For the first time since 1950, the Baylor Bears are headed to the Final Four, the culmination of two years of dominance.
The Arkansas Razorbacks — an old Southwest Conference foe — made them work for it, though. This 81-72 win took scrap. Eric Mussleman’s squad is defined by grit and toughness. Their physicality put Baylor in a foul pinch. Davion Mitchell (12 pts, 6 ast) play just 9 minutes in the first half. His stint on the bench coincided with Arkansas closing the lead to single digits, when before it was an absolute bloodbath on both ends in Baylor’s favor. JD Notae (14 pts) brought a burst of scoring that Baylor had suppressed to that point in the game. Once Mitchell’s ball pressure was out of the mix, though, everything loosened up for Arkansas. Cuts, drives, offensive rebounds — you name it.
It went some way to show how Mitchell has surged to the lead of the three guard pack. To be sure, MaCio Teague (22 pts, 5 reb) was the leading scorer tonight and supplied a lot of offense paired with strong help defense. Jared Butler (14 pts, 5 ast, 2-3 3PT) found some rhythm with his jumper, too, and didn’t commit any of those terrible reaching fouls that became his habit of late. But when Arkansas ground the lead back to 4 points in the second half, the ball was in Mitchell’s capable hands. His speed off the bounce was unguardable tonight. Several Teague threes were set up by Mitchell’s ability to get into the lane and suck in help. So far this NCAA Tournament, it’s been Mitchell who has stirred the drink on both ends.
Speaking of stirring, Arkansas certainly mixed things up for the Bears. Their relentless attack of the paint brought foul trouble to Mitchell, Matthew Mayer (7 pts, 3 reb), and Mark Vital (4 pts, 4 reb, 5 fouls). Justin Smith (10 pts, 6 rebs) made bigger impact than anyone other than Notae for Arkansas. His tips, cuts, and paint defense affected the game on both ends, and Baylor’s run to close out the game came when he went to the bench with a fourth foul and 6:30 left.
If Musselman made a mistake, it was his foul management. He left Notae in right after picking up his fourth foul with 12+ minutes left, and then Notae drove into Jonathan Tchamwa-Tchatoua’s (8 points, 6 reb, 2 massive dunks) chest for an offensive foul and a long sit on the bench. Then Musselman made a mistake the other way. When his team was still scrapping to keep the game close, he sat his most impactful remaining player just at the time Baylor typically closes out opponents.
Just down the sideline, Scott Drew coached a brilliant game. His team’s foul management worked, keeping the right players in the game at the right times. He shifted Tchamwa-Tchatchoua in and out of the game just when he was needed to boost the energy back up. The halftime adjustments to counteract Arkansas’ clever sets closed off opportunities that the Razorbacks feasted on in the first half. And he went to Mitchell when the game was on the line. Drew has earned every praise and accolade he’s received this year. Tonight was yet another demonstration of the excellence he and his staff have developed over the years.
Houston will be a tough out. KenPom gives Baylor a 51% chance to win and only a 1-point margin. That is easily the worst individual game projection Baylor has had all season. Houston boasts their own set of tough guards, but has some extra height and length to boot. The Cougars are just the sort of team that gives Baylor fits. Quentin Grimes is a star in college basketball and will be the focus on Baylor’s preparation.
But let’s savor this week. Baylor is in a place many thought they would never reach again, certainly not under Drew. All that’s flipped now, and it’s not hard for Baylor fans to wonder how many more times this will happen before Scott Drew’s career at Baylor is over. He’s built one of the soundest programs in the country. Stability and joy can carry you a long way down the road to the Final Four.