Coming off a COVID-19 pause long enough for someone to get two doses of the vaccine, Baylor didn’t start its best. The Bears fell behind 29-13 and didn’t take the lead until late in the second half. There’s zero chance Baylor would have maintained its perfect season without Mark Vital. But with him, the Bears emerged with a 77-72 win. With one win in the final three games, Baylor will win the school’s first Big 12 title.
Vital played a season high 31 minutes tonight. With Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua out because of the protocol, Vital had to step up. He explained his mindset after the game, “Coach Drew always says ‘next man up.’ We prepare for this with COVID, next man gotta step up. I knew I had to get back into the groove when I played at the five.”
With Tchamwa Tchatchoua out, Vital played quite a bit at center. Those lineups that I call the Fival (Vital at the five) put a ton of pressure on him. He’s just 6’5. But in the Fival, he’s expected to rebound over much taller players and lock down perimeter threats. From late in the Kansas game to tonight, the Fival has been the lineup Baylor turns too late. But it’s a lot tougher when Vital’s asked to play so many minutes early to stay fresh late. He did that easily.
Most impressively, Vital notched 15 rebounds, including eight offensive boards. After this contest, Scott Drew said, “Mark, I told him we really need him to rebound today knowing Jon wasn’t going to be there....defensively he really changed things when we started switching.”
Those rebounds helped in a multitude of ways. First, the offneive rebounds caused Iowa State to accumulate fouls. That put the Bears in the double bonus, which gave them extra free throw chances in the final minutes. The Bears won by five, but without those extra free throws, the tenor of the game changes. Maybe Baylor tenses up, or maybe Iowa State has a better series of final possessions.
Second, those rebounds finally ended Iowa State’s offense. The Cyclones had a fantastic shooting night. They finished 10-of-21 from three (and would have been 11-of-22 if a shot from half-court counted after the buzzer; seriously, does anyone make half-court shots more than Baylor’s opponents!). Simply stopping the Cyclones from having another chance mattered. Vital—even playing so many minutes—foreclosed those additional chances.
Late in the game, Vital notched a key block. MaCio Teague then threw the ball off Iowa State:
Vital, deferential, said, “That MaCio throw-off changed the game.”
Five years after coming to Baylor, Vital has the right mindset and energy for this team. The Bears are good for a host of reasons; if I listed them, this paragraph would never end. Vital is underappreciated for all he gives Baylor. From stepping in at center when Tristan Clark went down two seasons back, to doing all the dirty work, he powers a variety of what Baylor does.
He’s also a unique personality. Postgame he’ll joke about his dog or open up about what he’s actually doing. He said, “You never know what’s going on with other people, and you gotta check on your people. You gotta keep everything going.”
That perspective is part of why Vital’s been so important. He nearly elected to play professionally and not return to Baylor for his senior season. But he’s back and said, “I’ll do whatever coach wants me to do. If he tells me to play 40 minutes, I’ll do it. If he tells me to run through a wall, I’ll do it.”