Stillwater, Oklahoma- After eating an entire medium pizza for dinner on Friday, I couldn’t tell if my gut was telling me that Baylor was in trouble down 50-48 near the under 12 timeout of the second half, or if my body was ready to shut down for punishing it like that. Baylor had an easy solution for their struggle: throw Mark Vital at the five. That lineup powered Baylor (14-0, 70) past Oklahoma State (9-4, 3-4) 81-66. My body searches for a solution to its travails.
With Cade Cunningham out—he did go through pregame warmups for a minute—this seemed like it might be an easy victory for the Bears. But Oklahoma State had quite the first half. They pushed ahead of Baylor 34-25, which gave Baylor their largest deficit of the season.
In the second half, Baylor couldn’t quite pull into the lead. They opened the half with zone fist crack, a play that Kansas used to pound Duke’s 2-3 zone in the 2018 Elite Eight. I asked Scott Drew about that play after the game, and he said, “We’ve run that for several years; we used to play that zone, and they’d (Kansas) run it all the time. The smart take from the strong, and we’ve run that for years; sometimes it’s just more open.”
Down 50-48 with 12:22 left, Baylor inserted Mark Vital at the five surrounded by the three starting guards (Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague) and Adam Flagler. I dubbed those lineups the Fival—Vital at the five—two years ago when Vital started playing center after Tristan Clark’s season ending injury. I also added that name because Fievel is a great movie. The Bears (with a quick interlude of Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua to give Vital a breather) went on a 33-16 run to end the game with that lineup.
That lineup stymies defenses. I asked Davion Mitchell about that cadre after the game, and he said the Fival works, “Because we can switch 1-5; Mark can guard 1-5.” Few men can truly defend all five positions; Vital can. With their switching, the Bears don’t have to worry about missing a rotation or tagging a rolling big man while a 3-point shooter gets open.
In a classic Simpson’s episode, Homer runs for sanitation commissioner. He uses the slogan, “Can’t someone else do it” for taking out the garbage. The problem for the citizens of Springfield was that someone else couldn’t grab your garbage from the kitchen and take it out. Springfield’s budget collapsed as the price came due. For most switch everything teams that same problem arises. Eventually teams can feast on one problematic matchup. Usually it’s the five man guarding a point guard. And, like Homer’s quandary, someone else in the lineup actually can’t do it. But in Baylor’s case, someone else can actually do it. The Bears are happy to pass along the defensive assignment to someone else knowing that each member of the five man lineup can handle the task of defending their newest player.
That lineup eviscerated Oklahoma State. As Scott Drew said after the game, “Normally when you downsize with our 3-point shooting and ball movement, you usually get more on the offensive en. Defensively you have to be able to rebound, and in the second half we were able to do that.” Vital tipped key rebounds to teammates. The guards corralled them too, often fueling runs in transition. And if the Bears are in transition, things are going pretty, pretty, pretty good for the Bears.
The Fival succeeds offensively, in large part, because the Bears can run pick-and-rolls with Vital as the screener. When he rolls to the hoop, the Bears get open plays as teams are forced to tag or help off corner shooters to stop Vital from waltzing into the lane for a dunk. I asked Mitchell about that, and he said trying to defend that Fival sequence, “It’s definitely hard because we’ve got all shooters on the court…when he rolls hard he sucks in everybody…one time Jared got the open three from me because Mark rolled so hard everybody collapsed.”
Butler also tends to go nuclear in the Fival. He finished with 22 points and was 6-of-7 from beyond the arc. He’s shifted the Overton window for national player of the year. Before the debate began and ended with Luka Garza. Now the debate presents the same duality of Gonzaga or Baylor: Butler or Garza for best in the country.
Butler drilled three straight threes, and the students behind me became dejected. I asked Butler if he planned to take the third one regardless, and he said, “Yeah, I guess Kendall. I hit one three, and I was like, ‘ok, I’m hot, I should shoot the next one regardless.’ That’s kind of my mindset overall.”
The Bears are not just the Fival. Little plays along the way kept the Bears deficit manageable in the second half. Maybe Baylor still wins if they’re down 17 in the second half, but it’s better to never have to answer that counterfactual. Tchamwa Tchatchoua sets such quick screens that he can flip them immediately. That ruins the opponents defensive plan because now the screen is going a different way than the planned defense. One of Tchamwa Tchatchoua’s flips gave Butler an open 3-pointer in the first half that he swished. Buter told me with Tchamwa Tchatchoua as a screener, “It’s kind of like playing hide and go seek. You know how people are on opposite sides of the wall or table? I knew if people go under, I gotta shoot it.”
The Fival worked to perfection today. It’s reminiscent of when the Warriors would play their death lineups without a true center. Instead, they’d play Draymond Green at the five. The premise was that if the Warriors were just close before turning to those death lineups, everything was over once they went to those. The Warriors’ death lineup was nearly unstoppable offensively with so many good dribblers and passers. And they’d be a disaster to score against because of their ability to switch all ball screens. The Fival fits that pattern.
On a day where they were anything but their best rebounding in the first half (Oklahoma State outrebounded Baylor 23-12 in the first 20 minutes), the Bears flipped the switch with their death lineup. Vital played spectacularly, finishing with 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting. And the Bears outrebounded the ‘Boys (this abbreviation should become standard) 22-14 in the second half.
As we continue to have the “Gonzaga or Baylor” debate, the Fival remains the ultimate question for the Bulldogs. And with the way Baylor played running it today, it’s the question anyone that wants to stop the Bears from winning a national championship will have to answer too.