Continental Tire Part 1 – vs. Baylor

What a weekend! I was able to get out there to see this one in person, the first game with the family and the second courtside. I was contemplating how to format this since my initial observations were in person and I’ve re-watched the coverage after the fact. I think the best way is to break this down into two parts, by game. I’ll also say up front that I don’t think I’m in a position to speak on what this performance meant to the entire community or the players, so I’m going to stick to the actual game play after this. But, personally, it was heartwarming to see the solidarity that both Baylor and Illinois (especially Baylor with their pre-game letters and post-defeat circle) offered. The guys were emotionally raw but also resilient throughout the weekend. These were some physical, competitive, mentally taxing games in a wild environment (especially on Sunday when 3/4ths of the crowd seemed to be Illinois fans) and they more than met the challenge. I was able to congratulate a few of them after the game and they were gracious and warm. Reece had some touching words when he won MVP. The whole thing just radiated support, and hope, and kindness. Friendly but fierce competition. Sportsmanship. I was proud to have been able to witness it and especially proud of the way our guys represented the program and themselves.

Anyway, there was a ton to love from this tournament! I’ll focus on some over-arching likes that I’ll pick up on from both games, and then get into some game-specific stuff from each, starting with the first game against Baylor. While there wasn’t much I actually, “disliked” from these two performances, there is still stuff to talk about and consider. As always, less editing to get these out. Away we go!

Over-Arching Like #1: Tournament MVP Reece

Reece won this award on the back of his dominant performance vs. Illinois, so there will be much more on this topic in the next entry, but he was also very good against Baylor. With 10 points and 10 assists, it was his second career double-double; but watching the game it was one of those where you just felt his presence throughout. He impacted the game in so many different ways which I’ll highlight momentarily.

Baylor’s perimeter trio, Flagler (6’3″ SR), Cryer (6’1″ JR), and George (6’4″ 5-Star Freshman who we’ll talk about more later) are likely an all-NBA backcourt with elite-athleticism, defensive pressure, and scoring. They all got their points in this one and they all made an impact in different ways, but very rarely did they find any success with Reece guarding them. He primarily took Flagler as their most experienced playmaker and, as much as you can, took him out of the game for the first three quarters of it or so. Yes, Flagler still finished with 15 points and 7 assists, (below his pts average and on par with his assists average), but most of those came either off of broken plays or when Reece was moved to slow someone else down. When he was on Flagler, he was harassing him continuously both off the ball and on possessions like this one:

We all know this is standard Beekman stuff, but it’s still awesome to see him be so stifling even against some of the best competition out there. It’s almost impossible to just take him off of the bounce to the hoop. Flagler made a couple of threes early on a long rebound and off of a misplayed screen, but Beekman mostly relegated him to sitting at the top of the three-point line and giving to others to manufacture offense, instead focusing on running Clark off of screens and trying to get downhill against Franklin (more on that to come later). What a luxury to be able to, mostly, take an opponent’s best or hottest perimeter player out of his game. In fact, there aren’t many other examples of the play like the one above this game because they didn’t try him very often. Here’s a possession I’ll showcase later but that also illustrates this point very well.

After our made basket, Baylor pushes the ball up the court to Cryer. Flagler initially makes a half-hearted jog through the lane and then gets caught well outside of the top of the key and awkwardly doesn’t get the ball. The whole first part of this possession he is not looking to actively get the ball. Eventually he takes a pass from Thamba and attempts to use him as a screen to get downhill, but Beekman is very quickly there to cut off the drive and Shedrick offers a quality hedge. Watch how quickly Flagler loses interest in trying to press this and attempts the cross-court pass that Franklin steals. This is a player who has realized he’s at a disadvantage in his matchup and is playing passively.

When watching the game live, it’s often easy to overlook this aspect of Reece’s game. We typically watch the ball and so it can seem like we don’t hear from him a lot. It’s often because the opposition has stopped trying to test him with regularity – and we’re likely to see this increase when they have more than one quality perimeter scoring options, like Baylor did in this game. Just remember that this is a testament to his great value as a defender and a sign of how much he impacts a game such that the opposition navigates around him.

In that way, but in many others, Reece is a stabilizing force. He also has a knack for being pesky and just making big momentum plays.

This play above didn’t directly lead to points, but it was a “kill momentum before it starts” kind of stabilizer. We had just gone down three and Gardner turned the ball over in the high post. This should have been a run out leading to points or a foul, creating significant momentum. Instead, Reece’s incredible anticipation and athleticism pick this pass and mid-court and create an opportunity going back the other way. We didn’t score, but we stopped them from taking a two-score lead and retained momentum. His timeliness was clutch and a big reason we didn’t get farther behind in the first half.

Speaking of contributing to the game in a variety of ways, here’s one of those 10 assists that showed off his great vision:

There isn’t much window of opportunity here. Flagler is on Franklin and remains in the lane as he cuts through to the corner. Beekman is on the left side of the top of the key and has Bonner shading McKneely and the 6’8″ Lohner in between him and Franklin. Flagler hasn’t lost track of Franklin, ostensibly he just thinks he’ll have time to recover to him if the ball moves through McKneely or BVP. Instead, Reece immediately notices the gap before Franklin has even fully gotten outside of the three-point line and throws a beautiful skip pass to set up the shot. This one will show up in most Franklin highlight reels, but this was a fantastic opportunity created by Beekman understanding his teammates, quickly identifying an opportunity, and executing a great pass.

During the offseason I wrote that the single most important thing that could happen to our offense was Beekman developing a confident and reliable three-point shot.

Hello! I spoke about this in the first game of the year, but it was also on display in this game. He was 2-2 from outside, and launched both opportunities immediately and without hesitation. This one was the best example yet of his change in mentality. This play is almost like a secondary break. Baylor’s defense is mostly set but Beekman passes it ahead to Franklin who probes while Beekman replaces behind. Flagler, who is covering Beekman starts to sag into the lane to cut down and passes and then runs into a light heads-up screen from Shedrick and isn’t able to recover to Beekman in time for the shot. There are so many notable things about this play that contrast with last year’s team. For one, they’re pushing the pace not just when there’s a wide-open opportunity. This is very early in the shot clock and Beekman is clearly replacing behind Armaan here with the intention of shooting if he gets the pass back. This is an open and great look created by both he and Armaan being aggressive, but it’s not a wide-open look or a broken play or a forced look at the end of the shot clock. It’s him hunting his shot within the flow of early offense. Last year he would have almost assuredly either hesitated and pulled the ball back up top, or attempted to use the window to drive into the lane (and likely kick out). This is an entirely different mentality and it’s huge. He doesn’t need to be a high volume outside shooter on this team nor does he even need to shoot at an incredible percentage, but having this shot as part of his game whenever he’s given a quality chance, being willing to take it, and being able to make it, changes the entire way defenses have to play our team.

Lastly, we saw Reece emerge as the guy who was willing to fly to the rack at the end of a game in big moments. This was more visible in the next game which I’ll talk about in the next one of these, but he also did it in this game:

Two minutes left, Baylor just clawed within 8 after being down by over 20 earlier in the half, Keyonte George was red hot and seemed to be all over the floor, we need a bucket and Beekman just toasts Flagler with the blowby and draws the foul on George, fouling him out of the game. Certainly, getting that foul on George was good fortune and not his initial intent, but it was hugely impactful and was the result of him being aggressive in one of the more pressure-filled moments of the contest. In previous seasons, this role used to fall on Kihei despite Reece being much better suited for it. Now it appears that the torch has been passed!

Over-Arching Like #2: Lineup Diversity

Aside from Reece, who showed up big in both games, each of these games had a different group of focal contributors. We’ll discuss the success of their small-ball lineup against Illinois in the next iteration, but against Baylor it was Franklin, Shedrick, and BVP as the primary catalysts.

Jayden did not have his best game and this proved to be a challenging matchup for him. Baylor is big at the 4-5 and between the 6’7″ and athletic Jalen Bridges, the 6’8″ Caleb Lohner, or the 6’10” duo of Josh Ojianwuna and Flow Thamba, it was tough sledding. His mid-range shot still wasn’t on, he turned the ball over a few times, one of which we saw above, and stuff like this was happening to him on the glass:

Through rotations he gets matched up with Thamba, has decent rebounding position, and just gets completely outmuscled for the rebound and has to foul. All-in-all, it wasn’t a very effective Gardner game, and CTB obviously felt the same because he saw just 17 minutes of game time (side-note, Gardner has never averaged fewer than 30 minutes of playing time for his career but sits at 19.8 so far this season).

This paved the way for Ben Vander Plas to see considerable time at the 4 alongside Shedrick, matching (actually exceeding most of the time) Baylor’s size down low, but also offering that stretch 4 to open up the floor.

This is a cool possession to look at. Firstly, Baylor is switching most screens, and in this Bridges switches with George to add some length on the red hot Franklin. George had just hit a three here to push Baylor’s lead to 7, their largest of the game. BVP gets the ball in the high post with Flagler on him after switching with George on Clark. BVP gets the ball to Clark in the corner and then drifts from the high post out to the three-point line. When Clark draws the defense on the baseline he throws a signature Kihei pass out to IMK, who, before landing, touches it over to the wide-open BVP for the three. Baylor lost him with all of their switching, and he was able to punish them from outside, stretching them out.

Here’s another:

You can tell that Baylor hadn’t adjusted their rotations yet as IMK draws the baseline defender along with his own man and Flagler leaves BVP alone to shade a cross-court pass to Franklin. Bonner is slow to rotate over, choosing instead to play closer to the guard than the post player as an outside threat. When you switch and rotate as much as Baylor does, threat assessment can be a challenge and BVP uniquely asks questions of those rotations.

He wasn’t JUST a three-point, threat, though – he was also a good passer, finished around the rim, and still offered that high post mid-range jumper that is Jayden’s bread and butter:

That’s nothing exotic, it’s just Thamba not wanting to come out that far on BVP and BVP having the recognition and confidence to take the window of opportunity on the reluctant close out.

BVP was also active on the glass and helped to create some turnovers but his ability to stretch the defense also allowed us to get Ryan Dunn some playing time as well. Through four games, Dunn and BVP has actually been our second most efficient two player pairing (behind Dunn and Clark). It makes sense. What Dunn concedes in shooting to Franklin or McKneely, BVP can help to replace, and Dunn brings the added athleticism and size across the board in all other areas, like this ability to take up space:

Where he rotates from the top to sandwich Thamba (with Beekman) to keep him from getting the pass and then is able to make a hard and bothersome contest on his man… and just making offensive creation seem implausible to players like George:

I want to bookmark this play for how passive George was. He gets the ball up top with Dunn on him and immediately passes it, floats to the opposite wing, and just sits. The next time down the court Dunn picks up a holding call on him cutting through the lane, comes out of the game, and then George just starts going off. I watched all of Dunn’s defensive possessions and never once did they test him off the dribble. They always ran offense the other way, even when it meant Beekman’s man was involved in the play. More to come on this – but the moment wasn’t bigger than he was, for example:

Some themes here we’ll pick up on later in this piece but the above highlights the ability to adjust with what’s needed. In this case against a large and athletic Baylor team who aggressively switched on defense, BVP at 4 with Shedrick at the 5 allowed us to both combat their size while punishing their rotations. More to come on how this shifted against Illinois later.

Dislike: Not Using Dunn To Combat The Comeback

Baylor was down 22 points and lost by 7. It was a furious comeback over the final 10 minutes of the game, led by the uber talented Keyonte George and an aggressive full court press. This was the first Baylor offensive possession after Dunn was out of the game, very shortly after the passive possession I highlighted above:

Armaan is on him and he’s immediately attacking downhill. And then you had a lot of stuff like this:

And This:

That last one is just a straight heat check with both Armaan and Kadin attempting to contest. It’s at this point that I would have liked to see us try Dunn again to help shut this down. George was playing with the freedom of someone on a team desperate for points and Franklin was struggling with him and Kihei was having his own troubles fighting through screens (more on this in a second). They moved Beekman to be the stopper on George but he was so hot at that point he drew some fouls and was even making shots like this:

You don’t see many players make a shot like that against Reece, even if it was a travel. Instead of this, I would have liked to see them keep Beekman on Flagler, move Franklin down to Cryer, and bring Dunn in to bother George. In fact, this is the kind of situation that seems tailor-made for Dunn. You have a big lead, you need some stops, and the other team has some athletic guard play that is starting to take over the game.

I’ve heard some discussion around this re: Baylor was pressing and we needed Clark to break the press and I want to dispel some, what I believe, are misconceptions. You don’t need a team full of ball handlers to effectively break a press. In fact, you really only need two as long as you have 2 other players who can come back to the ball, make good passes, and take a few dribbles in the right situation. It’s not like the group we had out there was being ultra-effective at breaking the press – they turned the ball over three different times and had to take a time-out another time:

As long as you have two capable ball handlers (which Reece and Armaan are), sometimes it’s better to have a larger catch radius out there; someone who can more easily see over the defenders and who aren’t as bothered by their reach and physicality. In fact, Dunn was part of a press break multiple times earlier in the game – here’s one:

For visual, here’s another shot on the offensive end of how unbothered Dunn was by the 6’2″ Bonner when he found a cutting Gardner on this pass:

Easy. When a team like Baylor is trying to harass you physically, sometimes adding your own physicality is the better response. At the very least, I think it’s unclear that we would have been worse against their press than we were, but it’s very likely that they would have had a harder time sustaining their offensive momentum with our most athletic 1-3 on the floor. It does feel counterintuitive to pull your veteran 5th year PG from a press-break situation, but in THIS situation with THIS lead and THESE Baylor guards, I think it would have been a good call. Perhaps in future situations similar to these you try out Clark, Beekman, and Dunn, if the matchup is right. But I do really like the option of using Dunn to help ice large leads.

Dislike: Clark’s Off-Ball Defense

I actually thought Kihei held up pretty well as an on-ball defender in these games. Baylor tested him some, but not a ton, in this area with mixed results. But what they did do very intentionally, and I think we’ll see a lot of other teams try this as well when they have the personnel to do so, is target Clark’s off the ball defense. I’ve called out in the past how this is Kihei’s biggest weakness as a defender. He’s normally the one pressuring the ball up the court and trying to blow up the ball handler. Baylor’s Cryer was the logical choice as Kihei’s man since he’s only 6’1″, but, although Baylor’s guards can be mostly interchangeable, he acts more as a true shooting guard. Not only is Clark not as comfortable playing off of the ball in general, he can really get rocked by some of these screens inside and his ability to recover and get a contest to bother the shooter is very limited:

Both of these are designed inbound plays attempting to exploit this mismatch. The first is a double screen, both of which catch him fully and he’s completely taken out of the play. The second is just a simple big-bodied screen that he avoids, but in doing so takes himself enough out of the play that he can’t effectively contest the shot.

The two above are just baseline curl screens, but the separation is just enough for Cryer to easily elevate and shoot a comfortable shot.

This last one is a designed double screen outside designed to pick off Clark and freed up Cryer for a wide-open look:

Papi got blown by on his show here as well, but this entire offensive set was just running Cryer off of screens until they got him a quality look. This is something that Baylor targeted aggressively, and to good effect. Cryer finished with 19 points on 8 of 12 shooting and it was mostly on stuff like this and mostly taking advantage of the Clark matchup. Definitely something to keep an eye on and something that I hope we will sub out of when it’s working well for the opponent and they keep going back to it.

Like: Shedrick’s Hedges

We’ve talked about Kadin’s rim protection a lot this season and leading in, but his hedges were, by and large, incredibly effective against Baylor. His length and disruption regularly helped to stall their penetration while still being able to recover to contain their bigs. Recall that Caffaro hedge earlier where Cryer blew by him and into the three-pointer, and then check out some of these:

Will end up highlighting the above play three times but check out how Kadin hedges twice to help Beekman with his contain on Flagler’s drive. There’s just not really anywhere to go.

This was the possession I highlighted about Reece above, but prior to that moment, Kadin gave two deterrent hedges, got in position for the rebound, and was even able to come over to threaten the shot block from help side if Reece hadn’t stripped it. Textbook possession from him there.

Baylor thought they had a window here between when BVP left Thamba and Clark started to leave him. The pass came a little late and Thamba didn’t cut/wasn’t ready, but it was a pretty narrow window on Kadin’s recovery and illustrated how George was pressing to try to beat this.

Here was a neat one where he deterred Flagler’s drive, slid seamlessly down to front Thamba, and then slid across the lane to block a driving Bridges:

They got him on a slip screen a little bit later that BVP was slow to rotate to help, and he adjusted:

Very alert on the slip here and makes it too difficult of a pass to attempt, instead resulting in the great play by Franklin to deflect the pass to the wing. Very late in the game there was this one:

Clutch defense here with the good hedge on Cryer and then the active hands on the slower Thamba, causing the turnover as he attempts to turn the corner and dribble by. He was just really bothering Baylor and increased his activity down the stretch; disrupting their flow:

And then the most visible one:

Love to see the ability to bother the ball handler but also to capitalize on the opportunity by running out and finishing on his own rather than needing to wait for a ball handler to come to him. This one felt very significant live and, of note, Shedrick really became more visibly impactful in clutch time.

He wasn’t perfect on these. He got beat on a couple of rolls (some because the help side rotation was slow) and wasn’t always there to contest the shooter, but their offense was heavily pick and roll focused and he had this interaction many series he was in. But both Bridges and Thamba were held to 2 and 6 points respectively and, by and large, he was very effective at cutting off the drive, recovering, and creating disruptive plays. Especially considering how this was an area where he struggled with positioning and picking up cheap fouls last year, this was a very encouraging sign that he played this way against elite competition.

Dislike: McKneely Not Trusting His Stuff

McKneely has said before that one of his biggest adjustments to the college game is no longer being the most athletic guy on the floor. Coming into the season he was viewed (and still is) as our most polished freshman and most court-ready of the group. All of that appears to be true from a knowledge perspective. His ability is clearly there, his shooting will be a great asset, and he facilitated some good shots in this game, especially when working with BVP. He clearly is ahead of the learning curve on both sides of the ball…. I don’t think he fully trusts himself offensively yet against ultra-athletic competition.

The most obvious instance was with this fast-break layup attempt.

We’ve all been there. You’re so focused/worried about the shot blocker that you tense up and force yourself to miss a shot that was, otherwise, open. But there were also these moments, all of which were visible live:

Both of these plays work. He’s our outside sniper and there’s a significant window of opportunity here for a clear look at the hoop from three. Armaan almost assuredly bombs away here on both, but IMK gives a quick jab step on both and brings it back out. He wasn’t looking for his own opportunity here, perhaps didn’t trust it or didn’t want to take a non-wide-open shot against such a high stakes opponent.

On this one his man falls down on the play but instead he passes it back out. He remained open and they didn’t look to him. Eventually, Bonner just stood up and recovered. IMK hadn’t taken his dribble yet when Bonner fell, so ideally you’d love to see him recognize that and exploit it. He was so locked into just passing it back out that he didn’t recognize the opportunity but, even still, once his man was on the ground and he was drifting back out to the three-point line, rather than tentatively raising a hand, he should be clapping, yelling, calling for the ball with urgency. To me, this betrayed a mindset of actively not hunting his own shot and deferring to his teammates.

I’m not at all worried about this long term. You see this all of the time when players take a step up in competition from their previous level. Sometimes the game takes a little bit to “slow down” for them. It’s also fully understandable that with so many veteran options on the team, he’s reluctant to take the ball out of their hands. He’s going to be snapping these off immediately in seasons to come… but he is in the game to be a sniper and, as the season progresses, I would like to see him be more aggressive about taking open looks, especially against quality competition. We’re going to need him if others are having a cold shooting night and these reps now will help to build that confidence.

As an aside, per Evan Miya’s individual Beyesian Performance Rating system (which rates a player’s total value factoring in situation, and strength of opponent), McKneely has still been our 5th most effective player through the 4 games played and his defensive rating is surprisingly second highest on the team in that metric system. It’s interesting because I’m not sure it passes the eyeball test, nor does it marry with his more traditional metrics like PER (last on the team) or BP/M (second to last). So, there’s going to be more to dig into here as the season progresses but clearly a lot to like about his contributions despite the above, and I think that also highlights how well he already knows and plays within the systems. Looking forward to him growing into his game. That being said, I do think it’s a contrast with Dunn, who hasn’t played like the moment is bigger than he is. Will be very interesting to see how their roles progress this year, while knowing that both will be focal points next year and beyond.

Like: Franklin Not Just a 3-Point Shooter

So much focus has been placed on Franklin’s improved outside shot, but Franklin’s full game was on display in this one as a scorer, making hustle plays, and as an opportunistic defender. He still showed that mid-range game that he honed last year:

But he also showed, I thought, an improved ability to drive strong to the hoop and either finish or get fouled.

That’s a really nice show and blowby, taking advantage of the “no middle” defense along with just an athletic and crafty finish over a 6’10” defender. Then this one:

This is a curl we’ve seen him make so many times before but rather than leaning on a mid-range finish, he just explodes to the rim and threatens to dunk prior to getting fouled.

On the other end he was chasing down offensive boards in transition:

And, surprisingly because he’s normally been a strong but more cautious defender, he made multiple aggressive plays on the ball that lead to break outs the other way:

I love the strength and sense of opportunity on that one above (as well as the controlled finish).

This one just straight up reminded me of a Beekmanesque play and resulted in an intentional clear-path foul.

Coupled with his perimeter shooting and range, when he’s playing with this level of aggressiveness, Armaan is easily one of our best players. He was our best player in this one against the #5 team in the country. There were glimpses of this last year, especially toward the end, but the diversity of playmaking and ability to threaten from anywhere on the court is making all of the difference this year.

Over-Arching Like #3: Mental Toughness

This goes mostly without saying because of everything the team has been going through, but I did want to call out how impressed I was with them mentally. Kadin talked in an interview about how he was starting to get emotional and Kihei helped to pull him back into the game. Armaan and Reece were both appealing to the crowd and rising to the big moments. BVP brought an experienced presence and just did all of the little things right. Jayden didn’t have his best game and BVP played most of the crucial minutes during the big run and close, but I ran into him afterward and congratulated him on the win and he was gracious, joking with teammates, seemed genuinely happy with no sign of discontentment. Whenever we’d take a punch from another team, we always found a response and most of the guys seemed to elevate their play in the most crucial times. You put it all together and this team just seems to get it – how to support each other, how to be self-less players, how to respond to already a wide variety of tests. That bodes well for things to come.

Alright – that’s Part 1. The Finals vs. Illinois will be Part 2… hopefully will have that done by or before Thanksgiving.

2 responses to “Continental Tire Part 1 – vs. Baylor”

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