Over the last 11 years, Baylor’s achieved plenty of milestones. The program’s made a pair of Elite Eights and another two Sweet 16’s. The Bears have won in Allen Fieldhouse and won 15 Big 12 games. Baylor’s been ranked No. 1 three times in the last five years.
But along the way to Baylor becoming the second best program in the Big 12 over the last 12 years has been the eternal chase against Kansas. Even when the Bears had the best team in program history last year, KU with Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson proved too much.
Baylor’s had chances, but ultimately, a few close encounters doomed them from usurping Kansas. In 2010, foul trouble ruined them in Lawrence. In 2012, a bad flagrant foul by Baylor let the Jayhawks run away in Waco. And in 2017, the team fell twice in close fashion. Even after a big win in Allen Fieldhouse last year, the Bears couldn’t quite finish the job in Waco. Fifteen wins would have won the Big 12 every season from 1997-2019. Unfortunately that tally left the Bears two games behind the 2019-2020 Jayhawks.
Tonight may not be the changing of the guard for more than one night, but I suspect tonight had more significance than a normal January victory. Kansas gave everything it had. The Jayhawks went 10-of-19 from three. A top 15 team should basically never lose shooting that well. While maybe Baylor got sloppy a few times, Kansas played intense defense. That led to 18 Baylor turnovers. The Jayhawks gave everything they had it. It didn’t matter. The Bears were too good.
The Bears did so many of the things peak Kansas teams used to do. Jared Butler, with another 30 point performance against Kansas, wiped them away. In years past, Kansas could count on Sherron Collins or Frank Mason or Thomas Robinson carrying them in big games. Butler’s that player. When I joked with him after the game about why he plays so well against Kansas, he said, “I don’t know maybe I don’t like blue...I don’t know, Kendall.” While that answers conveys the levity of trying to explain the unexplainable—how does Butler plays his best when his best is needed—it highlights that he’s on a different plane. Kansas used to have the best player in the conference. Baylor does now.
Kansas used to also put teams away with a hard punch back. The Jayhawks cut the lead to single digits on multiple occasions in the first half. Prior Baylor teams—like prior teams throughout the country—might have folded. This one didn’t. Down five, the Bears dialed up a different five out look where Mark Vital scored on an alley-oop. I asked Drew about that after the game and he said the ball had been “stagnant,” so they wanted to mix things up. When I asked Mark Vital about that play, he credited the coaching staff for finding a way to call the perfect play. Drew went back to that play later in the second half and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua overpowered Mitch Lightfoot for the bucket.
With the win, Baylor leads Kansas by three games in the Big 12. Texas is only one game back in the loss column. Drew and his staff will make sure the players understand they don’t get a trophy for starting 5-0 in conference; last year proved that. But the starters have all been in Waco for at least three years. They understand the perils of blowing a game like they did in Fort Worth last season, and when they fail to play their best—as they did in Ames and Fort Worth—they can still win by double digits.
There’s something special about this team. In a normal year, Butler might have accepted the NBA feedback and just been a second round pick. Davion Mitchell—a hounding defender that made life miserable for the Jayhawks’ cadre of guards—might have decided he’d spent enough time in college. MaCio Teague, maker of an and-one that ended any hopes for a Kansas miracle, could have gone pro with a degree. And Mark Vital could have listened to some of the advice that told him he needed to start making money. None of them followed that path. Each had individual reasons for coming back, but collectively they knew they could win the Big 12 title and a national title by returning. That proposition played a role in swaying all of them to return. That culture can lift a program to the spot its chased after a pre-Drew run that would make a class on Baylor basketball’s on court history from 1951-2003 last ten minutes.
Drew also coached a fantastic game. Earlier in the season, associate head coach Jerome Tang took the reins as acting head coach. Drew had COVID-19, and Tang led the Bears to a 2-0 record. He said that this was the best staff they’d had in the 18 years of the Drew era. Tonight showed that. When Butler had two fouls, Drew didn’t take him out. I asked him about that after the game, and he said, “I don’t like to foul out players.” The constant innovation led them to take a three point per game scorer from UNLV that provided necessary rim protection. It helped them go all-in to secure Mark Vital when he was a ninth grader so he could make the kinds of defensive plays he had made tonight to stymie Kansas’ runs. And it led them to change their offensive play calls by becoming an overwhelmingly middle pick-and-roll team early, and then a different weaving team late.
Maybe this was just one spectacular night for Baylor basketball. But the Bears have the league’s best incoming recruiting class, and they have the best team in 2020-2021. At 25% capacity, the Ferrell Center was louder than it was during the 2012 battle that felt like a possible changing of the guard. That one wasn’t. This one felt like it was.