INDIANAPOLIS — If you think about it, no one waited longer for this than Baylor. Everyone in college basketball sorely missed the NCAA Tournament after it was canceled on March 12, 2020. It was a terrible day and a vacant month for so many players, coaches and devoted fans. A lot of them moved on, though, by choice or by force.
Dayton’s Obi Toppin was compelled to enter the NBA Draft, aware he’d be selected in a prominent position, and the Flyers entered a rebuilding season. Kansas center Udoka Azubuike was out of eligibility, and the Jayhawks followed with a fine season, just not extraordinary. Gonzaga All-American Filip Petrusev chose to turn professional in Europe, but the Zags this year were great without him, as they were the year before (Elite Eight), the year before that (Sweet 16) and the year before that (Final Four).
Their teams were the other likely No. 1 seeds had last year’s tournament been bracketed. And then there are the Bears, who hadn’t had a team like this since 1950, at least: Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell, MaCio Teague and Mark Vital. That quartet, the core of last year’s team, had taken Baylor basketball to places it never had traveled, and then they had nowhere to go. Once each decided to return for another season, they promised each other not to let their window close.
So, no, they were not going to squander the opportunity to compete in the 2021 Final Four. They’d earned the right with convincing victories in the first four rounds of the tournament, and although that was a goal, it was not the goal. The Bears are good enough to win the NCAA championship. They’ve been good enough to win it for two seasons running. And that’s so much a part of the reason they ran Houston out of the gym, or, actually, Lucas Oil Stadium.
Coach Scott Drew reminded his players before tipoff Saturday the three seniors from last year’s team — Freddie Gillespie, Devonte Bandoo and Tristan Clark — “were in the stands, and how much they wished they had this opportunity, but they were here to cheer us on,” Drew told Sporting News. “Moments like that make you reflect and think you feel so bad for the guys that didn’t have that opportunity and never will. But at the same time, you feel so fortunate these guys are, this year.”
All-American Jared Butler scored a team-high 17 points for the Bears in their overwhelming 78-59 victory over the Cougars. His backcourt partner, Davion Mitchell, took turns destroying every Houston guard he opposed. The Bears shot 57 percent from the field and 53 percent on 3-pointers.
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“Being here now, it’s like, ‘Wow: This is what we missed out on last year,'” Butler told Sporting News the day before the game.
Houston got here by beating 12-seed Oregon State in the regional final, No. 11-seed Syracuse in the Sweet 16 and No. 10-seed Rutgers in the second round, and then was reminded how steep the climb can be the farther a team advances in this event. Baylor looked very much the part of a No. 1 seed in this game.
It was no shock Houston would struggle to score, but it a was little surprising Baylor’s defense bothered the Cougars as it did. The Bears have not been exceptional on D in this tournament, or in the Big 12 Tournament, or down the stretch on conference play, or even in the weeks before the COVID pause that consumed so much of their February. Enter Saturday’s game, 11 of the past 15 major opponents to face the Bears scored at least a point per possession, dropping their defensive efficiency rank from No. 1 at KenPom.com to No. 44 on Selection Sunday.
The biggest decline, of course, came following that three-week interruption. Their defense allowed 89 points to West Virginia in an early-March overtime win for the Bears that clinched the Big 12 regular season. They gave up 83 to Oklahoma State in the conference tournament, including 25 to All-American Cade Cunningham. Against Villanova in the NCAA Sweet 16, Drew felt forced to deploy a matchup zone midway through the second half, and that sufficiently turned around the game and kept the Bears alive.
Saturday, with point guard Davion Mitchell freshly honored as Naismith Defensive Player of the Year, the entire squad chose to embrace what had made the team great a year ago, and early this year, until making baskets became common enough that being the nation’s most rugged defensive team appeared to become optional.
Mitchell began the game on Houston point guard DeJon Jarreau, the idea being to use Mitchell’s peerless ability at the point of attack to dull the initiation of the offense. The Cougars did a pretty good job of that themselves, though, so when guard Marcus Sasser kept them afloat with four 3-pointers in the first dozen minutes of the game, Drew switched Mitchell’s assignment. That was the last we saw of Sasser. Or the Cougars.
With All-American Quentin Grimes missing all five of his first-half shots, Sasser wound up with 17 of the Cougars’ 20 points at the break.
They weren’t able to pound Baylor on the offensive boards in the first half as they had Oregon State, because too many of their misses were from 3-point range, which created long rebounds that negated the power of Justin Gorham, Reggie Chaney and Fabian White. The Bears might have been able to handle that, too, but they weren’t forced to prove it.
“I definitely thought even Wisconsin, we played much better. And Villanova, second half, we were really good,” Drew said. “Arkansas we were great in spurts, and good in other areas. And tonight, Houston doesn’t give you anything; you have to be really good. That first half was about as well as any team could play against Houston. I definitely think if we’re not where we were, I can’t see the difference.”
Drew said that telling the Bears last March that the tournament had been canceled was, for him, like every other coach that expected to be in the tournament, one of the most difficult tasks he has had to complete as a coach.
Hearing that message, Butler described the feeling as being “like a tornado hitting our town and destroying everything. We just couldn’t understand it, couldn’t fathom,” he said. “I don’t think the COVID ending was a big reason why everybody came back. We all explored our options, wanted to see where we were at in our basketball careers. And each one of us thought coming back was the best option. And I think it was the best option, for sure.”