Last summer—before a global pandemic would upend Baylor’s path to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and make navigating the NBA Draft process difficult—MaCio Teague was learning a new defense. And as Teague tells it, things weren’t going well for them. He told me, “Every guard, starting the first four weeks, was shooting 65%. We were so open. With that defense, we were either playing really bad defense or we were the best guards of all-time. Better than Kemba. Better than Jimmer and Trae Young. We really weren’t that good. It took time.”
In time, Baylor would develop that “no middle” defense to No. 4 in the nation. That was a 71 spot improvement from the prior season. They’d win 23 straight games, which is the longest streak in the 24 year history of the Big 12. They’d notch the program’s first victory in Allen Field House. They’d have every starter make an All-Big 12 team. Unfortunately, COVID-19 means we’ll never know if Baylor would have made the program’s first Final Four since Harry Truman roamed the White House.
But with Teague’s announcement that he’ll be one of at least three starters back next season (Jared Butler could be the fourth if he returns before the August 3rd deadline to withdraw from the NBA Draft), the Bears have every reason to believe they can win not only the programs first Big 12 title but also their first national title.
Teague came to Baylor from UNC-Asheville. He sat out his first season and watched the Bears open the year with a loss to Texas Southern. But Teague kept the faith. He said that he, “Didn’t doubt the guys in front of me. (We) had two good seniors in King and Makai. We had Jared. We saw Jared practice and knew he was really talented. We never doubted.”
Basketball requires chemistry and cohesion. In baseball, the left fielder can hate the second baseman, and their acrimony means little in an individual game masquerading as a team sport. In basketball, things are different. If coaches and players dislike one another, the extra pass doesn’t get made or someone misses their rotation. Advice gets ignored. One loss can spiral, and the summer hope of being a national title contender can become a weekly exercise in arguing Jerry Palm or Joe Lunardi are unfairly excluding your favorite team from the NCAA Tournament.
Teague and Baylor rallied from an early setback and showed the chemistry that would fuel the 2019-2020 Bears. In the second game of the season, against Washington, Baylor built a massive lead. KenPom’s projection system gave the Bears a 97% chance to win. But over the final five minutes, the Bears blew it. Plenty of teams have let early season setbacks derail promising preseasons. But Teague says, “We just knew we were better than that....The players said, ‘There’s no way we should have lost that game.’ Jared might have been the only person that played well.”
The Bears proved to be better than their folly against the Huskies, and Teague’s brilliant second half against Villanova showed what kind of team the Bears were. Before halftime, Teague caught a pass with 35 seconds left, instead of waiting to catch it after the clock dropped below 30 seconds to ensure the Bears would have the final possession. When Villanova scored on that gifted possession, the coaching staff was rightfully apoplectic about Teague’s faux pas. But Teague said he was able to compartmentalize the mistake. “Didn’t think about it at all. Not concerned about it. I’m a shooter; shooters shot every game. Every game you will miss shots and have a next play mentality.” Behind Teague’s 18 points, Baylor came back and beat Villanova.
Teague became the Big 12’s Newcomer of the Year and a Second Team All-Big 12 selection as a dominant scorer. As the game has shifted toward the three, Teague showed a man can still lead the Big 12 in offensive rating making tough twos:
That tough 2-point shot works because Teague is such a threat if he gets near the hoop. When I asked him about his floater, Teague says this is how he reads the defense. “When I see the big is already there, it’s an easy decision for the floater.”
Despite his usual stoicism, Teague can get animated if he feels disrespected. And as the No. 1 team in the country heading to play Florida, he says, “That game was different. I’m not into stuff like this (usually). One of my teammates said they picked us to lose going into Gainseville. That’s why we went out and won. We just pulled away...I just felt like, the people that doubted us consistently fueled us.” Teague helped Baylor easily dispatch the Gators, and he earned KenPom’s game MVP honors dropping 18 points on just 12 shots.
The best moment of Baylor’s season was their win in Allen Fieldhouse. The Bears elected to ignore Kansas’ shooters and double Udoka Azubuike. That revised version of their defense worked. Baylor left the building with the biggest visiting victory during Bill Self’s Kansas tenure. Teague credits teammate Obim Okeke for the defensive success. “Obim didn’t play at all. If one of the players didn’t get it, he did the best job explaining it. It was the coaches voice explained in players’ terms.” Teague also helped offensively in Lawrence, nailing a debilitating triple:
Baylor built another top 25 offensive season (they are second to Duke in that category since 2008) because of the relationship between Davion Mitchell and Teague. The two guards seemed to be connected on the court, frequently finding the other in unique spots for easy buckets. Teague says that Mitchell is his closest friend on the team. The friendship works everywhere:
In the midst of his breakout season, Teague suffered a painful wrist injury against Texas on February 10th. But he finished the game. He says, “I just kept playing. I wasn’t going to come out of the game. I don’t have any quit in me.”
Leading up to their showdown with Kansas in Waco, Teague’s wrist left his playing status questionable. He had an arduous journey recovering. He says, “When I was trying to dribble, I couldn’t dribble past my knee. When I first shot, I was standing literally by the rim. I airballed like the first six times. I was doing rehab at 3 am. I was going into the facilities, 20 minutes in cold and I’d fall asleep and set an alarm. I’d wake up and put 20 minutes in hot. I was stretching my hand all day.”
With 11 seconds left against Kansas, the ball rolled to Teague and he made the rehab meaningful by drilling a three. He says he wasn’t worried about Azubuike blocking his shot because, “He was too far away. When the ball was rolling to me, I was going to shoot it regardless. Freddie was doing Freddie things. I hit the shot.”
After the best season in program history—a No. 1 seed virtually guaranteed and 15 Big 12 wins, the most by a runner-up in league history—Teague entered the NBA Draft. Having already graduated from Baylor, it would have been understandable if he’d spent his last days in Waco.
The NBA Draft process—like everything—has changed because of COVID-19. Teague had 10 virtual interviews with NBA teams. When asked about his thought process on returning during the months long process, he says he was “50-50 the entire time. Throughout the process I wanted to make the right decision and an informed decision.”
Teague says he was sure about his decision on Friday. In an homage to a 2011 LeBron James commercial, Teague announced his return to Baylor:
After 30 minutes on the phone with Teague, we’ve covered plenty about the past season and his life. He’s remembered the joys of playing at Baylor and his hope for his senior season on what should be the country’s preseason No. 1 or No. 2 team. After considering so much, he sums up why he’s coming back, “It was just the best decision.”