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A Defensive Renaissance Leads Baylor to NCAA Second Round with 79-55 Win Over Hartford

Baylor moves on in the NCAA Tournament

NCAA Basketball: Hartford at Baylor Andrew Nelles-USA TODAY Sports

Indianapolis, Indiana- Baylor hadn’t looked like Baylor on the defensive end. Since the return, the Bears ranked 190th in adjusted defensive efficiency. A mark good enough to make Baylor the possibility of Baylor joining Virginia as the only No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed a possibility.

With that framework in mind, Baylor faced a daunting task when Mark Vital picked up his second foul with 18:19 left in the first half. The Bears trailed 10-8 not longer after, and as the team clanked enough threes to start 1-of-8 from distance, things felt a bit tense.

Tension can be lie, and it was this afternoon. Baylor finished the first half allowing just .525 points per possession. The nation’s worst offense scores .792, which makes that an impressive feat.

In the seven games since returning in late February, Baylor gave up at least one adjusted point per possession. Today, Hartford scored just .711 adjusted points per possession. So for anyone saying, “Come on, it’s a No. 1 6 seed!” they’re missing that even the adjusted stats showed a different result.

Baylor was pristine in so many areas. They pressured Hartford, leading to 24 turnovers. Macio Teague and Scott Drew both credited getting to practice more. After the game, Teague said, “We spent a lot of time practicing our defense. A lot of time practicing our rotations and just competing at the highest level that we can compete in over practice. We’ve only had like three practices since the pause, so of course there was some slippage there, but I feel like we played pretty good defense today.”

Drew also credited practice time. He added, “We worked on the defensive end, a lot of our defensive drills that we did in the non-conference, preseason, to get ready for play, and things that when you’re playing games you can’t do because you can’t tire your guys out going into games. You’re more worried about fresh legs, scouting opponents, making sure you’re offensively, defensively, ready to execute, rather than just getting back to the basics of what our defense is about and just the basic closeouts and rotations and schemes. We were able to really get back to the basics and improve that and refresh their memory.”

There was a real concern from many folks that Baylor would not get back to this level. Maybe one game isn’t a sufficient sample, but the Bears seemed so much better in the season’s most important game. Two weeks ago in Waco, the Bears just seemed a bit off. Guys would end up in the wrong spots. In Kansas City, other than Davion Mitchell, everyone seemed to end up in the wrong spot defensively or let the offensive player drive away from the help.

Today, the pick-and-roll defense stymied almost any advantage. I asked Drew about that, and he credited, “our hands were a lot more active. I thought we contested passes a lot better. Again, our rotations were earlier, crisper, we did a better job communicating who had what. I think a couple days of practices really translated.” From across the court, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua shouted out pick-and-roll coverages. He shouted “ice” and “switch” at the right moment to force turnovers. In one key sequence he went in for a steal, which led to a dunk in transition.

The Bears were more than defense today. Adam Flagler had 12 points and Matt Mayer added eight. After an anemic showing in Kansas City, this was a real improvement. The Bears need that duo and Tchamwa Tchatchoua to provide scoring as the Bears advanced in this field.

MaCio Teague’s also playing his best basketball. Once again he led Baylor in scoring with 22 points. Jared Butler added nine assists, as he eviscerated Hartford’s planned pick-and-roll coverage. And Mitchell played such great defense that Hartford’s player nearly broke his own ankles trying to evade the nation’s premiere defender.

Nothing is guaranteed in March. Oral Roberts just upset Ohio State. Baylor built such a gargantuan second half lead that both fanbases booed when the game switched off the giant video board at Lucas Oil Stadium. When the announcer let the crowed know about the under eight media timeout, jubilation filled the arena as the spectators saw Ohio State’s promising campaign end before the second day of the dance.

Baylor will play the winner of Wisconsin and North Carolina. The Badgers, despite finishing the regular season under .500 in their last 15 contests, rank top 12 on KenPom. North Carolina is the country’s top offensive rebounding team, and Roy Williams has three national titles. Either opponent presents unique challenges.

After a real and spectacular performance from the Bears, John Werner of the Waco Tribune-Herald asked if Drew had a chance to watch much of either team. He replied, “ I’m hoping for a five-overtime game and we look forward to playing the winner.” If Baylor keeps playing this well, the winner won’t look forward to playing Baylor.