Indianapolis, Indiana- Despite trailing 30-23 at halftime, and shooting 3-of-19 from three, Baylor played pristine second half basketball to beat Villanova 62-51. Baylor will take on the winner of Oral Roberts-Arkansas on Monday night in Lucas Oil Stadium.
The first half set up the recipe to beat Baylor. The Bears started 2-of-12 from deep. Jared Butler, a unanimous All-American, started 2-of-8 from the field. Villanova began 3-of-7 from deep. Jeremiah Robinson Earl and Jermaine Samuels seemed too good inside, combining for 15 first half points. Although Baylor pressured Villanova’s guards, the Wildcats still got inside.
In the second half, Baylor started to get inside on offense. After going 4-of-9 near the rim in the first half—and with Villanova’s imposing frontline making shots tough near the rim—I didn’t think Baylor could work scoring inside. That’s why I am not coaching an Elite Eight team, and Scott Drew and his staff are.
After the game, Drew said, “When we were 2-for-12 at the half we knew we had to get inside. We had decent looks, not great looks. Credit Villanova for doing a great job contesting shots. I thought our guards did a great job not settling and probing more. And because of that we shot 53 percent second half.”
Davion Mitchell and Adam Flagler combined for 21 points in the half. Flagler hit one three to finish with 16 points. Otherwise, every point from the pair happened inside the arc. Mark Vital made a tough layup. Jared Butler put Villanova in a spin cycle for a layup too. And Macio Teague used his superb footwork to add another.
Perhaps the defense being this good again is the main takeaway. Yes, Villanova missed a few open triples. The Wildcats finished the half 0-of-7 from deep. But even conceding that, Baylor still held Villanova to .7 points per possession that half. The nation’s worst offense averages .86 points per possession, which makes that mark incredible.
The defense being this good makes Baylor a champion team. In the seven games Baylor played to end the season—after returning from the 21 day COVID layoff—Baylor gave up at least one adjusted point per possession. In every game in the NCAA Tournament, Baylor’s held the opponent to fewer than one adjusted point per possession. Winning a championship normally requires ranking in the top 20 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. The Bears have been a top 20 offense all season. They’ve played as a top 20 defense against during the tournament, as they had before the pause.
The Bear’s defense appears back because the team plays the same style, regardless of opponent. The Bears make some adjustments, but the formula is constant: Baylor pressures guards with Mitchell. Villanova had six turnovers in each of its last two games. It had nine in the second half.
Mitchell is the country’s best defender. He won Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, and forced two big turnovers in the second half. Life is different driving against Mitchell, and it ended the hope of Villanova making an Elite Eight.
After the game, Mitchell noted, “We knew if we wanted to win we had to turn them over. We had to make them feel uncomfortable. They’re a really fundamental team. They don’t turn the ball over. They’re number one in the country in not to turning the ball over. For us to win, we had to get them out of their comfort zone, and I think we did a really good job of that.”
On top of a great defensive performance, the Bear’s bench is back. Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua did a nice job on Jeremiah Robinson-Earl in the first half. He left in the second half after making a scouting error that led to a dunk, but Matthew Mayer had a nice game as well, providing quality defense and some timely rebounds. When Villanova got Baylor into the bonus, Flagler put them away hitting all six free throw attempts.
Baylor’s been to the Elite twice before under Drew. The difference this time is that Baylor will be favored against Arkansas or Oral Roberts. While both teams are good—and Oral Roberts is playing at a whole new level compared to earlier in the season—2012 Kentucky with Anthony Davis does not loom.
Perhaps most importantly, the best Baylor team ever will take the floor on Monday. If you’d told me before this game that Baylor would shoot this poorly and get a combined 14 points from Butler and Teague, I’d have thought it was a heartbreaking end to Baylor’s season.
But the Bears are simply too good. They’ve done everything for two years to put themselves in position to make the program’s first Final Four since 1950. And with what Baylor’s shown in this tournament, they should be heavily favored to make it there.