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The Best Baylor Team Ever and the Eternal What If

Baylor never had a basketball team this good. We’ll always wonder what would have happened in March

NCAA Basketball: Texas State at Baylor Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

They had the nation’s longest streak at No. 1 since 2015. Their 23 straight wins were the most of the 270 Big 12 teams that played a full season in the league. But because of a global pandemic, we’ll never know exactly how the 2019-2020 Bears would have done in March.

This was a special team. Despite featuring zero top 30 consensus recruits, the roster was loaded with talent. The best players in America are often freshman. Sometimes it’s better to be a little older though, and Baylor proved that. They didn’t play any freshman. And four of the five starters redshirted.

The team’s best player was Jared Butler. He was a unanimous selection to the first team in the Big 12. He earned All-American honors from multiple outlets. When the Bears needed a bucket, he was a steadying force. He dropped 22 points in Allen Fieldhouse, earning Baylor the program’s first win in that building and leading Baylor to a 12 point win. The Jayhawks didn’t lose another game after that, and their two previous losses were by a combined three points.

Several guys have a legitimate case for being the team’s next best player, and that’s where the strength of the team resonated. Freddie Gillespie went from Division III to a scholarship player at Baylor. Out of the rotation late in his junior season, he entered the rotation because of an injury to Tristan Clark and became All-Big 12 Second Team and a member of the defensive team. His ability to switch pick-and-rolls and block shots helped Baylor switch to a no middle defense. That defense finished 4th on KenPom, which is 19 spots higher than any previous Baylor team.

Davion Mitchell was a maniac on defense. Nobody could defend on the ball like him. In Ames, he took flight with one of the most impressive blocks you’ll ever see. With him hounding opposing guards, Baylor’s defense went from No. 85 in defensive efficiency in 2019 to 4th in 2020.

MaCio Teague came from UNC-Ashville and established himself as a reliable isolation scorer. If there was a flaw to Baylor’s season it’s that the offense could sometimes bog down. But Teague was a wizard finding late scoring opportunities. Against Texas Tech, his stepback three ended the Red Raiders in Waco.

Mark Vital was named the captain of Seth Davis’ all glue team, a fitting honor for America’s most underrated player. Vital could truly defend every position on the court. Baylor’s twitter account had a clip from every game about, “Going Vital,” and those clips were as reliable every week as the joy the team brought to the fans.

The bench helped the team immensely. Devonte Bandoo was the microwave and conference’s best sixth man. He was never afraid to pull from anywhere, and didn’t sulk that he played way less at Baylor than he would have somewhere else. He just made shots when it mattered.

Matt Mayer may have ended the inevitable trajectory of every white basketball player needing another white basketball comparison. His game and career have followed Taurean Prince’s. Once a man as prone to moments of catastrophe as moments of jubilation, he threw down a dunk on West Virginia that was Jordanesuqe.

Tristan Clark battled through knee issues after missing half of last season. He seemed thrilled to play in the NCAA Tournament, and he displayed his skilled back to the basket game against Oklahoma. Clark still hasn’t gotten the chance to play in the NCAA Tournament while at Baylor, a reminder of how cruel life can be.

Flo Thamba provided needed depth and stayed ready, even as he wasn’t always in the rotation. Those kind of guys can kill a squad if they overreact to their limited minutes. Instead, he came in and provided quality defense.

The 2020 Bears were a testament to a coaching staff that was willing to change everything to become better than ever. Scott Drew completed the greatest turnaround in college basketball history when he took Baylor to the 2010 Elite Eight after the lows the program went through under Dave Bliss. He built a solid run over the rest of the decade by primarily playing zone defense. Often the Bears ran out talented freshmen like Perry Jones, Quincy Miller and Isaiah Austin.

The 2020 Bears decided to change things. They switched to that no middle defense, which hounded opponent after opponent. He worked different lineups, turning to four guards and a big man. They sometimes played Vital at center. They gave Mayer major minutes at the four. They knew to be the best team in program history they had to be a little different, and that’s so incredibly difficult. When things are going pretty great it’s hard to make a change so things can just be great. Drew and his staff did that and things were real and spectacular.

The future is unknowable. Nobody previewing the 2020 basketball season predicted, “We won’t even play the NCAA Tournament because someone will eat a bat in China that will cause a global pandemic.” It’s still baffling to think Baylor’s season didn’t end with them playing basketball.

We know that Baylor fans will always say they could have won the NCAA Tournament. Yes, Baylor went 2-3 down the stretch. They lost by three to Kansas, who would have joined Baylor as a No. 1 seed. The Bears fell to TCU with Vital injured. They lost to West Virginia in Morgantown with the following players injured: Clark (out), Vital (hobbled), Mayer (didn’t play the second half), Bandoo (missed much of the game) and Teague (wrist). The Bears felt they were finally healthy again for the Big 12 and NCAA Tournament. The team that had won 23 straight games and still had a No. 1 seed secured thought they were back. And that team—the one that beat Villanova, Butler and Arizona—was ready to eviscerate a sport that listed them at 500-1 odds before the season to win a national championship.

The Bears really could have won the title. And not in a, “2014 Connecticut won the title.” They were legitimately one of the country’s best teams and could have done it. Sometime in the next 50 years, they’ll be great Baylor teams. Hopefully they’ll be many. But whenever there’s a great team, this year’s team will be the standard they’ll measure themselves against. They’ll wonder if they have a scorer like Butler. A worker and defender like Gillespie. A guard that can end another guards’ offense like Mitchell. A sixth man like Bandoo. Someone that can reliably get a bucket like Teague. And a man who can guard anyone on any court like Vital.

In February, Gillespie told me, “Everyone has an expiration date that plays the game.” That quote stuck with me today. Much like this Baylor team will for years. For as long as I live, I’ll wonder what if they’d had a chance in the NCAA Tournament? This team deserved an answer to that question, but it’s pretty special they were good enough to make us all wonder.