As Baylor’s players grabbed and threw green and yellow confetti into the air, the celebration reached its apex. What once seemed unthinkable became reality as Monday became Tuesday in Indianapolis: Baylor basketball is going to the Final Four. The Bears are headed there for the first time since 1950.
Baylor was easily one of the country’s top two teams from the beginning of the season through a double-digit victory over Texas in Austin. Then COVID-19 struck over half the players, forcing a 21 day pause. The Bears finished the regular season 5-2 and Big 12 Champions. Though Baylor wasn’t quite the same during that stretch.
Once they returned, the Bears weren’t the same on defense. Drew said afterwards that, “you see your defense go from one to three to five to 12 to 20 and eventually got to 44. And once we lost to Oklahoma State, I believe in that game we only got two or three stops in the last eight minutes of the game.” Just isolating that seven game stretch, per Torvik, Baylor ranked 190th in adjusted defensive efficiency. Baylor knew it had to improve on that.
In the first half, Baylor tested that proposition while the offense seemed capable of carrying whatever the defense provided. For 12 minutes, Baylor scored over two points per possession. Arkansas would have been better off surrendering dunks. The Razorbacks did that plenty of times. Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Matthew Mayer slammed it down. The Razorbacks faced the impossible task of defending a Baylor offense with more weapons than NATO.
The Razorbacks answered though. Davion Mitchell, the South Region’s most outstanding player, picked up his third foul in the first half. He finished the half at +16, but Arkansas cut the deficit to eight at the break.
Eventually everyone starts missing shots. Baylor ranks as the country’s top 3-point shooting team. Yet that didn’t mean Baylor would make everything. The Bears started struggling from the field and Arkansas pulled within four with 6:50 left. It felt like maybe the Muss Bus had a little more fuel to get Arkansas past Baylor. The ghost of Baylor not holding a five point second half lead against Duke in the 2010 Elite Eight loomed.
Then Baylor turned it up defensively. Baylor held Hartford to a catastrophic .71 adjusted points per possession in Lucas Oil Stadium to open this tournament. It then held Wisconsin and Villanova below one point per possession. That same defense emerged in the second half. Arkansas scored just one point per possession in the second half.
Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, a man that didn’t score five points a game as a freshman at UNLV, drew a charge and blocked a shot. The Bears held Arkansas to one point for the next four minutes.
Offense remains necessary to win championships, and Macio Teague provided it. Despite starting 0-of-4 from three, Teague swished two triples with Arkansas down six points with six minutes remaining.
Multiple people inside the program raved about Teague’s work to perfect his shooting motion over the last few months, and it paid off in the biggest moment of Baylor’s season. Suddenly Arkansas found themselves trailing by 11. They’d never threaten again.
I asked Teague about those two threes after the game. He said, “You know, my teammates there they kept finding me. I think two possessions before that, Jared, he drove baseline, looked to (indiscernible) and looked to me in the corner — looked the opposing player off and threw it to me in the corner. And I shot it and I missed it. When I was running down the floor, I remember my teammate saying “good shot” — I can’t remember who it was who said, ‘good shot, shoot it again.’ So I got another opportunity, they found me, and I hit it. And I saw, when Davion drove, I saw him look at me before he drove, to see where the defense was going to be. And he found me and I knocked another one down. So the credit goes to those guys for keeping faith in me.”
Baylor wouldn’t have won this game without every player in the rotation. Adam Flagler notched four steals. When Baylor seemed incapable of slowing down Arkansas, Flagler stepped in to give Baylor transition chances. A former Presbyterian player, he might be the best player on next year’s Baylor team. But he was pretty special tonight, adding 10 points and a final three that left Arkansas not even attempting to foul late.
The list of big moments from everyone in the rotation could stretch on. When Mitchell picked up his third foul in the first half, Jared Butler steadied the offense, scoring 11 first half points. Mark Vital had a tip-in dunk late that stopped an Arkansas run, and Flo Thamba hit a pair of shots near the rim before the shot clock expired.
Mitchell proved too much offensively in the second half. He finished with 10 points in the period, as Baylor worked to force an Arkansas big man to guard him. Regardless of defender, he found his way to the hoop.
Mitchell moves left faster than a Democratic candidate in a Vermont primary. Or as Jalen Tate said after the contest, “That, Davion Mitchell is one of the fastest guys I’ve ever guarded, especially this year. He’s a tough cover. You could tell they’re a completely different team on both sides of the ball. He’s a facilitator for them as well as just their anchor defensively.”
Baylor certainly has the best team in program history. But in this single elimination format, nothing is guaranteed. The Elite Eight has been the graveyard of national championship caliber teams, perhaps most recently exemplified by Zion Williamson’s Duke team. Tonight Baylor had every answer.
This is also a testament to the program and culture built by Scott Drew. He took over a program so devastated by scandal that the NCAA precluded non-conference games in his third season. Baylor’s history from 1951 to Drew taking over was a 1988 NCAA Tournament berth. To go from a history so scant to one that features an outright Big 12 title—despite playing five fewer games than some Big 12 teams—and a Final Four, is nothing short of miraculous.
When Drew was asked if he ever had second thoughts about coming here, he said, “No, I prayed about it. I felt led to come here. I really believed in the vision of the school, from the president and the administrators during that time and what they wanted Baylor to continue to grow and become.”
These men had a chance to not be here. Jerome Tang is quite clearly the best lead assistant in the country, and should be leading his own program next season. John Jakus has been a leading offensive mind and powered teams for years. And Alvin Brooks is one of the architects in Baylor’s suffocating defense, and a power player in recruiting.
Tang mentioned earlier this season this is the best staff he’s ever been part of, and if the athletic departments at major American universities are worth the exorbitant salaries they command, the assistants should all be leading their own teams soon too.
All of them will tell you that players win championships, and that’s undoubtedly true. A cadre of other programs aren’t facing the ire of the NCAA because they can find better set plays with the shoe money Adidas and Nike flowed on programs. But that’s not the case here.
The Bears are made up of under-recruited men and transfers. None ranked in the top 50 nationally. Teague, tonight’s leading scorer, started at UNC-Asheville because nobody thought he could play at a power six school. Mitchell rode the bench as a freshman at Auburn and looked for a new start in Waco. He will likely be a lottery pick in the NBA Draft. Butler went from outside the top 75 as a recruit to the first unanimous All-American at Baylor.
Unselfishness describes this program. As he basked in the victory, Teague noted, “It means a tremendous amount to me but even more to the program. No person is bigger than the program. What we did was history here. Really happy for Coach Drew. He’s been here for 18 years.”
The Bears have achieved so much already. Four of these starters played on last year’s team that won 23 consecutive games—the longest streak ever for a Big 12 team.
The Bears don’t need much of a winning streak now. Two more wins and Baylor wins the national title.
A good Houston team awaits next Saturday in Indianapolis. But after the game Eric Musselman said, “Baylor’s a really, really good team. They’re the best team that we’ve played this year.” If the Bears keep playing like this, they have a good shot to end the season as the best team anyone plays.