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The stories, path, and final season for Baylor’s fifth year senior Mark Vital

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The longform interview with Baylor’s senior starter

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Wisconsin at Baylor IndyStar-USA TODAY Sports

When Baylor won its first conference championship since 1950 with a win over West Virginia, Scott Drew immediately jumped on Mark Vital’s back. When I asked him about that after, he jokingly said, “He’s the only one who’s been here longer than me.”

Over his years at Baylor, Vital’s been quite the guy on and off the court. A defender capable of guarding all five positions, and a friend that prefers old school hits to the newest pump up music, Vital is a unique guy on the best Baylor team ever. And if things go right, he’ll be part of the first Baylor team to win a national title.

With a few days until Baylor meets Villanova in the Sweet 16, Vital and I talk for about 45 minutes. We discuss the season, his mental health journey and some wild stories during his time in Waco.

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at West Virginia
Vital waves after Baylor knocks off West Virginia in Morgantown. The win secures Baylor’s first ever Big 12 title.
Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Thanks to a visit to Lake Charles, Louisiana, Vital ended up at Baylor. He says that Scott Drew arrived in his town and, “I’m just hoping my friends and guys around don’t harm Coach Drew. I’m like, ‘this is a bad neighborhood, why’s he pulling up?’ He’d call my dad and try and catch me to see what I’m doing. He just popped up. He was crazy. The thing going through my head is, ‘why are you here?’ He came in, ‘Hey, it’s the big dog.’ He’d sit on the couch, make himself at home, go into the fridge. Coach Drew’s crazy, man.”

When Vital got to Waco, things weren’t always easy. He says, “Growing up it was tough and hard. I had a couple friends that passed away. That kind of played a part in kind of my mental and never hit me. And me being away from home—when I had to go from Lake Charles to Dallas (for high school)—because I was away from my mom and had a lot of anxiety at the time. And then my freshman year was hard because I really wanted to play. And that brought on a lot of stuff.”

During his freshman season, Vital redshirted. With Johnathan Motley and Ish Wainright set as forwards, Vital wasn’t going to play much. That talented Baylor squad achieved the program’s first ever No. 1 ranking. He says, “I wanted to play so bad, and it was crazy, bro.”

Vital didn’t get the help he needed immediately. But eventually he realized it was okay finally ask for help. He says his counselor “helped me understand you can get help and not feel like you’re being judged. My thought was ‘why am I going to talk to a counselor and get judged?’ That was my thing. And at one point, the only way I was getting through it was getting my mind on different stuff. But for people that can’t get access to that, they need to talk to someone.”

He also recognized that there are unique ways to deal with the pain and struggles he faced. He says, “I have a pit. I used to talk to my dog. They just sit there and be cute, but you think they’re listening. I talked to my dog a lot. And prayed a lot.”

As a result of seeking out counseling and talking with others around him, Vital says, “Now that I’ve grieved, I’m happy to talk about that. I’ve dealt with a lot of depression and anxiety. Now I’ve battled depression and anxiety. I’m in a real great place.”

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Baylor
Mark Vital blocks a shot against Kansas State. The victory made Vital the winningest Bear ever in Big 12 games
Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

As COVID-19 shut down the season, Vital had to decide whether to return to Baylor or try and play professional basketball. In his announcement video, he mentioned that he nearly went pro. But he says that after a tough loss to Kansas—which denied Baylor the 2019-2020 Big 12 title—“it really molded us to come back. We can’t go out. We gotta come back and win. That’s what we’re doing. I said unfinished business earlier in the year.” Davion Mitchell decided to forego the NBA Draft process, and both Jared Butler and MaCio Teague went through the process and reached the same conclusion as Vital: they’d come back to Baylor and try and win the conference title.

The summer wasn’t easy on anyone. Vital says, “All right, so, I had one moment where I was like, ‘Why did I come back?’ I was more so thinking about the training. We couldn’t really get into the gym. When we were in quarantine I had a gym I could go for lifting and everything. When I came back, I got to school, I hadn’t touched weights in almost a month. Grocery stores were closed. It was just a weird time. I was thinking, ‘I can’t do it.’ But I got used to it and got a routine. And as you see, now I don’t regret it. I don’t regret none of it.”

Not being able to exercise is easy for most of us. It’s probably easier than actually exercising. At Tuesday’s press conference, Scott Drew offer his explanation for why coaches might have stopped wearing suits this year. “I think because of COVID. We all put on about 10 or 15 pounds, so we couldn’t fit in our suits. We had to go to the polos.” But for Vital, lifting weights is one of his favorite activities. Baylor’s strength coach and director of athletic performance, Charlie Melton, tells me, “Mark’s incredible. He could be a strength coach.”

Although nobody on the 2020-2021 Bears ranked as a 5-star prospect, the Bears are immensely talented. Mitchell and Butler are definitely going to get drafted, and probably in the first round. Matthew Mayer might be a first round pick in the 2022 NBA Draft; Vital’s made the last two All-Big 12 defensive teams. And Teague has been of the country’s best guards over the last few weeks.

With that cadre of players, Vital’s emerged as a leader. Melton tells me, “Mark is really passionate, very protective of his crew and his people. He doesn’t like to be challenged or embarrassed publicly and has come a long ways in terms of dealing with that. There’s a song where they say, ‘here comes the red again,’ there’s a saying, ‘see through the red.’ That’s been a big talking point and seeing through the red, it’s okay to be angry and aggressive. You can’t lose your mind. He’s really learned to channel that and not put himself (there) in turns of hurting the team. Early on he’d get mad at practice. Practice would stop….He’s a leader, you lead in two ways. You either lead intentionally or unintentionally. A lot of times he’d lead unintentionally. Now he’s learned to channel that and lead intentionally.”

The Bears offense took off to begin the campaign. Baylor played Washington in its second game. The Huskies knocked off Baylor in that same game last season.

The Bears had an easier time dispatching this year’s Huskies, winning 86-52. The Bears put Vital in the middle of Washington’s 2-3 zone, and he finished with four assists. He says, “I’m a very underrated passer. I’ve always been a great passer. One of my favorite players is Magic Johnson. I’m an old school guy, so I watch a lot of film on him. I’m a very underrated passer. If you see some of the passes I do in practice, you’d probably think I’m an elite passer…me finding other guys is who I am. I have great vision. Some people see it, some don’t. I’ve always been a good passer.”

That’s the issue with some analysis of Vital. His game doesn’t light up the traditional box score. In the era of 3-point shooting, he doesn’t take or make them in games. Some people think that means the Bears are better off playing someone else that can space the floor.

The problem with some people is that they’re wrong. Against Illinois, Jared Butler got into the lane and threw up a lob for Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua. The Illini big man shouted, “flare screen” as Vital prepared to set a screen for Teague. It turned out the defending big man ended up so terrified of Vital setting that screen to free up Teague that he recovered late and fouled Tchamwa Tchatchoua. In a quick live view, it seems like Butler and Tchamwa Tchatchoua drew the foul. But without Vital capturing the big’s attention, Butler and Tchamwa Tchatchoua have to overwhelm a focused big man. Those small sequences from Vital—a screen here or notching one more offensive rebound—provide key opportunities. And for a Baylor team that seems to just knock folks out, keeping it close is often all that’s necessary for the country’s top 3-point shooting team to eventually blow teams away.

Not everyone would embrace that role: the idea that your job is to screen for someone and not be the 20 point a night player. Presented with a role like Vital’s, some might transfer. Others might decide to go pro. Maybe they’d be justified thinking they could be a major scorer somewhere else.

But Vital understands what makes him a special player, and he tries to maximize those skills. He says, “My thing is like, I watch a lot of Draymond (Green), Dennis Rodman, PJ Tucker at one point, Tony Allen. So I watched all those guys. I gotta do what I can. They sagged off them. If I was on a different team, where a coach said, ‘I need you to shoot threes or get 20 or 30 a game,’ I would change my mind and be an elite scorer. In high school I was like that. But I changed my role when Coach Drew asked. For one, when you step back, you give me a rest on defense. Second, if you wait in the paint, I can set a flare (screen), and Jared is going to hit a three and (the opposing) coach will get mad. Then I’m fast enough, I’ll drive around. A lot of guys know me from high school because I’ve been in college for five years, so they’re trying to step up.”

Not long before the Kansas game, Fran Fraschilla sent out a tweet wondering if Mark Vital was the same as he’d been. Fraschilla is one of the country’s top basketball minds and still incredibly close with Vital and the Baylor staff. Vital says, “I think you kind of know Fran Fraschilla, and he put that tweet out there asking if I had still had it. I know Coach Drew is probably behind it, but I like when people doubt it. I have no choice but to prove it to them. When he said that, my whole mindset changed going into that game.”

That mindset change paid off for Vital. Although, per usual, the box score might not have popped off to the casual observer, his in-game play carried Baylor to a 77-69 victory. He threw down a lob and swallowed KU’s primary actions in the paint.

Late in the game, Vital switched onto DaJuan Harris, a quick guard, and shut him down. Vital says, “A lot of times coach puts me or Davion on guys at the end, to shut down at the end and that was one of the best.” He’d also blocked the freshman earlier in the game. Nobody may be happier to see Vital leave Baylor than Harris.

The KU game featured a new level in Vital’s scouting work. He says, “I focused so hard. I doubled the scout, ate vegetables. I was so locked in I had people come walk my dog for me; I was so locked into the scout. They call me villain because I have this villain mode where I take over. That KU game my mindset was that. I was blinded and had a point to prove, and I got my point across on that.”

Two other defensive sequences stick out to Vital. He recounts, “My favorite play this year was against Auburn when I tried to go up, missed the layup and got it blocked, I chase him all the way down, hid behind his defender and slapped him. He was like, ‘where did you come from?’ He was just saying, ‘where did you come from?”

The Bears went on a COVID-19 pause for 21 days. After starting undefeated, Baylor trailed Iowa State—a team that finished winless in the Big 12 and ended up firing Steve Prohm—by 15 points. Vital says, “We had that long pause. It was probably the worst thing ever. Everyone was back to square one. Guys were out of shape. Dribbling ball at home. (We were) on Zoom. When we got back that first game we saw we were struggling with Iowa State, we were like, ‘we gotta pick it up.”

As the Iowa State game neared its end, Vital met the moment. Rasir Bolton had a path to the hoop, and Vital reached up and swatted the ball. He says, “My mindset is like a lot of guys do a good job setting up for me. They know I’m super athletic, so they try to go under or make someone make a dumb shot and clean it up. Me and Davion do a good job. I can run into someone and make them change their shot up. We get that from LeBron and Dwyane Wade. They did that a lot.”

The Bear’s undefeated season ended in their next game against Kansas. After the game, Vital didn’t get too down. He says, “We knew that game was going to be tough because it was their senior night. And it was going to be physical and everything like that. At the same time, we knew we were coming back from that and (they’d) take advantage of that because Bill Self is a great coach and he knows if you’re coming from a pause, you’re not in shape like you were. Those guys were running it down our throat and going and going and going. We lost a game. Of course we were really pissed because we really wanted it. We had a goal to still win the conference and take the next few games. We got on the bus and everyone was mad, and we talked about it.”

The Bears won their next three games, securing a Big 12 title and the No 1 seed in the Big 12 tournament. But Vital ended up getting elbowed by a teammate during that stretch.

With an injury, he had to pick a mask out. He remembers, “I asked guys which one, black or clear. They say black every time. Black, black, black. It can be pink jerseys, ‘wear black’….When I was picking it up I remember LeBron wearing a black mask and Kyrie and Kobe, and I heard Ayo (Dosunmu) was wearing one, and I was like, “I gotta get one then.”

Vital hasn’t waded into the masking debate, but for him, the basketball mask is too hot and makes it difficult to play. For now, he plans to try and play through the NCAA Tournament without wearing one.

Even with the momentum from ending the season with three wins, the Bears lost to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 semifinals. Baylor led by eight at the under eight timeout. Plenty of folks got down on Baylor. After ranking No. 9 in adjusted defensive efficiency before the pause, per Bart Torvik’s website, Baylor ranked No. 186 in the seven games after the pause.

The Oklahoma State loss didn’t discourage Vital. He met with the media and told us that he felt like Baylor needed that. He says, “I feel like we were relaxed, to be honest. We felt arrogant. We’d beat Oklahoma State twice.” He also notes, “I’m a huge boxing fan. Of course Mike Tyson and Ali talked about losing fights. You gotta take a punch. And we actually needed that punch. We were too comfortable. Some guys might not think that, but thought we won the Big 12 conference. We were too comfortable. Taking that punch and losing woke the coaches and us up for sure.”

Heading into the NCAA Tournament, Baylor had to fix its defense. The offense remained at a top five level on Torvik before and after the pause. But to rectify the defense, the staff played a video by Jordan Sperber, a former Nevada graduate assistant and the creator of the spectacular basketball newsletter, Hoop-vision. In the video, Vital notes, “They were showing ‘he’s helping’ and it was around twitter. They showed us that, and it was like, ‘We gotta get back to that.’ We watched that, and then we watched a clip from Oklahoma State and it was like ‘we’re not doing that.’”

In Baylor’s first NCAA Tournament game, it held Hartford to .71 adjusted points per possession, per KenPom. As Vital battled foul trouble, he didn’t play much in that contest. But against Wisconsin, he notched 27 minutes. Baylor held Wisconsin to .98 adjusted points per possession. That marked the second time Baylor held an opponent below one adjusted point per possession since the return. Vital says, “The first half against Wisconsin was crazy to me. It was like, ‘We didn’t play like that since the pause.’ Like this is how we were supposed to play all year. That’s just the energy we keep, and I think that’s just going to get better. We got more dangerous, like for real, it’s kind of dangerous.” It wasn’t just Vital switching onto Wisconsin’s guards and shutting them down, but that played a major role in stymieing the Badger’s offense.

While having a good defense is necessary to win a title, having an elite offense wins championships. The last five national champions ranked higher in adjusted offensive efficiency than defensive efficiency. Against the Badgers, Vital added a few vicious slam dunks and alley-oops. In one key sequence, Teague saved the ball, leading to a monster slam by Vital. Teague me at Tuesday’s press conference, “Honestly, when I was dribbling up the floor, I was thinking I was about to dunk it. Then I saw (D’Mitrik) Trice; He ran over to me. When I saw Trice coming over to me, I saw Mark running on the back side, and I didn’t see anybody else, so I knew I was going to throw the lob.”

Vital felt a deeper connection there. He says, “Me and MaCio looked at each other the whole time. He eyed me, and we were looking at each other, and I was telling him throw it up. In my mind, I thought he was going to throw it up a little farther out and I was going to try and 360 it in the air and dunk it. But he just tried to throw it up, and I got the dunk. If he just would have thrown it up a little farther back I was going to try and 360 it and tweet ‘is that better than a 360 layup?”

Wisconsin elected to play drop coverage, where the big man guarding the ball screen would hang back in the paint. The Bears eviscerated Illinois when the Illini played that coverage. Vital explains, “They’re (Wisconsin) not tagging or anything. I figured I’m going to get me one, but I’m just going to be patient. Wisconsin is a great team, but they used their big men too much in the help side. They didn’t help over. That was lob city all day. That reminded me of what Kansas did to us with Udoka, so we probably took a page out of their book.”

The Badger’s decision to have only the two men involved in defending the screen allowed Matthew Mayer to hit Vital for another slam. Vital provides, “I was always athletic, I was one of the best dunkers in high school, I had to prove it that night. I had gotten a tweet ‘Mark is athletic, but did he gain weight?’ I was mad about that. That played a part in a lot of dunks I did. On that alley, Matt threw a bad pass (laughing), and I had to really hit it up a little. It might sound weird, or exaggerated, but I tried to hit it to me. My plan wasn’t to dunk it that hard but to dunk it kind of soft. But some way, somehow, I gripped it like ‘oh snap’ and dunked it hard. And I looked at my hand like super glue, and I’m the glue guy, so hey.”

Vital feels like those lobs happened because of Baylor’s loss to Kansas last season. He details that with so many alley-oop dunks, “The first thing that came to mind was when Kansas beat us in our house and Udoka (Azubuike) was talking all day.”

A loss presents a chance to get better or worse. While there are instances where other factors overwhelm our individual capacity to succeed, a loss is sometimes our fault. A loss presents an opportunity to rail against the factors we couldn’t control, or it presents a window to look at the factors we can control and fix things. That doesn’t mean ignoring structural issues in different contexts, but it does mean figuring out if there’s something you can take away to win later.

In Baylor basketball’s case, they looked at what Kansas did and tried to mimic that style and come back and win a national title. With unique introspection and a laugh at the end, Vital says, “Like I said, Kansas had a great team last year. It was either us or them. It was kind of hard, not going to lie. It really molded us...I said ‘unfinished business’ earlier in the year. And we manifested that and got a Big 12 conference (title). And I said that and it happened. And I said the same thing about us going to get a national championship. That’s going to happen, and it’s going to be crazy. I’m going to go ahead with a million dollars and manifest that too.”

NCAA Basketball: Oklahoma at Baylor
Vital finished as a defensive player of the year finalist last season
Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

Vital’s focused on winning a national title. In a controlled environment—or whatever euphemism the NCAA promulgates instead of just saying “bubble”—Vital describes the team’s activities. He says, “What’s so beneficial about being in the bubble, they give us all healthy foods so I have no choice. Don’t get me wrong, I had a couple nights where I ordered DoorDash, but those prices hit me. The check was $30; it’s not worth it, bro, so I might as well eat the grilled cheese downstairs.” Vital did not elect to get the Nashville hot chicken grilled cheese, featuring macaroni on the sandwich, down the street from his hotel. That was probably a wise move because that meal in downtown Indianapolis caused such pronounced stomach pain for two Baylor media members that they worried they’d miss the game. Both of us made the game, but I still feel so ashamed that I ate that sandwich that it felt better leaving some ambiguity in the original sentence.

DoorDash isn’t Vital’s preferred way to eat. He’s actually a quality chef. He says, “I’ve been watching my grandma and everyone cook. I cook for women’s basketball, my teammates, track. I drop plates off. I follow recipes. Sometimes I make my own recipes. Someone just paged me. Nysier Brooks, from Miami now, he’s doing a thing where he’s teaching the youth to cook. I want to teach the youth to cook. I’m a real good cook, I can cook from Cajun food to meal preps.”

Vital’s good friends with Baylor basketball graduate assistant Chris Nottingham. He’s been with the team for years as both a manager and graduate assistant. He tells me that back in 2018 he took over helping with the uniforms. He reminisces, “We had just played SFA and lost at the buzzer, obviously. I knew Mark had a bit of a temper, and I knew not to test him he got mad. When he walked off the court, I could tell he was angry, and his hands were on the neckline of his jersey, I was like, ‘God, please, don’t you do it.’ He didn’t look up and just shredded the jersey right down the middle. We didn’t wear white for a month because we had to get one express shipped to us.”

Not long after the pair developed a close friendship. Nottingham says, “If you’d have told me Mark would have been one of my best friends in three of four years, I would have thought you were nuts.”

The two became such good friends that Vital got worried when Nottingham didn’t answer his phone when the two had dinner plans. Nottingham fell asleep on his couch, and with his roommates out of town, nobody woke him up to meet Vital. He says, “I woke up to this dude picking me (up). Mark got into my house and picked me up and carried me out to eat. I’m not huge. I’m not small. I’ve never felt so small to be picked up. That was the freakiest way to be waken up ever.”

When I asked Nottingham how Vital got into his house, he says, “He never told me. I went to sleep and thought about it every night….my roommates weren’t home. I just don’t really try to think too much into it when it comes to Mark. He’s a resourceful individual.”

That resourcefulness has meant helping out others. Melton recounts, “On Baylor’s campus they have a campus Farmer’s Market, and they can get fruits and vegetables and load them up to their dorms. Twice Mark comes in carrying a big box, and it’s a big box of dried goods and watermelon because he knows my kids like watermelon and he said, ‘I picked up watermelon for you kids.’ He has such a big heart and people don’t realize that when he’s the villain or he’s mister 95 and does the dirty work.”

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Salt Lake City Practice
Scott Drew smiles as he talks with Mark Vital before a 2019 NCAA Tournament game
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

There’s something about the water and Baylor basketball. Last month Jared Butler told me that he went on a jet ski with his roommate and thought he was going to drown because he couldn’t swim. Vital can’t swim either, so that same terror should have stopped him from ever jumping off a cliff in Jamaica.

But what should have happened doesn’t really apply to Vital. He tells the story, “I got peer pressured to jump off the cliff into the water. I’m trying to play this tough guy and be tough. I’m one of those guys, ‘I could jump but I just don’t feel like it.’ ‘I could do a backflip and everything.’ So one of my friends is like cool, ‘go jump and do a backflip.’ He called my bluff and I was really scared. I was like, ‘I’ll do it tomorrow. I don’t want to do it today.’ Instead of me doing a backflip, I went and did a front flip into a belly flop. So I did a front flip, and spread it out and hit my stomach all on the water, and I couldn’t breathe. They thought I was going to drown because it knocked the wind out. Then my friend jumped in there and got me out and said, ‘you can’t swim.’ And I was like, ‘yeah, I can swim, I was just tired.’ And they were like, ‘bro, you can’t swim.’ And so I was like, ‘no, I can’t swim.’ Now I’m scared to get in water and everything. If you take me to water, I’m not getting in.”

On land, Vital likes to belt out tunes. He prefers old school stuff, which leads to players banging on his door telling him to stop playing Nina Simone and start playing Lil Uzi Vert. But when he takes the stage at karaoke, Vital will sing about anything. One time, Nottingham says, “We’re chilling. I thought it’d be funny to put him down for a song, “Tennessee Whiskey,” that Chris Stapleton song. I like that song, I knew he liked that song. I’m going to get Mark up there singing it. I thought it was going to be funny. We’re hanging out chilling and doing nothing. The guy gets on the mic, “Chris and Mark, y’all come up here, and you both put each other down for the same song.’ I’m not a karaoke guy, and I don’t think Mark is either. We went up and sang it, and it was pretty funny. We looked dumb. We probably sounded really dumb. There’s a lot of high notes in that song. I thought I probably hit it a little better.”

Vital oscillates between being the funny guy that can be serious and the serious guy that can be funny. Over the summer, Baylor’s players and staff had numerous discussions about race. Those conversations were often difficult, but they felt productive to many of the players and staff.

Nottingham says that during one meeting, “Mark was kind of quiet the whole time, then he spoke up…it’s the most serious mood in this room, and everyone’s willing their heart out. Mark got on this tangent, ‘some of my best friends in this room are white,’ he’s listing off white people, then he says, ‘Chris, I don’t even know what you are.” Nottingham said he joined the whole room in laughing hysterically as everyone came together.

One more funny moment from Vital. Baylor will often do an offensive and defensive substitution to end games. Vital will come in on defense, and someone else will enter on offense. Rather than go all the way back to the other end of the bench, Vital will park in Scott Drew’s chair. I asked Vital about that, and he says, “I remember Ish (Wainright) doing that. Ish used to do that. Like I’m not going way down and waiting. I thought, ‘that’s a vet move,’ now I’m a vet and can do it. Now Matt does it too and it’s so funny. And coach Drew will look for somewhere to sit but he’s got to stand up.” Ever the gentlemen, Vital says that Drew has not brought that up, but Vital says, “We can tell though. He just be looking and shakes his head like he wants a seat, but we just are sitting there.”

In two months, Vital will walk across the Ferrell Center stage and accept his degree. He’ll be the first person in his family to graduate from college. He explains, “I got something that I can change and fall back on. That’s going to change a lot. And my kids, that’s going to be different.”

After 45 minutes on the best Zoom can do on the free internet I have at the Crowne Plaza in Indianapolis, the internet starts breaking up. But Vital wants to make sure I mention that it’s not him that’s changed the culture at Baylor, it’s the graduate students. He credits them for making their workouts professional and taking the team to a whole new level.

When I relay that account—and get better internet—to graduate assistant Rem Bakamus, he demurs. He says, “Mark Vital, MaCio Teague, Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler, the players change the culture…we were lucky to be a part of it. (We’ve) connected because he’s an older guy, and I’m relatively close to him in age. Being the old guys, talking to him about experiences and how far he’s came since last season and the year before, and he has a voice.”

Like all of us, Vital’s a man of multitudes. He prefers his music from the ‘60’s and his clothing from the 90’s. He’s the life of team gatherings, he also likes to stay home and watch anime. Someone capable of dunking in 6th grade, but still self-aware enough to describe himself as a little bit an anime nerd. Like all of us he’s willing to enjoy nice things, but he notes he’s “cheap like Mr. Krabs.”

Vital realizes who he is, and he thinks he realizes what this team is. He fundamentally believes the Bears will win a national title. All 16 teams left probably share that optimism. But there’s something about how resolute Vital is in that belief that would make the strongest Gonzaga partisan rethink the proposition that Gonzaga is the title favorite.

But Vital provides that same multitude again. He says, “if a coach needs me to score, I’ll do it. If you don’t need me to, I have some great players around me. I know for the championship game, I might have to get 50.” Vital laughs at that. Both serious enough to be certain he’ll get there, but cognizant enough to know that the Bear’s game plan in the title game is probably not going to call for him to eclipse 20 points.

Whenever this season ends for the Bears, Vital’s achieved so many program firsts—from speaking out about mental health to winning a Big 12 title.

Maybe this ends in heartache. Whether it’s Saturday against Villanova—or against Gonzaga in the national title game—there are enough pitfalls to trip up Baylor short of winning a national title. But Vital’s had a lot of paths that were supposed to end in ruin. He’s made it through all of them. Maybe he can make it through one more.