Ames, Iowa- This was not their finest hour. The Bears shot 20% from three. They missed nine free throws. Their best player had seven turnovers. Their second best player missed key parts of the second half with four fouls. Their best or second best defender missed more time with four fouls.
That formula should guarantee a loss. And for all but maybe the 2019-2020 Bears, it would have for Baylor. Iowa State played a good game. They made some difficult 2-point shots, and Solomon Young showed that experienced big men remain a lurking problem for the Bears, as he finished the day with 15 points.
Winning when you’re not at your best says something though. Adam Flagler is back from a 10 day quarantine from COVID-19 protocols and didn’t score. Vital dealt with some tick-tacky fouls. Even at reduced capacity, the Hilton crowd appeared to have some impact on the officials as the refs refused to countenance another charging call on the Cyclones. Suddenly every Baylor play that looked like a charge became a flop warning or a defensive foul. Despite the change in circumstances, the Bears won.
I’m a fan of the Chiefs—though I follow them and care about them to a minimal degree compared to Baylor—and they’ve had a recurring issue: should they be viewed as a heavy title favorite because they’re 14-1 and win close, or do those close wins foreshadow an impending collapse? Are the Chiefs living too dangerously to keep winning?
The Chiefs debate remains ongoing. The Bears should avoid any debate like that. Today was a unique day. The Bears were not good from beyond the arc. They entered the contest No. 1 in 3-point percentage. After the game, Jared Butler said, “they were taking away open catch and shoot threes,” but he—and the rest of the squad—understand that the Bears aren’t going to have too many days when they go 3-of-14 when defended perfectly. Sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce your way.
When the ball didn’t bounce the Bears way, they found new ways to win. Matt Mayer played fully within himself, which is more than enough for his role on this year’s squad. Mitchell picked up key charges. Flo Thamba was the second leading scorer in the first half and an enticing target on pick-and-rolls. Scott Drew noted after the game, “Flo sets great screens and can adjust the angle (on the screen).” Thamba also nabbed a massive offensive rebound with the Bears down two with 10 minutes left. He took the ball up and converted for a three point play. After the game Thamba told me, “Coach Tang always stresses to go back up, and what we practiced happened.”
Baylor understands the expectations for this season. When Butler, Mitchell, MaCio Teague and Vital came back, and nobody transferred, the expectations were rightfully as giant as the drive from Kansas City to Ames at 5:30 a.m. on a Saturday feels (I am tired). They won’t accept this performance as good enough against the better teams they’ll face.
But getting to face those better teams in the NCAA Tournament and winning titles requires winning when you’re shooting like someone that would make a hardened NRA member advocate for gun confiscations. Everyone has poor shooting days. That’s sunk plenty of good teams before they could have their great days in March and April.
The 2019-2020 Bears took a brutal loss in Fort Worth to a good but not great TCU team. They couldn’t figure out how to stop Desmond Bane, and they didn’t get enough offense to counter him. Today, Butler dunked for the first time, something he told me, “Was great to finally get to do in a game.” The joy the rest of the team had for Butler carried over to the energy they brought defensively when their offense couldn’t carry them.
Trying to be the best in anything ensures a giant risk of heart break. Only one team will be happy in April or May or whenever we have an NCAA Tournament. But the Bears showed as much today winning this ugly as they’ll show winning beautifully this year.