INDIANAPOLIS — It was completely forgotten that this Baylor team was moving in sync, step-for-step with Gonzaga in early February, undefeated and making all of us question whether the Zags were truly deserving of the No. 1 spot in the polls or whether it was the Bears that had surpassed a Gonzaga team that had been beating up on WCC cupcakes.
Then the Bears were hit with a three-week COVID-19 pause, and the team that returned was a shell of itself, one that couldn’t seem to get its legs and its swagger back.
But the “pre-pause” Baylor Bears are back.
In fact, they might be even better.
Most of the Baylor players said back in February that they preferred to sit behind Gonzaga in the polls, anyway. The Bears had already tasted the No. 1 spot a year ago, and this is a team that enjoys playing with a chip on their shoulder.
“It’s just a number,” Baylor senior Mark Vital told me during their 21-day pause. “It doesn’t matter. We’d rather be in the back seat.”
It makes sense. Two players on the roster — MaCio Teague and Adam Flagler — had just one D-1 scholarship offer coming out of high school. Davion Mitchell told me that his phone barely rang after putting his name in the transfer portal a couple years ago after a lackluster freshman season at Auburn. Jared Butler picked Alabama out of high school and transferred to Baylor after a couple months in Tuscaloosa. Matthew Mayer said Texas A&M had basically lost interest when he wound up choosing Baylor coming out of high school.
On Saturday night, the pre-pause Baylor team showed up, the one I first fell in love with last season in Myrtle Beach when the Bears beat Villanova. That team lost a couple of pieces, but still had its core of Butler, Mitchell, Teague, Vital and Mayer.
Head coach Scott Drew brought the Bears back too quickly when coming out of the COVID-19 pause back in February, struggling in a win over Iowa State with just two days of practice and then losing by double digits to Kansas days later. They won their next four games — at West Virginia, at home against Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, and then to start the Big 12 tourney against Kansas State.
But the Bears weren’t the same.
Especially on the defensive end, which was obvious after an 83-74 loss to Cade Cunningham and Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Tournament.
“We needed time to practice,” Drew told me.
In the NCAA Tournament, the Bears’ defense — which was considered among the best in the country pre-pause — has continued to progress back to where it once was, culminating with a first half against the No. 2 Houston Cougars in which they allowed just 20 points.
“It’s starting to feel like we’re back to where we were before the pause,” Butler said. “We thought it was the worst thing at the time, but it’s all worked out perfectly for us.”
“If we’re not where we were, I can’t see the difference,” Drew added after the rout over Houston.
But it wasn’t just that Baylor wasn’t allowing anything easy against Houston. The Bears were clicking on all cylinders, doing what they do as well as anyone except for maybe Gonzaga on the offensive end: moving the ball, getting easy looks and making shots.
Butler finally looked like an All-American again and walked into the locker room with 17 points. He didn’t score in the second half, but it didn’t matter because this one was over at halftime when Baylor led by 25. Mitchell was his usual dominant self on both ends of the court, finishing with 12 points and 11 assists without a single turnover. Mayer boosted his confidence by making shots and also showing that he could compete with one of the toughest teams in the country.
Sure, last year’s Baylor team had a chance to cut down the nets before COVID-19 scrapped the NCAA Tournament.
“It was like a tornado hit Waco,” Butler said of when the players found out that the tourney wouldn’t be played.
“We couldn’t understand it, we couldn’t fathom it.”
But now Baylor has another chance with a shot to win a national title on Monday night, and the team that has re-appeared these last few weeks is the one that everyone was fawning over back in the winter.
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