61 thumping of thirteenth-seeded North Texas (more on this one shortly). While 12/5 upsets are some of the most common, the Wildcats were having nothing of the sort, as their defense smothered the Eagles last weekend, relegating the Big South Champions to a dismal 36.2% shooting from the field, including just 14-of-36 from within the arc (38.9%) and 7-of-22 beyond it (31.8%), while forcing nearly as many turnovers (10) as assists permitted (13) and logging eight blocks. The Big East Champions on the other hand, led by as many as thirteen points as they shot 44.2% overall, with much of their production coming from within the arc (15-of-27), while also making quite the impression from the free-throw line (19-of-26). As he has for most of the season, (Sophomore Forward) Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (16.0 PTS, 49.5% FG, 28.0% 3FG, 8.3 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.0 STL, 23.4 PER) led the attack, logging his seventh Double-Double of the term with twenty-two points and eleven rebounds, while adding six assists and a trifecta of blocks in the victory. The big man has clearly taken on more of a playmaking role in Gillespie’s absence, totaling six dimes in each of his side’s two NCAA Tournament outings, while averaging 19.3 points on 50.9% shooting, with 9.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 1.3 blocks without his fellow Big East Player of the Year co-holder. Fellow Sophomore, Justin Moore (12.8 PTS, 43.8% FG, 31.7%% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 3.0 AST, 16.6 PER), who missed a pair of games before the Big East Tournament with a sprained ankle, finished with fifteen points, with three rebounds and blocks apiece, while the tandem of Jermaine Samuels (11.9 PTS, 47.5% FG, 38.2% 3FG, 6.5 REB, 2.5 AST, 0.6 STL, 22.2 PER) and Caleb Daniels (9.9 PTS, 43.3% FG, 39.8% 3FG, 2.1 REB, 1.3 AST, 12.5 PER) combined for twenty-one points and ten boards.
“I hope so, man… I don’t remember all those types of stats but I like when you guys bring them up. I thought we were pretty good defensively, but it sure does help when the shots are going in.”A relieved Jay Wright to see Villanova back in an offensive groove after burying 15-of-30 three-pointers in Sunday’s 84-61 drubbing of (13) North Texas in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament.
When we last saw Villanova, they managed to see off upstart thirteenth-seed, North Texas, with relative ease in an 84-61 affair from Bankers Life Fieldhouse that was never really in question. If there were any questions in regards to the Wildcats’ offensive potency without Gillespie in the lineup, it was answered on Sunday as they knocked down a scintillating 15-of-30 attempts from beyond the arc (50.0%), outscoring the Mean Green by a whopping twenty-one points in that regard. However, it wasn’t necessarily so easy in the early goings, as the Conference USA Tournament Champions raced out to a 21-13 lead midway through the First Half. From that point though Wright’s troops put the clamps on the their opponent and let it rain from the perimeter, netting 9-of-15 threes (60.0%) in the First Half to head into intermission on a devastating 34-6 run. In the end, the denizens of the Big East shot a stellar 55.4% from the field, including 16-of-26 from within the arc (61.5%), assisting on nineteen of their thirty-one field goals and committing a scant five turnovers. The fluid ball-movement was really an encouraging sight for a team that has struggled in that area without one of the better Point Guards in the country, with this performance being very much of a group effort with four different players logging three or more helpers; ‘Nova had totaled at least seventeen assists on ten occasions this season, but had previously failed to surpass thirteen in the prior three games without Gillespie. Robinson-Earl once again led the way with eighteen points on 8-of-14 shooting (57.1%), with six rebounds and assists apiece, while Moore and Samuels each added fifteen respectively. Daniels chipped in with eleven points, while (Junior Reserve) Cole Swider (5.9 PTS, 43.0% FG, 40.7% 3FG, 2.9 REB, 1.1 AST, 16.0 PER) contributed with nine as both players nailed three triples. Defensively, Villanova relegated North Texas to just 40.4% shooting overall, including 8-of-26 from long range (30.8%), while permitting a dozen assists and forcing nine turnovers. At this point in the Tournament, keep an eye on these Wildcats for the last two times that they’ve advanced to the second weekend they went on to cut down the nets, winning National Championships in 2016 and 2018, with a number of upperclassmen members of that title team three years ago.
Meanwhile, their opponent today wasn’t the only team to deal with adversity throughout what has been the most unusual of seasons, for Baylor (24-2, 13-1 in BIG XII) was hit hard by COVID-19 down the stretch of their schedule, with a number of players sidelined due to the virus as six out of seven games were either canceled or postponed in February. It was the second pause of the program due to COVID-19, as the team went three weeks without plying or practicing, which created a perception that they were all-too vulnerable heading into March. With that said, the Bears still managed to lock down their first BIG XII Championship in school history, as Scott Drew’s charges recollected themselves en route to winning three straight to close out the Regular Season, before bowing out in the BIG XII Semifinals following an 83-74 defeat to Oklahoma State. Again, as we touched upon earlier these elite teams don’t necessarily approach their respective conference tournaments with the greatest sense of urgency, particularly when their guarding against health/injury concerns, and this was precisely the case for Baylor, who would enter the 2021 NCAA Tournament as one of the favorites, enjoying a No. One Seed for the first time in school history. It’s a testament to the job that Drew has done in his eighteen years with a program that was in absolute shambles when he arrived back in 2003; the Bears were ineligible to even compete in the Tournament upon his arrival in Waco, but have since advanced to nine NCAAs in the last fourteen years en route to ascending to the realms of the elite with a 50-6 record over the last two seasons. Indeed, the only thing missing on the 50-year old’s resume is a National Championship; Drew has guided the Bears to three Sweet Sixteens and a pair of Elite Eights (2010 and 2012), but never to a Final Four, though the consensus is that he absolutely has the talent on hand to dance deep into March. One of the most prolific offensive teams in the country, Baylor averaged 83.8 points per game (4th Overall) on 48.8% shooting from the field (16th Overall), including 53.5% from within the arc (57th Overall) and a nation-leading 41.5% beyond it (1st Overall), while dishing out a healthy 16.9 assists (12th Overall) and putting in that work on the offensive glass with 12.6 rebounds (21st Overall). The triumvirate of Jared Butler (16.9 PTS, 47.9% FG, 41.5% 3FG, 3.3 REB, 4.8 AST, 2.1 STL, 25.1 PER), MaCio Tague (16.0 PTS, 48.1% FG, 39.7% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.8 STL, 22.1 PER), and Davion Mitchell (14.2 PTS, 52.1% FG, 46.1% 3FG, 2.7 REB, 5.4 AST, 2.0 STL, 22.2 PER) have been nothing short of spectacular this season, with the upperclassmen combining for 47.1 points and 11.8 assists, with all three nailing over fifty three-pointers thus far. Teague scored a game-high twenty-two points in last weekend’s 79-55 romp over sixteenth-seeded Hartford, with the Senior Guard netting 9-of-17 from the field (52.9%), including 4-of-8 from beyond the arc (50.0%). As a team, the Bears only shot 41.3% overall, but enjoyed a staggering TWENTY-ONE more field goal attempts thanks to a ridiculous TWENTY-FOUR turnovers courtesy of the Hawks, whom they also outscored by eighteen points from downtown. Drew’s troops logged a season-high fifteen steals, with seven different players registering a theft, five of which were attributed to Butler.
“There is no book, there is no guarantee how you’re going to come back, when you’re going to come back and if you’re going to be able to make it far enough to where it can pay off. Right now, I think defensively the last two games we’re a lot better than we were prior to them.”Scott Drew on Baylor’s fight to come back from a three-week COVID-19 hiatus as they advance to the Sweet Sixteen after forcing a whopping thirty-seven turnovers in blowout wins over (16) North Texas and (9) Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament.
When we last saw Baylor, the faced a stiffer test in the form of ninth-seeded Wisconsin, but in the end the outcome was the same as the top seed in the South Region enjoyed another comfortable double-digit victory, 76-63. Like they did with Hartford two days prior, the Bears got off to a strong start, outscoring the Badgers 42-29 in the First Half with their defensive intensity playing a major role in the affair. In the end, Drew’s outfit relegated the BIG 10 representatives to 45.5% shooting from the field, kept them off the charity stripe (5-of-7 FTA), and forced as many turnovers as assists permitted (13), as they managed to build a lead as large as eighteen points. The BIG XII Champions had no issues taking care of the basketball, dishing out fifteen assists in comparison to committing a scant four turnovers en route to shooting 45.5% overall, including 8-of-17 from downtown (47.1%) and 18-of-23 from the free-throw line (78.3%). After dropping twenty-two points on the Hawks, Teague settled for a subdued nine this time around, though Butler and Mitchell picked up the slack with sixteen points apiece, the latter scoring all of his in the First Half on an efficient 6-of-8 shooting (75.0%). (Junior Guard) Matthew Mayer (8.3 PTS, 48.8% FG, 42.2% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 1.0 AST, 1.2 STL, 25.7 PER) added a team-high seventeen points off the bench. Now they’ll be looking to advance against Villanova, who without the aforementioned Gillespie have been forced to adopt a veritable Point Guard-by-committee approach over the last few weeks. With Baylor’s swarming defense driving them to this point (THIRTY-SEVEN turnovers in the last two games), whomever manages to take better care of the rock will in all likelihood be moving on to the Elite Eight on Monday.