Anyone still questioning Baylor’s national championship pedigree must have gone to bed early. That’s a shame because nobody needs to operate on any sleep to recognize the Bears are like the Godfather: somehow the sequel is better than the previous installment.
This victory is wild because the Bears didn’t play that well in the first half. Baylor managed just .89 points per possession in the first half—a paltry sum that ranked well below their average of 1.15. Their top five opponent banked a three and another long jumper. which usually portends that the lucky bounces that decide heavyweight bouts are going to doom you; their two best returning scorers went 0-of-6 from deep. And they still beat a top five team by 13.
If there was one question about the Bears entering the season, it’s their play at center. Freddie Gillespie earned All-Big 12 honors and made the defense work last year. As then acting head coach Jerome Tang noted after the Louisiana game, “Freddie knew 100% of our ball screen coverages.” That knowledge and his quickness and length helped Baylor’s defense finish fourth in adjusted defensive efficiency, which was a 71 spot jump from the 2018-2019 campaign. With Gillespie gone, Flo Thamba and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua had a major test.
Tonight they proved their value. Thamba provided great defense and a couple big scores. Tchatchoua put his athleticism and preparation to use. He finished with nine points and nine rebounds, including six on the offensive end. Davion Mitchell mentioned, a few weeks ago, to me that Tchatchoua provided a new wrinkle on one of their favorite sets because of his ability to throw down lobs. After the game, Mitchell told me that Tchatchoua’s philsopohy for Mitchell is to, “throw it as high as you can.” The apex of Mitchell’s toss proves they understand each other:
Then there’s Adam Flagler. He led the Bears in scoring (18 points). The Bears are so rich at the guard position that the most conservative sports fan will countenance the siren call of socialism by arguing for a redistribution of Baylor’s backcourt to the less well-off members of college basketball. Seriously, who is Baylor’s fourth best guard? I don’t want to wade into that debate because these men have performed this well without any slights. The world isn’t ready for how good they’d be if they had a legitimate gripe.
Flagler’s shown the 3-point line is not a mandate but a suggestion. He frequently fires a couple steps behind it. After the Washington game he told me, “We’ve been working on our range and everything because it makes us more deadly as a team the farther out we can shoot.” Illinois found out Adam Flagler is the sixth man that Five Guys wanted:
The Bears also showed why their defense remains elite. They rank top 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom. Ayo Dosunmu was a preseason All-American. The Bears switched well, and as Mitchell told me, they wanted to make it so, “he couldn’t go to his right hand.” The second best player in the Big 10 went just 6-of-18 and finished -15 for the game. Whether Mitchell, Mark Vital, Jared Butler or anyone else had him, they made his life miserable and shut down the Illini for key stretches.
The biggest worry entering the game involved how Baylor could defend Kofi Cockburn. Illinois’ 7 foot center earned preseason All Big 10 honors. And the Bears hadn’t faced a big man like him since losing Gillespie. Cockburn only played 18 minutes as he battled foul trouble all night. Scott Drew told me that a large reason they limited him is because the guards drove so well to force fouls. That speaks to the synergy of the Bears. When the defense struggles, the offense can go on a 9-0 run in two minutes. And if the offense struggles—like it did in the first half—the Bears can go wild on defense.
Nobody wins a title a month into the season. If that happened, Texas A&M would have real titles listed at Kyle Field, instead of the façade that adorns their not so hollowed ground. It’s a long season. If the 2015 Kentucky Wildcats couldn’t go undefeated, it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it.
The Bears are certainly good enough to win it all though. They have a ways to go and some flaws that will leave them worrying the season might end before the Final Four. But those worries matter because Baylor—a team that played a “C” game for most of the first half, but then came back to beat the No. 5 team by 13 points—showed something tonight: they’re good enough to win the NCAA Tournament.