Lawrence, Kansas- In its second game back from COVID-19, Baylor played its worst game since losing to Washington in November of 2019.
The Bears were not good tonight. Scott Drew said after the game, “We had three weeks where we got worse. They had three weeks where they got better. We gotta catch up.”
The Bears entered the game No. 1 nationally in 3-point shooting. They went 6-of-26 from deep. Baylor has the nation’s best backcourt. The four guards shot 28% from the field on a terrible 15-of-52 shooting.
Jared Butler had been amazing in the first meeting, dropping 30 points on 7of-9 shooting from deep. He scored 31 his freshman season here, and added 22 in the program’s first ever victory in Lawrence last campaign. But he scored zero points in the first half and had just five points on 1-of-7 shooting from deep.
The defense fared the worst. Baylor ended up outrebounded 50-28. Kansas scored 1.2 points per possession against a defense that ranked No. 1 in the country in late January. Now the defense ranks No. 17. The Bears couldn’t stop the Jayhawks inside, as David McCormack went off for 20 points on 10 attempts.
If Kansas hit some threes, this could have gotten far uglier than the 71-58 final. The Jayhawks went 3-of-16 from deep, and plenty of those looks were wide open. Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun went a combined 1-of-10 from deep. That’s well below their normal rate, and their 9-of-13 shooting from beyond the arc in Waco.
Despite all of the above being true, the Bears have plenty of reasons to still leave fans optimistic. They just went through a 21 day pause. Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua was in his first game back from the COVID pause, and his energy wasn’t there. Foul trouble hampered the Bears. It didn’t doom them, but Mark Vital and Butler were off the floor far more than Baylor wanted. The Jayhawks shot 10 more free throws. That’s not a claim that the refs doomed Baylor. They would have lost regardless of whether a few calls flipped. But most nights Vital, Butler and Matthew Mayer won’t be in a tough foul situation, and the Bears won’t have their opponent in the bonus so early.
Baylor also had a chance to win this game. Down 57-52, the Bears got three straight stops. They missed wide open triples. The Bears have been good when they make their run and put pressure on the opponent, but they could never quite rattle Kansas.
All of the Bears’ goals remain in front of them. MaCio Teague, obviously upset about losing, mentioned after the game that the team’s goal was not to go undefeated. The goal is to win the Big 12 and a national title.
The Bears provided a much better window into how good they are with their performance before the pause. Maybe it will take longer to get back to normal. Baylor’s defense is incredibly dependent on making the correct switch and understanding when help is necessary. The Bears botched plenty of those situations tonight. With time to redevelop chemistry, they shouldn’t going forward.
Even after such a crushing loss, Baylor still wins its first ever Big 12 title with a win in any of their next three contests. Tonight’s performance would leave Baylor an underdog in all three, but tonight’s performance is a clear outlier that can largely be attributed to COVID, and Kansas playing quite well.
Nothing is over or doomed. The Bears still have the Big 12’s best player and two of the league’s top three defenders. Teague’s 3-point shot appears back, as he drilled a triple, then provided a 4-point play the next time down the floor.
Kansas is also a good team. I said before the season Kansas would finish fourth in the Big 12, but make the Final Four. McCormack is playing like the guy Bill Self said would be their best player. And they have quality guards and a ferocious defender in Marcus Garrett. This isn’t losing to a terrible team.
Plenty of title teams lose by double digits on the road too. North Carolina won the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed in 2017; they fell by double digits to Georgia Tech and Miami—both worse than this Jayhawks squad. Villanova lost by 23 to Oklahoma in 2016, and then beat the Sooners by 44 in the Final Four. One game doesn’t guarantee anything in college basketball, but with the single elimination format of the NCAA Tournament, tonight is a powerful reminder for how painful the ending is for so many teams.
Tonight wasn’t good enough. This the best team Baylor’s ever had, and the Bears understand so many of them came back to try and win titles. That’s still possible. They can use tonight to fuel them for that possibility and leave this a footnote on what can still be the best ending in school history.