With a shout to A.J. Walton, no Baylor guard has ever defended like Davion Mitchell. And with him at the helm, Baylor has won 21 straight games. That win streak has surpassed the 2008 Jayhawks for the second longest in Big 12 history. Those Jayhawks managed to win a national title, and Mitchell has Baylor—the NCAA Committee’s overall No. 1 seed with a month left until Selection Sunday—positioned to return to their first Final Four since Harry Truman occupied the White House.
Mitchell, like three other Baylor starters, did not start his career at Baylor. He played for Auburn. When I ask Mitchell to explain the main difference between Auburn and Baylor he says, “I’m not trying to take any shots at Auburn, but I feel like Baylor develops their guys a whole lot better....They keep you involved, even if you’re not playing.”
Baylor needed that development after they lost their second game of the season to Washington. Mitchell says, “I feel like we knew we were good. I feel like we, I don’t know, we got too big headed. We got too comfortable. We were up most of the game. We let them come back. It humbled us. Even the next day, we worked harder in practice...we knew anybody beat us just like we could beat anybody.”
The Bears begin so many games by relying on Mitchell’s offense. The 6-foot-2 point guard has exceptional speed. Scott Drew likes to clear out Baylor’s offense and give Mitchell a lane to the hoop. Mitchell says he looks for, “That left lane. I am faster going left. If I see an open lane, nine times out of 10, I’ll get by the defender. He doesn’t know the clear out is coming. After they clear out,they know Mark (Vital) is trying to set a screen or MaCio (Teague) is going out for a three, so it opens up.”
Mitchell is exceptional scoring at the rim. He can hesitate and score over bigger players. No Baylor guard has ever shot at least 30% of their attempts at the rim and hit at least 55% of their looks there. Mitchell takes 36.5% of his shots at the rim and is shooting 62.3% there, per hoop-math. When I tell Mitchell about his exceptional numbers at both getting to the rim and scoring at the rim, he says, “I think honestly, I am not finishing at the rim as well as I’m supposed to be. I’m missing a lot of easy layups I should be making. I think it (scoring at the rim) comes from the offseason, working on my finishes, working on my body with Coach Charlie (Melton).”
Mitchell is like the perfect presidential candidate—able to mix going left and right when the situation demands it. Just ask Texas Tech. In one telling sequence, Texas Tech—the kings of stopping teams from driving middle—found out Mitchell can move any direction. He says, “I kind of knew that they wanted to have one of their best defenders on me, so I knew that the big was going to hedge. I tried a spin move to keep him on my back, so I’d have a wide open lane. Texas Tech is a great defensive team, but that play, I kind of knew it it was going to happen before it happened.”
Every team needs a man or two that has complete confidence he can get a bucket whenever. And Mitchell has that. With the shot clock approaching zero on a big possession against Texas Tech, Mitchell prepared to launch a ridiculously tough three. Mitchell says, “I mean it’s something I worked on. It wasn’t just a lucky thing. I feel like the guys I work out with, a couple of the GA’s, and the mangers, made it happen. I knew I was going to make it after I shot it.”
In his Auburn days, Mitchell wasn’t much of a 3-point shooter. He hit just 28% of his threes as a Tiger and only 26% of them in conference play. At Baylor, he’s hit 38% of his triples in conference play. That mark is good for 9th in the league. Mitchell says he’s shooting better because he has, “More confidence. Even in high school I had a lot more confidence. Even here, I’m more confident. Not at the beginning of the season though. At Auburn, I played a bunch off the bench. I had to be that guy. If I missed the shot, I got out of the game. I always had a jumper; it’s more of a comfort thing.”
The 2020 Bears are a defensive squad. They rank 4th nationally in defensive efficiency. They’ve held Shaka Smart to his two lowest point totals at Texas. They held Kansas to 55 points in Allen Fieldhouse—their lowest home point total since the Bush Administration. Their conference adjusted defensive efficiency is the second best mark in Big 12 play during the KenPom era, which stretches back to 2002.
Baylor’s defense has been so good for a host of reasons. But Mitchell is a major reason. He locks up guards and allows Baylor to play a modified version of Texas Tech’s defense. But as Jordan Sperber has detailed, Baylor can get away with not requiring as much help because Mitchell doesn’t let guys get past him. He says, “I felt confident we were going to be a man team. I knew everybody could really guard. Everybody has to lock in and stay connected. Personally, I don’t like running zone at all..it’s not one of my favorite things to do. I knew Coach Drew liked my ball pressure.”
If anyone doubts Mitchell’s ability, he eviscerated Prentiss Nixon’s dream on a drive to the hoop. The play left me at a loss for words. Mitchell says, “I knew he didn’t have a 40 inch vert(ical) because I probably wouldn’t have jumped. He was staring at me the whole time. He was trying to draw the foul. I tried to get away from him and block it and the foul chance.”
Mitchell’s become a monster at balancing taking charges and swiping the ball at the right time. If the defender takes one more dribble, he risks Mitchell ending the possession and running out for an easy bucket. And if he takes off for the hoop, Mitchell can get set instantly. He says, “I kind of learned taking the charge here at Baylor. I didn’t take many charges at Auburn. They would hit my chest, but I’d never fall. Watching Makai (Mason) and Coach Drew stopping plays. Coach Drew did a really good job helping me watch film and telling me I should take that charge, and I listened to him.”
Despite the saying that, “Defense travels,” sometimes it doesn’t. In Stillwater the Cowboys—one of the league’s worst shooting teams—came out hot. Mitchell owned his responsibility for some of those errors. He says, “Everyone had to be connected. we had to talk more on screens. I messed up on a couple of screens with (Thomas) Dziagwa. I went under and he was a shooter. We cut that down in the second half.”
Nothing may be as shocking as how Baylor stymied Kansas’ offense. Udoka Azuibuike leads the nation in field goal percentage and is 7 feet tall. Mitchell says, “We knew he was a force inside, so we tried to make it hard for him. One of Kansas’ options is to throw and get easy dunks. We just tried to make it hard for him, and make Kansas look for different options.” Mission accomplished. Azuibuike and David McCormack, Kansas’ sophomore and former McDonald’s All-American big man, combined for six points.
The Bears were able to front Azubuike and limit Kansas’ opportunities. They held Kansas to just .89 points per possession, a mark that would rank 348th nationally over a full season. Mitchell says, “They teach the bigs to 3⁄4 front. They known that they can front. It helps our help defense out a lot and makes it stronger. Florida had bigs that ducked in a lot, so they can’t block a shot. We made it hard for them too.”
While the future might be unknowable for most things, Mitchell was pretty confident this Baylor team was different. The conversation comes to a close as Mitchell says, “I kind of knew something like this would happen. I knew we had good guards, and everyone loves playing together. Nobody is really selfish on the team. Everyone loves seeing each other’s success. I kind of knew this was going to happen.”