Maybe I’m just adding another entry to the unending sports debate list. But a month after Baylor won the 2020-2021 national title in dominating fashion, I remain convinced: the 2020-2021 Bears are the best Big 12 team ever.
While there’s an argument for a few other teams, the debate comes down to 2021 Baylor vs. 2008 Kansas.
2002 Kansas has too many blemishes. Those Jayhawks lost at home to Ball State. While it’s nice Kansas went undefeated in the Big 12, the Jayhawks also lost by double digits to KenPom No. 35 UCLA and lost by nine to Maryland in the Final Four. Kansas had a great season—and with Drew Gooden, Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich—an excellent leading trio. But the resume doesn’t stack up.
We’ll always wonder about 2020 Kansas. Bill Self’s squad finished 17-1 in the Big 12. Kansas’ lone Big 12 loss was to the 2019-2020 Bears—a team that won a Big 12 record 23 straight games. Those Bears would have earned a No. 1 seed. 2020 Kansas falls just outside the debate because of playing so many close games. Kansas won eight single digit games during conference play. Maybe that speaks to the talent of that team winning when it counted. But when we’re dividing between the league’s best teams, those close games leave them just outside this tier. Plus, given the 2020 Jayhawks lost by 12 and won by three against 2020 Baylor, it’s easy to imagine a better version of Baylor edging them out in a seven game series.
1997 Kansas is the most glaring omission. Those Jayhawks lost one regular season game, in overtime to Missouri. Scot Pollard and Jacque Vaughn went in the first round of the next NBA Draft. Raef Lafrentz and Paul Pierce were even better than that pair. Arizona beat three No. 1 seeds on its path to the national title. Unfortunately for Kansas that path included knocking off Kansas in the Sweet 16. Maybe 1997 Kansas belongs in the stratosphere of 2015 Kentucky—a team so good that losing before the title game shouldn’t put them down a peg. But the 1997 Jayhawks need a nearly flawless resume to overcome losing with three rounds left in the tournament. Again, that’s fickle, and I understand if someone else ranks them higher. But losing in the Sweet 16 leaves that version of KU just below the 2008 Kansas/2021 Baylor tier.
Ultimately, titles are different and significant in these debates. In a single elimination tournament, the best team doesn’t always win. Sometimes 2014 Connecticut wins it. But advancing past multiple good—and a couple of great teams—requires another level of abillity. Sometime in that six game window the better team will shoot poorly. Another day your opponent might shoot out of its mind. At least once, the better team will face an opponent primed to exploit a matchup disadvantage. 2008 Kansas and 2021 Baylor surviving that gauntlet matters. The goal is to win the title. While luck plays a large role, being excellent—again, 2014 Connecticut gets an asterisk—requires another level.
You can’t just look at the KenPom number:
Some KU fans will clamor, “KU is the highest ranked champion in the KenPom era. The Jayhawks are 35.21. Baylor finished No. 2 this year and is 33.87.”
There are several problems with this. The difference in one advanced formula (I like and will use KenPom a lot) is small. KenPom’s useful to compare efficiency metrics when there are real differences and outliers. I picked Loyola to beat Illinois in the NCAA Tournament because KenPom ranked Loyola as a top 10 team. While KenPom had Illinois higher than the Ramblers, Loyola’s high ranking told me the teams were comparable, and then Loyola’s stylistic advantages—it could destroy Kofi Cockburn on defense and limit Ayo Dosunmu on offense—mattered.
The differential is too small—even if we don’t make an adjustment, and we’ll have to make one soon—to say “KU’s for sure better because the KenPom number is better.” When a number is that close, there’s a ton of small things that impact it. Kansas can argue it could have blown North Carolina out by more. Baylor can legitimately say it could have throttled Kansas State, Houston and Gonzaga by more. All of those statements are true, but all highlight that just relying on KenPom to answer this question isn’t viable.
Finally, KenPom is designed as a comparison within seasons. The metric does not take into account how much better teams are in different seasons. While some would opine that 2008 is a better season because all four No. 1 seeds made the title game, 2021 adherents could claim that 2021 is better because Gonzaga and Baylor stood a level higher than even the North Carolina-Memphis-UCLA-Kansas tier. In a 351 team sport, arguments that one season tramples the other are guess-work, which should leave us focused on other ways to settle this debate.
Baylor has a better resume:
The 2008 Jayhawks lost three games. While we can debate where the 2008 Kansas State loss should rank—and there’s a decent argument that losing by nine to a No. 11 seed is way worse than losing at Allen Fieldhouse or against Oklahoma State in the Big 12 semifinals—we can ignore that.
Kansas has a terrible loss to Oklahoma State. The Cowboys went 16-14 and lost in the first round of the NIT. A loss to the KenPom No. 75 team is significantly worse than losing to KenPom No. 27 or No. 33.
Baylor’s best wins also topple Kansas’. Baylor beat No. 1 Gonzaga by 16 points in the title game. Gonzaga played just two other games this season within single digits. While KU fans will offer that dethroning North Carolina compares, it doesn’t. Gonzaga played two single digit games this season. Jalen Suggs missed a large part of the West Virginia win. And in the UCLA game, the Bruins went nuclear from two. ShotQuality found that UCLA scored 14 additional points from bad midrange makes than usual, and per normal shooting percentage from shots taken, Gonzaga should have won that game by 22 points!
North Carolina, while awesome, did not have a comparable resume. The Tar Heels lost to a mediocre Maryland team and fell by 11 to Duke. We’re comparing excellence here, but North Carolina didn’t stack up to Gonzaga’s dominance.
From the Round of 32 to the title game, Baylor’s opponent averaged a No. 10 ranking on KenPom. Kansas played an average ranking of 22. Despite playing much better ranked opponents, Baylor won its games by 67 points, while Kansas won by 61. That’s not much of a differential, but when you factor in opponent quality, Baylor had an adjusted efficiency of .9919 during the NCAA Tournament, per Torvik. The Bears were the country’s No. 2 offense and No. 8 defense. Kansas finished with a lower efficiency margin during its run and with the No. 27 defense during that crucial five game stretch.
Baylor went 8-0 against top 20 KenPom opponents. The Bears won all of those games by at least eight points. Kansas went 4-1 in those matchups. The Jayhawks won those games by an average of 4.8 points. Baylor won those games by an average of 13 points.
The Bears also dominated the Big 12. Even with the COVID pause—and again, we’ll discuss that soon—Baylor won the Big 12 outright. Despite playing five fewer games than second place Kansas, the Bears won more games than KU. Had Baylor forfeited all the games it missed, Kansas still would have lost the league.
Kansas shared the 2008 Big 12. The Jayhawks were the No. 2 seed in the 2008 Big 12 Tournament. While I’m not saying 2008 Texas topped 2008 Kansas, the Jayhawks were not similarly dominant.
The Bears had much better guards:
The above heading is anathema to many Kansas fans. The Jayhawks retired three of those guard’s numbers. Mario Chalmers hit the miracle three against Memphis. Brandon Rush was excellent on defense and could rain triples. And Sherron Collins was a blur and hit his own big three off a steal late against the Tigers.
Nostalgia has a way of elevating things. Flaws disappear as the ultimate prize is what people remember and the best moments shine.
In All-Big 12 voting, Brandon Rush made the first team in 2008. Mario Chalmers earned second team honors. Russell Robinson and Collins didn’t even earn honorable mention.
This year, Jared Butler was a unanimous selection to the first team and the AP Big 12 Player of the Year. Davion Mitchell also earned first team honors. And Macio Teague made the third team. So the Bears had more guards make All-Big 12 teams, more guards make the first team, and their best guard appeared on more ballots than Kansas’ best guard.
If you think the Big 12 voters were just dumb—and I don’t put it past the coaches to be terrible at voting—Baylor also had a much better showing in national award voting. Butler was a unanimous first team All-American. Rush made a single third team. Mitchell made two third teams. Which means Baylor’s second best guard during the season actually did better on All-American teams than Kansas’s best player.
Mitchell also won every national defensive player of the year award. While Rush and the Jayhawks had a good defense, nobody on Kansas earned that level of accolade.
If you compare each guard, Baylor ranked better at all the spots. Butler averaged more points than Rush. Mitchell averaged more than Chalmers. Teague topped Collins and Flagler bested Robinson. Kansas fans would counter that Kansas relied on its bigs to score, but Butler ranked five points higher in offensive rating than Rush. Teague beat Collins by over 18 points and Flagler finished over 20 points higher in that category. Chalmers did beat Mitchell, but Mitchell won national defensive player of the year!
Perhaps Baylor’s easiest claim is just how well it shot. The Bears ranked No. 1 nationally in 3-point percentage. Kansas shot very well from deep—ranking 14th. But it took way fewer triples. The Bears attempted 38.4% of their shots from deep, while Kansas attempted just 29.3% from distance. So Kansas’ number is inflated. Chalmers hit the miracle, but in the era of thinking threes were fool’s gold, Kansas didn’t tally a bunch of threes. It took more twos.
If someone wants to argue Kansas had better defensive guards, it’s just not true. Mitchell won every national defensive player of the year award. Mike Schmitz of ESPN said he might be the best on-ball defender he’s ever scouted. Butler and Vital earned All-Big 12 defensive honors. Teague often played power forward and could guard bigs and elite points guards like Suggs. Rush and company could lock-down, but the Jayhawks didn’t have the same high-end speed of Baylor. That’s partially why Kansas ranked 115th in defensive turnovers and Baylor ranked fourth.
COVID has to matter:
Even without making some adjustment for COVID, the above arguments—and I’ll answer Kansas’ best claim below—sway me. It’s not necessary to wade into the COVID debate, but it pushes this far enough over the edge that the debate becomes difficult for the Lawrence faithful.
Everyone had to deal with COVID this season. But just like everyone deals with injuries, not everyone deals with the same injuries. And while every team navigated the pandemic, not every team faced it at the same time.
Baylor did a nice job testing negative during the summer and for most of the season. The Bears took the protocols seriously, just like Kansas and a host of other programs did. But because COVID-19 can still hit those that did a great job with the protocols, it hit Baylor all at once. Jeff Goodman reported eight Bears came down with COVID following Baylor’s win over Texas. From multiple conversations with people in the program—if anyone needed me to verify Goodman—I can say that Goodman isn’t off in his reporting.
Worst of all for the Bears, it decimated the big men. Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua missed the Iowa State game. If anyone doubts that a COVID pause impacted Baylor, just watch that game. The Bears were off everywhere. Mark Vital and Flo Thamba weren’t where they needed to be, and if Flagler hadn’t shot so well, Baylor would have been Iowa State’s sole Big 12 win.
COVID impacted Baylor in two ways. First, it limited how effective some players were in the return. In Lawrence, it was apparent during warmups how off Tchamwa Tchatchoua was. He had zero shot to move against Kansas’ ball movement, so David McCormack got to his spots. Second, it threw off Baylor’s timing. Baylor had one full practice between the Texas game and the end of the Big 12 Tournament. The Bears missed rotations. Guys got fatigued as they tried to regain conditioning.
Look, some folks obviously think COVID is fake or part of a “plandemic” or whatever conspiracy makes you think the vaccines are going to kill us all. COVID is real. The vaccines are spectacular. If you disagree with either of those things, then you’re not the best person to make the 2008 Kansas case, so find a different representative to argue everything in your life.
COVID isn’t fake though. Torvik has a nifty tool that analyzes team performance during windows. From the start of the season through the Texas game—a 17 game stretch—Baylor went 17-0 with wins over: Illinois, Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Kansas and Oklahoma State. In that 17 game stretch, Baylor had the nation’s No. 3 offense and No. 9 defense.
During the regular season return, Baylor ranked No. 185 on defense! The Bears dropped to No. 58 in turnovers (finished season No. 4); No. 309 in defensive rebounding and opponents hit 39.4% of their threes against Baylor.
While Baylor might have just been the victim of some unlucky breaks, and the 2008 Jayhawks would protest that they’d like to remove their worst seven game stretch too, Baylor went back to normal during the NCAA Tournament. In those six games, Baylor ranked No. 8 in adjusted defensive efficiency, which is better than Kansas fared defensively in the 2008 tournament. The easy explanation is that Baylor finally had time to practice and went back to swarming on defense. Baylor also got a break after playing five games in 12 games. With recovery time and the chance to practice, the Bears returned to normal.
The issue is pretty simple for Kansas: Kansas has to make COVID nothing to overcome Baylor. The Jayhawks don’t have enough of a margin—and I don’t think they have one—to overcome any adjustment for Baylor’s COVID peril.
Baylor could defend Kansas’ big men:
Watching these teams play would be amazing because of the contrasting styles. Could Kansas really stay big all game and deal with defending Baylor? Could the Bears go small and limit Kansas’ monsters?
I’m convinced Baylor could defend Kansas’ big men. There’s no doubt that Kansas had much better offensive big men than Baylor. Darrell Arthur, Darnell Jackson, Sasha Kaun and a young Cole Aldrich are better offensively than the Bear’s big men.
Baylor shut down good big men all season (the second COVID game, and the first one back for Tchamwa Tchatchoua, against Kansas, excluded). Kofi Cockburn scored seven against Baylor. Jericho Sims had 10. In Waco, McCormack had six. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl had eight. And Drew Timme, an All-American and the biggest design flaw for Baylor’s team, had 12 points and five turnovers in a 16 point loss.
The Bears were exceptional at fronting and pressuring the ball. After losing to Baylor, Mark Few noted they weren’t prepared for how well Baylor pressured the ball. To paraphrase Mike Tyson, everyone has a plan to get the ball inside until Mitchell, Vital and Butler are pressuring passers. The Bears just turned everyone over, which is why they finished No. 4 in that category. Kansas would have gotten some easy buckets, but it would have coughed over plenty of passes too.
The 2019-2020 Bears couldn’t defend middle pick-and-rolls when it mattered against the 2019-2020 Jayhawks, but the latest iteration could. Baylor just switched screens and dared Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Vital to stick in front of guards. Baylor did that, which is why Baylor finished so well. Then down low, the guards could front.
On the other side, Kansas would be in a world of hurt trying to stay big. Basketball’s not what it was in 2008. Maybe that’s not always for the best, but everything changes and basketball sure has. And the changes that hit the sport make it tough to stay big. Guards and wings are the currency of a game that prizes shooting. Facing the nation’s No. 1 team from deep, Kansas would have been crushed in pick-and-rolls.
In 2008, teams could hard hedge. But nobody did that much against these Bears. Mitchell and Butler were too adept at quick passes over even lanky defenders, and Vital could pass from any angle. Hard hedging leaves the defense at risk that the two defenders will crash into each other. Kansas would have crashed trying to recover against Baylor’s passing. Louisiana tried to hard hedge for a second. Few repeated that path.
If Kansas elected to drop, then even the most ardent atheist would have found himself praying to God for a way to stop what Baylor would have done. Wisconsin apparently didn't’ watch the Illinois game and ran that strategy. Tchamwa Tchatchoua, Vital and company got more lob opportunities than a mid 2000’s dunk contest.
Most teams elect to switch, and there’s just no shot that Kansas could have done that. Mitchell, Butler, Teague and friends carved up Timme, Villanova and everyone that tried to do that. Kaun and Jackson had zero shot to stay in front of Baylor’s guards, especially Mitchell.
Self is such a great coach that my guess is that in a longer series he would have eventually down sized and had long stretches with Arthur at the five against Baylor’s lineup with Vital at the five. But trying a new strategy against a team that played a small lineup for two years isn’t easy. And as mentioned above, Baylor had better guards. So Kansas didn’t have much hope going guard for guard, which is why that radical departure would have been tough. Gonzaga—when it played zone—found out that the kitchen sink solution against Baylor is one last act on the path to doom.
Even if it’s unresolvable, the debate is real:
Most Kansas fans can’t countenance that Baylor even belongs in this debate. But 2021 Baylor vs. 2008 Kansas is not “Was the Iraq War a good idea?” (no). There are legitimate arguments on each side. And each proponent for their side can fall victim to the same problematic thought process that led to America’s hubristic foray into Iraq: cherry-picking stats and a framework that favors one course of action while discounting the other side’s convincing arguments.
The Crimson and Blue have plenty of ammo. Maybe Kansas’s size matters. Maybe 2008 was such a phenomenal basketball season that 2021 data can’t even be compared. Or maybe Baylor would have struggled once Kansas adjusted to its smaller lineups.
While those arguments aren’t unwinnable, they’re just not as persuasive. The NBA’s become homogenized in the pace and space era. But college teams run a bevy of styles. Baylor met them all; the Bears beat every team they faced. Big and small. Great defenses and great offenses. Nothing slowed down Baylor, except a global pandemic. And even that proved a small blip on the way to a title.
It’s unfortunate that we’ll never get to see the conference’s two best teams play. But as a Kansas fan growing up, and someone that covered and wrote a book on Baylor’s NCAA title, it was pretty special to have watched them both. I’m just pretty sure I know which one was better.