No. 6 ranked Texas (11-4. 6-3) started 10-of-19 from three and went over 19 minutes without getting called for a foul. Jared Butler, a guaranteed unanimous All-American if the season ended today, drew his third foul in the first half. If ever there were a game to knock off Baylor (17-0, 9-0) it was tonight. And despite those problems, Baylor blasted Texas, in Austin, 83-69.
The Bears now lead the Big 12 by three games. The two main competitors for the conference are the team Baylor just beat by 14 at their place, or the team (Oklahoma) Baylor beat by 15 when the Bear’s two best players went 0-for-8 from three.
This is a hot take to some, but I firmly believe it: The 2020-2021 Bears might be the best Big 12 team ever. The claim seems hyperbolic, but with the weird state of the world during COVID-19, people haven’t grasped just how good the 2020-2021 Bears are.
Baylor now sits No. 1 nationally on KenPom. The Bears are +35.54 on KenPom. KenPom began with the 2001-2002 season. In that time, no Big 12 team ranks higher. Not even the 2008 Jayhawks that won the national title and got the boost from winning six NCAA Tournament games. The 2002 and 2003 KU Final Four teams are much lower ranked by that metric. Last season’s KU team is too.
The case for Baylor is relatively easy Baylor went 15-3 in the Big 12 last season and returned four starters from that team. Butler and Mitchell rank as the Big 12’s two best players on KenPom, and honestly, I don’t think anyone else is close to them. Mark Vital is probably the country’s best defender, as he contains guards and then eviscerates opponents down low. They added Adam Flagler this season, a man who scored 49 combined points two years ago as a freshman against UCLA and Marquette. He’s the fourth guard on the team and shooting 45% from deep. Macio Teague played the entire second half against Texas Tech to will Baylor to an eight point win in Lubbock, and is possibly the best 2-point shooting guard in years. They also have a future NBA player in Matthew Mayer; Mayer is the seventh man right now, and he’s shooting 46% from deep. In the 3-point era, Baylor is No. 1 nationally in 3-point percentage and the Bears a full four percentage points higher than the next ranked high major team (Illinois).
You can make a fine case that the ‘97 Jayhawks are the Big 12’s best team, or that the 2008 Jayhawks deserve that honor because they won the national title. But there’s a bias called “Rosy Retrospection” where people tend to recall the past more fondly than the present. It’s why the Silent Generation folks remember the 1950’s fondly, while they ignore the racism, the Communist threat from the Soviet Union and all the bevy of problems that existed 70 years ago. I think a lot of Big 12 folks that immediately deflect the Bears from this conversation are guilty of the same fault: their glorification of the past is blinding them to the reality of the 2020-2021 Bears.
Some would also argue that this is stupid because there are still nine Big 12 games left. The Bears haven’t won the league yet. But to me, there’s something better about Baylor’s position. Gonzaga lurks as a fitting foe. The Bulldogs and Bears are the best teams since 2015 Kentucky. Each gets to measure themselves against the other.
There’s also something unique about competing against history. Baylor shouldn’t take a game off because this team has a legitimate chance to go down as one of the best teams of the 21st Century. The pressure of history should keep Baylor excited every game and make them more focused on their task. A great but not historic team could justify sleep-walking against Iowa State near the end of the campaign. But this team is playing for something more than most.
Even those that want to argue, “Well, these other teams have pros” are missing something too. Mitchell and Butler are both first round picks in ESPN’s latest mock draft. None of the 2008 Jayhawks became NBA All-Stars. Few programs get players as good as Mitchell, Butler, Teague and Vital to all return for their third to fifth years after high school. If Kevin Durant were 22 in college, I’d take the 2010 Texas Longhorns, but we deal with how good are guys when they’re still in school. And Baylor’s guys are substantially better than the rest of the league.
The Bears could end up losing the Big 12 or get bounced early in the tournament and might make me look stupid. But when you believe something, you should have the guts to say it. I’ve traveled to Ames, Manhattan, Stillwater, Fort Worth and Waco to watch this team because I realized pretty early on that I’d never cover a team as good as this one again. It’s time for the rest of the world to recognize there’s a good chance the Big 12’s never seen a better one either.