In this weird and wacky season, there is the entirety of the college basketball landscape and then there are the Baylor Bears and the Gonzaga Bulldogs. The Zags and the Bears have been the top two teams for the whole season, so far, and by the metrics are head and shoulders above the rest.
Of course, COVID stole the easiest way to answer the question of “Who is the best?” when the Gonzaga program was put on pause earlier in December. Since then, all we can do is acknowledge that both teams are very good and out of 10 games played, they’d each probably win five.
That is not how things work in the NCAA Tournament. If fate is real, Gonzaga and Baylor will play each other for the championship on April 5. Plenty can go wrong before then. Gonzaga might get upset. The Bears could fall apart. More than halfway through the season, it is clear, a title game featuring anything less is going to be a disappointment for all of college basketball.
The two teams have their clear-cut differences. Although Baylor’s offense is at an elite level, their defense is the best in the country. Gonzaga is the flipside: a great defense with a god-tier level offense. Given that easy math, “elite offense” plus “elite defense” should be the obvious winner over “elite offense” plus “great defense.” But we have to look a little bit closer at those numbers.
Here are the top KenPom teams separated by offense and defense.
KenPom Offense & Defense
The gaps aren’t a lot here, but this is a game of inches. What each metric is saying there is that given 100 possessions, Gonzaga would score 123.8 points against an average team. Given 100 possessions, Baylor would limit an average team to 87.1 points.
What is important is to take a look between the numbers. Sure, the Zags are the No. 13 defense in the nation and they are 3.8 points behind Baylor. Baylor, however, as the No. 4 offense, is still a full four points behind the No. 2 Gonzaga Bulldogs’ offense. It doesn’t mean much to say that Gonzaga is there 0.2 points better than Baylor, but, extrapolating off of the statistics, Gonzaga’s offense is slightly better more than Baylor’s defense is superior.
So Baylor’s defense is going to make life hell for the Zags. But their overall shooting defense isn’t something to necessarily be afraid about, especially considering Gonzaga has the highest eFG% in the nation, and, in an even more impressive stat, does that with a mediocre three-point shot.
Take a look at the top 10 teams in the nation ranked by effective field goal percentage, a metric that accounts for the fact that a three-point field goal is worth more than a two-point field goal.
|Gonzaga||60.6||34.3 (133)||64.6 (1)|
|Purdue Fort Wayne||60.4||43.9 (1)||57.1 (19)|
|Colgage||60.1||42.9 (3)||57.3 (17)|
|Furman||59.7||37.3 (50)||62.9 (3)|
|Drake||59.6||43.5 (2)||57.0 (20)|
|American||59||38.8 (25)||59.7 (7)|
|Missouri State||58.8||35.6 (91)||63.6 (2)|
|Baylor||58.6||42.6 (4)||55.3 (36)|
|Virginia||58.6||38.5 (29)||59.1 (11)|
|Michigan||57.8||36.4 (66)||59.6 (8)|
Modern-day basketball says the three is king, and yet, the Gonzaga Bulldogs are operating one of the top offenses in the nation without overt reliance on three-pointers. Rather, they drive to the hoop and pound it down low. According to Hoop-Math.com, the Zags attempt 52.9 percent of their field goals at the rim, where they shoot 72.3 percent.
By comparison, only 32.4 percent of Baylor’s field goals come at the rim, where they are also shooting a respectable 70 percent.
Without the reliance on three-point shots, and instead relying on high-percentage cuts to the hoops, the Zags are one of the most consistent shooting teams in the nation. Just take a look at their scatter plot of field goal percentage compared to points per possession this season.
Now take a look at Baylor’s.
There is a greater variance on Baylor’s charts than Gonzaga, largely because of the Zags’ consistent approach. In a certain way, this means Baylor is almost the more dangerous team. If the Bears are hitting 50 percent from three, at the volume they take, it is a good recipe for losing.
But if Baylor isn’t hitting their threes, then it is a different story. The Bears’ two worst three-point performances have come against the mediocre defenses of Iowa State (4-of-19) and TCU (6-of-19). They won both of those games, but Iowa State and TCU are also not NCAA Tournament-caliber teams.
That, in itself, brings us to the biggest question about the Baylor Bears at the moment. The Zags played one of the toughest non-conference schedules out there and are now settling into the relative ease of the WCC. For Baylor, it was the exact opposite. Now that Big 12 play is beginning, the challenge is here.
Take a look at the opponents defensive rankings for both Gonzaga and Baylor:
- Gonzaga: 9, 14, 23, 50, 52, 69, 79, 175, 243, 314, 324, 324, 350
- Baylor: 3, 14, 31, 49, 108, 115, 119, 134, 141, 176, 311, 338
It isn’t much of a difference, but we know what the Zags’ offense can do. We also know that Baylor is very good, but at this point in the season, they have not proven that as definitively as Gonzaga. As it stands now, on the coin flip of a game between Gonzaga and Baylor, the Zags are probably the favorite.
However, the season is young. If Baylor finishes Big 12 play with just one or two losses, you can easily argue that the tables have turned. Either way, there is a good chance we will be reading plenty of “Which Team Wins?” posts throughout the year as they further cement themselves as the top teams in college basketball.