INDIANAPOLIS- Eighteen years after taking a job most thought he was crazy to ever take, Baylor—a team that made one NCAA Tournament between 1950 and 2007—knocked off previously undefeated Gonzaga to win the national championship.
That Baylor could beat Gonzaga isn’t surprising. Gonzaga fared better in the efficiency metrics but Baylor had shown all season what it could do. The Bears thrashed No. 1 seed Illinois and beat every team in the Big 12. Despite playing five fewer games than the league’s No. 2 team, Baylor won more games than anyone in the conference.
Nothing could stop this bunch. A long COVID pause in February left them rusty in return. But the squad rebounded to knock off West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. A poor eight minutes to end the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City left some predicting this team would never hit those heights again. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Baylor pulled off one of the most dominant NCAA Tournament performances of all time. The Bears won every game by at least nine points.
The Bears were at their best when pressed. Every national champion has to answer a night when the 3-point shot doesn’t fall. For Baylor, it was a 3-of-19 performance against Villanova. The Bears trailed by seven at halftime. Yet the staff adjusted, finding ways to get the ball near the hoop. Even with a size disadvantage, Baylor overwhelmed Villanova and won by double digits.
Gonzaga entered as the nation’s No. 1 team. Jalen Suggs might be the No. 1 pick in the draft. Corey Kispert will go in the lottery. And Drew Timme figured to be a matchup nightmare. But the Bears elected to front him. Timme couldn’t get the easy looks he wanted.
The Bears once again raced out to a giant lead. The Bears led 35-16. Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell, MaCio Teague and Adam Flagler proved too quick for Gonzaga. And the Bears started 5-of-5 from deep. No college team may have played a better 10 minutes of offense than Baylor did tonight.
Some will respond that Gonzaga was overrated. That couldn’t be more wrong. Mitchell and Butler are the nation’s two best guards. MaCio Teague and Adam Flagler hit big shots too.
Mark Few’s staff made adjustments. With a whistle that might have favored the Bulldogs, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua picked up three first half fouls. Flo Thamba had two as well. And Gonzaga trimmed the halftime deficit to 10.
Jared Butler opened the second half with back-to-back triples, and Gonzaga would never seriously threaten again. Butler earned Most Outstanding Player honors. After the game, he said, “I’m so glad everyone came back.” Having known him for three years, it was a great honor to vote for him. But it would have been amazing to vote for Davion Mitchell—a worthy selection as well—or any of the remaining players.
The team was a collection of fantastic individual players that became better than the some of its parts. After the game, Drew said the victory was, “simple—player led team.” From Mark Vital, a fifth year senior that decided to come back and get his degree and a national title, to MaCio Teague—another fifth year senior that wanted to win a national title—Baylor achieved all it wanted.
There were just too many good players on this team. Davion Mitchell glided to the rim on switches and made Suggs life miserable. Matthew Mayer was a giant body who could fling from distance. Adam Flagler darted around the court for offensive boards and hit his own big triple, following up his dagger against Arkansas in the Elite Eight.
Basketball is a hard fought game. With billions at stake, it’s easy to get cynical. Some believe that Baylor’s creed: JOY—Jesus, Others, Yourself—is just a branding mechanism. But if it is, they’ve done an unbelievable job fooling me. All of them remained focus on that order, and the Bears embodied it. Talented players and a phenomenal staff explain so much of what happened, but a culture that responded to a lost season and a cadre of players, including Mark Vital and MaCio Teague, elected to return to, speaks volumes to that idea.
Baylor’s earned its place in the all-time team debate. Maybe some will scoff at that notion. It remains to be seen how good this group will play in the NBA and after their time ends at Baylor. But what’s not up for debate is this: Baylor University—a small Baptist school in the middle of Texas with almost no basketball history before a 32-year-old from Indiana decided he could win the sports highest honor there—has the best college basketball team in America.