Davion Mitchell dribbled out the first half, then rose to swish a 3-pointer, giving Baylor a 45-20 lead en route to No. 1 seed Baylor (27-2) thrashing No. 2 seed Houston (28-4) 78-59. That play summed up the day. Everything felt easy for Baylor as its one win away from the first basketball title in program history.
The first half was probably the greatest half in the history of Baylor basketball. In recent years, Baylor’s had plenty of contenders. Its thrashing of St. Mary’s in the 2010 NCAA Tournament; the evisceration of Creighton in 2014 or beating No. 1 Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse last year. All were exemplary performances.
The stakes are a little tougher in the Final Four though. Baylor appeared here for the first time since 1950. After Jared Butler struggled from deep in the tournament (going 6-of-24 entering the game), he exploded to go 4-of-5 from deep. After the game, Butler said, “You know, I’m a shooter. Sometimes the ball goes in. Sometimes the ball doesn’t go in. It’s just about me staying confident through it all. And tonight just the ball went in.”
Baylor, the nation’s top 3-point shooting team, went 8-of-15 from deep in the first half.
Baylor’s defense returned to championship form. We’ve discussed ad nauseum how the defense held Baylor back during its return from COVID to the NCAA Tournament. But in the first half, Houston scored just .65 points per possession. While crediting Sampson, Drew mentioned, “Coach Brooks did a great job on the scout. I think we were prepared. And really our guys did a great job buying into — locking in on assignments and tendencies.” The nation’s worst offense averages .87 points per possession. Perhaps most devastatingly, Houston scored three points outside of Marcus Sasser’s 17.
While the Cougars made a second half run, Baylor played well enough to beat Gonzaga. That’s the standard Baylor’s measured itself against all season. Gonzaga is the highest rated KenPom team ever. Jalen Suggs might go No. 1 in the draft. Corey Kispert will go in the lottery, and Drew Timme actually ranks as the county’s top player on KenPom.
Baylor’s first half performance would have smoked Gonzaga too. Kelvin Sampson’s a fantastic coach. You don’t make the Final Four at Houston by being average. He had to keep more than two men defending pick-and-rolls because Butler and Davion Mitchell could fire crosses across the court. While Gonzaga’s offense will do better than Houston’s anemic .65 points per possession in the first half, it figures to have the same issues defending the pick-and-roll. Timme’s exceptional on offense, but how well he can move laterally against Baylor’s quartet of guards will decide a lot.
While Houston gave its all to make the game competitive in the second half, the outcome felt ordained by the time the socially distance crowd congregated at halftime to buy $6 bottled water inside Lucas Oil Stadium. Baylor operates at a different level from all but that one opponent that’s loomed all season.
All Baylor games in the tournament could go on forever with platitudes about the players. Matthew Mayer remains a mismatch disaster, and Houston didn’t have a plan beyond “hope for bad Matthew Mayer.” He wasn’t, as he finished with 12 points. When Houston made a second half run (maybe that’s generous), Mayer drained a three off a pass from Teague to keep the game unmanageable for the Cougars.
The biggest issue with playing Baylor is that its pick-and-roll offense is too good. When I asked Davion Mitchell after the Kansas State game how people could try and defend Baylor, he laughed and said, “I don’t know.” Houston didn’t either. Mitchell found everyone today. He’ll be a millionaire soon, and his 11 assists today will make the NBA team paying him that salary feel like they’re getting a bargain.
The tournament is a lesson in the impossibility of defending Baylor’s pick-and-rolls. Wisconsin elected to drop a big man to prevent the guards from getting into the paint. Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and company had a series of dunks. Mark Vital told me he was surprised the Badger’s did that, but he also recognized that it’s about the only defense Wisconsin had.
Arkansas tried switching. That’s probably the best path to stymie Baylor. A team needs athletic bigs that can stay in front of Baylor’s guards though, and Mitchell showed in the second half the impossibility of doing that, as he cooked the Razorback’s bigs to get to the hoop.
And tonight, Houston elected to have a guard off the ball try and tag the rolling big man in the first half. I saw some folks online chiding Kelvin Sampson for that move. The issue with that contrarianism is that Mitchell and Butler are ridiculous at passing from one side of the court to the other. That Kansas State game showed why that defense doesn’t work, and in the first half, Butler caught a cross-court pass from Mitchell and swished it. Houston figured it was a bit faster than a bad Kansas State team, but Baylor showed it had another tier when not blowing out Kansas State by 30+ two times.
Sampson made some adjustments. It didn’t matter, and it showed why his original idea made some sense. Houston stopped having a third man defend the action, and then it realized that Baylor’s guards could get past soft traps and hit a rolling big man for scores. I asked Jared Butler about the pick-and-roll success, and he said, “We did a good job understanding what they were doing. We got in the groove of what they were doing, and we were able to take advantage of it. They didn’t switch up the ball-screen coverage that much. So we were just able to adapt to it and find out what was working and I think that was the reason why.”
One night doesn’t guarantee how the final one will go. Baylor played well enough tonight to beat Gonzaga. The Bulldogs have played well enough on almost every night to have a chance to beat Baylor. But for all the fear about COVID pauses, defensive lapses or anything else, Baylor has the best team in program history playing on the final night of the season. Maybe it ends without a championship. But for 24 months this crew’s worked to be here. Now they just have to do it more time to achieve it.