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Mark Vital: The Interview, Decision to Return and Breakdown of Baylor’s Versatile Star

Vital explained his decision to return and his career arc

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 03 Baylor at Kansas State Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Mark Vital announced yesterday that he’s returning to Baylor for his senior season. And it struck me after interviewing him that he committed to Baylor in September of 2013. That’s so long ago that Bryce Petty had not started a Big 12 football game for the Bears.

West Virginia v Baylor
Mark Vital committed to Baylor as a high school sophomore.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Vital’s able to return to Baylor for his fifth season because he took a redshirt. Despite being a top 100 recruit, Vital told me he agreed to take a redshirt to, “Work on my game with individual workouts, practice and working on my body and getting up to speed.”

During his sophomore campaign, Vital was thrust into action against Xavier, a future No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Vital says that he was nervous because he, “Kicked (Terry Maston) on accident. It was a big game. I was really nervous. I tried to come in with a mindset as usual to get through it.” He displayed the speed and rim-running ability that have made him a force and legitimate NBA prospect for the 2021 NBA Draft:

The 2018-2019 Bears had a catastrophic start. They opened the season with a loss to Texas Southern. After that game King McClure told me, “Nobody expected us to lose that game.” But things went worse for the Bears from there. They fell behind Wichita State—a team that would miss the NCAA Tournament—40-9. They’d add a loss to Stephen F. Austin, ranked 311th on KenPom, before December ended.

Things changed for those Bears. Vital says the losses, “got us where we were and were a lot of motivation.” But with a middling resume, the Bears had Kansas coming to Waco, and 6-foot-5 Mark Vital was about to start at center because Tristan Clark—the team’s best player—was out for the season. Vital says, “I led the Big 12 in rebounding. I didn’t see a difference. I can guard all five positions.” The only difference between playing power forward and center is that, “(Opponents are) taller is honestly it. There were some big guys at center.”

Vital is a menace on the offensive glass. He says his ability as an offensive rebounder is because, “Lots of guys never see me as a rebounder because of my size. I played running back when I was young. I try make it so guys are playing like they’re getting through Reggie Bush, LaDainian Tomlinson and the guys I watched growing up.”

Baylor took an insane number of threes against Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament

In their NCAA Tournament game against Syracuse, Baylor elected to try and destroy Syracuse’s 2-3 zone from beyond the arc. Jared Butler told me, “We knew we were going to have threes.” And Baylor could be confident they’d get threes because of Vital’s passing. Vital says, “Game plan was get the ball in the middle. Coach Drew gave me a job to do and get as much time and we’ll score.”

With Vital in the middle and high-post, he fired passes that led to open triples and an NCAA Tournament win over Syracuse. Quite the journey for a Baylor squad that didn’t even look like an NIT team a few months prior:

In the next round, Vital shined against Gonzaga’s mammoth frontline. The Bulldogs started Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura, two men who will make NBA all rookie teams this year. Vital says in that game, “Mindset was I knew these were players with a good chance to play in the NBA. When I was guarding them, they said, ‘Bro, you’re probably one of the best defenders we’ve played.” Vital also displayed his offensive strength in that game scoring 17 points on just nine shots against Gonzaga’s giant lineup:

Baylor v Kansas
Mark Vital thought the team formed a unique bond on their trip to Italy last summer.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The 2019-2020 Bears took a trip to Italy. Vital thought the trip was “by far the funnest thing I ever had in my life. That experience summed up the whole season. Everyone was closer. I learned that I needed to be a leader.” Vital said he found out, “The food was good. People said the food would be bad.” He’s now able to laugh at those people’s ludicrous take.

Baylor revamped their defense, and we’re probably way too deep into this profile for the first mention of Vital’s defense or the 2019-2020 Bears’ defense. After playing zone throughout most of the decade, Baylor switched to a modified version of a “no middle defense.” That defense is designed to stop teams from driving toward the middle of the court. They ice ball screens to force the ball handler to dribble away from the screen. Davion Mitchell told me, “We felt confident we’d be a man team and comfortable that everyone had to stay connected.”

The Bears’ no middle defensive led to unprecedented success. They could switch Vital onto any opponent and worry about him closing out on anyone. The Bears defense went from No. 85 in adjusted defensive efficiency in 2018-2019 to No. 3 in 2019-2020. In Baylor’s starting five lineup with Vital, the Bears allowed just .71 points per possession, which is well below Virginia’s national leading mark of .85 points per possession.

Vital became a quality defender by working hard and doing whatever is necessary for his team’s success. Freddie Gillespie, a man who worked so hard that he went from Division III to a Second Team All-Big 12 selection told me, “Mark works so hard.” Vital uses that hard work to do the most difficult things to help his team win. He took a charge against likely first round draft pick Nico Mannion in Baylor’s win over Arizona. Vital says, “I’m a big guy. That probably hurts him more than it hurts me. (Taking charges) is something that I learned watching Tony Allen and Dennis Rodman and seeing their reaction.”

His meticulous film watching paid off against another top foe. The Butler Bulldogs had the ball with six seconds left; they had a chance to win the game coming out of a timeout. And it was obvious that Butler was going to have Kamar Baldwin, a player who would end the season on the All-Big East First Team, take the shot.

Butler elected to run a high ball screen. Their goal was to switch Vital off of Baldwin. But Baylor planned for that. Vital says, “Coach Tang said we need to put Mark on him. Coach Drew trusted me.”

In response, Vital told Baldwin, “You’re not going to score.” Vital adds, “I told Freddie to drop, and I went under (the screen).”

Basketball and life come down to hoping we make the right decision in big moments. And Vital was ready to meet the moment. He says of Baldwin, “He had two game winners before that. I (told him) that I know where you’re going and I read him the whole way.”

That moment came because Vital says, “I realized he’s driving and would have to pull back. If he had stopped and pulled back, I was right on the hip. I played him for the shot. It didn’t work out like that.” But Vital put himself in the position to play either option, and he came up with the block and the Bears garnered another victory.

Vital’s defense is overwhelming. After facing Baylor in Waco, Oklahoma State head coach Mike Boynton said, “For my money, Mark Vital is the best defensive player in the country.” Vital’s defensive play earned him unanimous All-Big 12 defensive team honors. He was one of four finalists for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award, given to the country’s top defender.

Allen Fieldhouse had been a devastating spot for Baylor. With a bitter snowstorm falling in Lawrence, the Bears needed to find a way to neutralize Udoka Azubuike . The future Big 12 Player of the Year terrorized opponents all season. But Baylor had a plan. They elected to sag off non-shooters and double him. Vital says, “I felt like we had watched so much film on him that we knew exactly what he was going to do.” On the first play of the game, he showed Azubuike that he was in for a tough day:

Vital perfectly played off Marcus Garrett and KU’s non-shooters throughout the day. Baylor held Azubuike to just six shots and six points.

The Kansas game also highlighted Vital’s skills as a passer. Vital says, “My passing is underrated. I’m a great passer.” And in an early play, Baylor worked to deal with Kansas’ aggressiveness. The Jayhawks were playing off Vital, so Vital says, “I knew Marcus was coming. I told Jared, cut backdoor. We came up with that in the huddle.”

With Vital’s excellent play, the Bears earned the program’s first ever victory in Allen Fieldhouse. The Bears would go on to win 23 straight games, which is the longest winning streak in Big 12 history.

Vital displayed his passing during that winning streak, as he threaded passes no matter how narrow the window:

Vital’s biggest challenge is to develop a reliable 3-point shooter. But if he gets there, he might be grateful for the journey. With teams playing off of him, Vital’s become a great screener. When he’s not using the space defenses play off of him to pass to open teammates, he can screen for shooters. That skill will still be there when he gets his shot down, and will make him a more well-rounded player:

Vital found out Baylor’s season ended by checking Instagram. The season ending was especially tough for him because he wanted a third shot at Kansas. After Kansas won the rematch in Waco, Vital says that the third game would have been “another film watching session. It would have been Ali and Frazier.”

Vital felt like Baylor was going to win the national title. He says, “We were the best team. They start criticizing us when we were losing. But our season brought us together. I said that toward the end, we were No. 1 in the nation. We could have had it all.” He was “100% healthy” for the NCAA Tournament.

Getting back to Waco and adjusting to life without Baylor basketball wasn’t easy for Vital. He said, “I was lost. I’m still trying to figure things out. It’s hard to find gyms. But I’m doing workouts on my own. I’m back home in Louisiana and doing everything I grew up doing. Jogging and doing push ups daily.”

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Baylor vs Syracuse
Vital wants another crack at the NCAA Tournament.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

While at home Vital had a difficult decision to make about whether to return to Baylor. He says, “I talked to my parents, God and had a hard decision. It took me a month to decide what to do. I talked to my mom and dad and we had a real long talk about it...they all said that I should do whatever is best for me.”

After talking with them, Vital decided he had to return. He’s says, “We need to get a Big 12 title and a national championship. I want to win the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year.”

But Vital had another reason for coming back and says that’s the most important reason he returned. Vital says, “I had to come back to get my degree and be the first in my family to get it.” Seven years after Vital committed to Baylor as a high school sophomore he’ll have his degree in December. It’s been a wonderful journey, and luckily for all Baylor fans, it’s not over yet.