You might have wondered what all the buzz around Baylor was about if you only tuned into the end of the men’s college basketball season and the NCAA Tournament.
Unbeaten until COVID-19 restrictions kept them off the court for most of February, the Bears were not their normal selves in losses to Kansas and then Oklahoma State in the Big 12 tournament.
Baylor didn’t play poorly in four victories to get to the Final Four, but there were bouts of inconsistency and hesitation.
What Baylor displayed Saturday was a team hitting on all cylinders when it routed Houston 78-59 to earn its first trip to the championship game since 1948.
The Cougars entered the game ranked second in scoring defense (57.6 points) and first in field-goal percentage defense (37.3%). They also were among the leaders in rebounding margin.
The Bears appeared to take the challenge personally by blitzing the Cougars from the start.
The nation’s leaders in three-point field goal percentage were 8-for-15 from behind the arc in the first half, led by four from Jared Butler. Baylor also had a 20-11 rebounding edge after 20 minutes.
When they went to the locker room, the score was 45-20, and the game was effectively over. The dismantling was so impressive it was easy to forget Houston had won 28 of its 31 games and been ranked in the top 10 for most of the season.
Perhaps we should have seen this coming. In their first four victories, Baylor broke the adage that you need your best players to play their best to win in the NCAA Tournament.
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Their two standout guards — Butler and Davion Mitchell — who were first- and third-team All Americans, respectively, didn’t lead the team in scoring in any of those games. It was MaCio Teague in the opener, bench players Adam Flagler and Michael Mayer in the next two and then Teague again in the Elite Eight.
So, while the early wins weren’t as impressive as their semifinal victory, they did also showcase what makes the Bears so good: Their depth. When most teams go to the bench, there’s a drop off. With the Bears, there’s the scoring from Flagler and Mayer along with the rebounding and defense of forward Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua. It’s a complete team that has so many threats that even the best defenses struggle to slow it down.
The 45 points were the most given up by Houston in the first half all season, and Teague, the team’s second-leading scorer, had none of them.
Butler didn’t score and only attempted one shot in the second half. Teague picked up the offensive slack (11 points) and was one of five double-figure scorers, which included Tchamwa Tchatchoua (11 points), who had his most points in a game since Dec. 29. Mitchell led the Bears with 11 of the team’s 23 assists in that game.
Butler’s breakout with agame-high 17 points came after he was just 18 of 52 in the first four games, which bodes well when looking ahead to a potential matchup with Gonzaga in the title game
The unbeaten Bulldogs — should they knock off upset kings UCLA — will be the ultimate test, which is what the final obstacle on the road to a national championship should be. And while Baylor was able to make do before the Final Four without its best effort, the Bears will need to play as well as they did in the semifinals to cut down the nets Monday night.
Follow colleges reporter Erick Smith on Twitter @ericksmith