Baylor males’s basketball was a superpower hiding in plain sight

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The conversations about the place the 2021 Gonzaga Bulldogs ranked in historic context had been already happening earlier than the nationwide championship sport of the lads’s NCAA match towards Baylor. The Zags had been the group on the point of historical past, coming into at 31-0 and one win away from turning into males’s faculty basketball’s first undefeated champion since Indiana in 1976.

Gonzaga had an All-American at guard in Jalen Suggs, at ahead in Corey Kispert, and at heart in Drew Timme. In addition they had an honorable point out All-American in Joel Ayayi and the very best participant from final yr’s Florida Gators in Andrew Nembhard as their fourth and fifth choices. There was stable depth behind that beginning 5, too. The numbers Gonzaga had amassed all season confirmed how proficient this roster actually was: it had the second best offense the game had seen since 2002, and it had the very best adjusted effectivity ranking in the identical timeframe, per KenPom. The protection was top-10 the complete yr, too.

The final group that felt this dominant towards its friends was 2018 Villanova, and we all know that story ended with a nationwide title. The final group that confronted one of these historic stress was 2015 Kentucky, and we all know that story ended with an upset loss within the Last 4.

Something can occur in a single-elimination match, and that’s why we love March Insanity. This Gonzaga group simply appeared too proficient to fall. There was actually just one factor that might cease them: a group on the opposite aspect of the bracket who was almost nearly as good all yr.


It’s onerous to recollect now, however there was a time when Baylor regarded prefer it could be poised to run the desk, too. The Bears began the yr No. 2 within the preseason polls, solely behind Gonzaga. Of their third sport of the season, Baylor ran an Illinois group out of the health club that will ultimately end with a No. 1 seed. After the common season sport towards Gonzaga, scheduled for Dec. 5, was canceled due to Covid protocol, the Bears’ flirtation with perfection started in earnest.

In contrast to Gonzaga, Baylor must undergo a gauntlet in convention play to get there. After a month within the Massive 12, their file was nonetheless unblemished, with solely Kansas and Texas Tech taking part in them inside 10 factors. The Bears had been 17-0, and all of the speak that utilized to the Zags additionally utilized to them.

Then Baylor needed to pause for 3 weeks as this system was shutdown for Covid issues.

The Bears regarded shaky after they got here again, however nonetheless edged out a struggling Iowa State group to maneuver to 18-0. The subsequent sport towards Kansas could be their first loss. As they moved into the convention match, Baylor’s protection regarded a bit of shaky and their timing appeared off. It wasn’t all that shocking to see future No. 1 total NBA draft decide Cade Cunningham and Oklahoma State knock them off within the Massive 12 semis.

Baylor earned its high seed within the South area, however the draw wasn’t straightforward. A spherical of 32 sport towards the winner of Wisconsin vs. North Carolina was looming. A possible matchup with Villanova within the Candy 16 could be tough, despite the fact that the Wildcats had been with out injured place to begin guard Collin Gillespie.

Was Baylor the group that threatened to go undefeated for greater than half the season, or the one which regarded susceptible coming off the lay-off? If it was a professional query heading into the match, Baylor left little doubt on their very own greatness as quickly because it began.

Picture by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Pictures

It’s doable Baylor would have been making its second straight Last 4 look if the world allowed us to have an NCAA match final yr. Baylor was thought-about the second finest group within the nation all yr in 2020, too, this time solely behind Kansas. The Bears misplaced breakout heart Freddie Gillespie to the professionals, however the remainder of the muse of that group returned with one other yr of expertise.

Jared Butler was coming into his junior yr coming off an All-American season. Davion Mitchell was again for his fourth season of school ball after being named Massive 12 Newcomer of the 12 months. MaCio Teague was coming off a second-team All-Massive 12 marketing campaign the place he proved he might thrive in an influence convention after coming from the Massive South. Mark Important was returning for yr 5 as a participant who initially dedicated to this system approach again in 2013.

There have been reinforcements on the way in which, too. Adam Flagler, a 6’3 guard with a candy three-point stroke, was eligible after sitting out final yr as a switch from Presbyterian. Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua was a bouncy 6’8 huge set to hitch the rotation after transferring from UNLV. Matthew Mayer and Flo Thama had been unique Baylor commits who would offer depth on the bench as juniors.

Baylor had one thing that even the nation’s finest faculty basketball applications couldn’t dream about: expertise and continuity. There have been no youngsters within the rotation — 20-year-old Butler, with two years of beginning expertise already below his belt — was the youngest participant getting minutes. Important turned 24 years previous simply earlier than the season began, and was the identical age as a six-year NBA veteran like Devin Booker. Teague was 23 and Mitchell was 22. Baylor’s beginning lineup was older than the Chicago Bulls’.

If the important thing to varsity basketball is to get previous and keep previous, head coach Scott Drew had mastered it. Now his Baylor group simply needed to show that it might win the place so lots of Drew’s different proficient groups fell quick.


It’s in all probability true that another coach in an influence convention would have been fired for dropping as many video games as Drew did in his first three seasons at Baylor. It’s positively true that no different coach in faculty basketball historical past needed to face what Drew was up towards.

When Drew was employed in 2003, Baylor was solely months faraway from probably the most tragic tales faculty athletics had ever seen. Bears ahead Carlton Dotson murdered teammate Patrick Dennehy throughout an argument whereas firing weapons close to campus. Former head coach Dave Bliss tried to smear Dennehy as a drug supplier when the NCAA began poking across the program, which solely made a horrible scenario even worse. Baylor males’s basketball was probably the most hopeless job in America, however Drew took it anyway with relentless positivity.

It appeared like a miracle when Drew made his first match look in his fourth yr, solely the second for this system since 1950. As Drew turned this system right into a sustainable winner over the following few seasons, the plucky upstart began to turn out to be the group that couldn’t breakthrough in March.

Baylor was the group that stubbornly caught to a 1-1-3 zone protection even because it bled nook threes. It was this system that was upset within the first spherical of the match by No. 14 seed Georgia State when R.J. Hunter hit an on the spot traditional buzzer-beater. It was the group that obtained upset by No. 12 seed Yale which prompted Taurean Prince the give historical past’s most sarcastic post-tournament press convention. It was this system that couldn’t attain the Last 4 even after it began touchdown five-star recruits like Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller, and Isaiah Austin.

The Bears all the time felt like they had been on the cusp, however might by no means fairly get there. Baylor watched Villanova get its breakthrough after so many early match failures, then watched Virginia do the identical factor. This system had the potential to get there, Drew simply wanted to search out the right combine that had all the time barely eluded him.

Baylor v Gonzaga

Picture by Jamie Squire/Getty Pictures

Baylor discovered that blend this yr. This was an elite group in each approach, and one which all the time appeared constructed for March.

Guard play is so necessary within the NCAA match, and nobody had higher guard play than Baylor. Butler had the ball on a string as a handler and will drain a three-pointer off the dribble or from a spot-up. Mitchell had arguably the very best first-step within the sport and will collapse the opposing protection in any scenario. Teague was a real three-point menace who put collectively his fourth straight yr of spectacular marksmanship from past the arc. All might deal with, move, and shoot, and had video games that complemented one another so effectively. The addition of Flagler gave them one other lethal shooter on the bench.

No group in America made a larger proportion of their threes than Baylor at 41.3 p.c. Solely 4 groups had been higher on the offensive glass. The protection might get after you too even when their effectivity slipped following the Covid lay-off. Mitchell specifically was unbelievable on the level of assault, whereas Butler, Mayer, and Important had been lively within the passing lanes. Baylor’s takeaway proportion ranked No. 4 within the nation.

All of this performed out in good vogue towards Gonzaga within the title sport. Baylor torched the nets from three by going 10-of-23 from deep. It dominated the offensive glass, led by Important’s eight o-boards. The guards reduce up a top-10 Zags protection so badly it needed to swap to zone, which it had hardly performed all yr.

If Gonzaga was presupposed to be an all-time nice group, what does that make Baylor? Add within the blowout towards a proficient Houston group within the Last 4, and there’s loads of proof to assist that the Bears had been the group we should always have been speaking about in historic context all alongside.

Baylor simply completed a run of going 54-6 over two seasons. It did it taking part in in a convention that was rated because the second most tough within the nation each years by KenPom. Their closest sport in March was a nine-point win over Arkansas within the Elite Eight. This was was as spectacular as a university basketball group on this period will be.

Baylor gained’t go down in historical past for an undefeated season. They by no means obtained the possibility to strive for back-to-back titles with this core due to the pandemic. When you watched them, although, you know the way good they had been. It doesn’t all the time occur within the NCAA match, however we are able to say it for certain this time: the very best group gained.

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