Baylor Reminds Us Why It's a True Contender for the Men's National Title

After a slow start vs. Villanova, the Bears found their second gear—a gear that's good enough to win the whole thing.
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If you sold your Baylor stock a long time ago, you’d have been forgiven on Saturday. For most of the first half against Villanova, the top-seeded Bears struggled to dissect a well-drilled Wildcats zone. The Bears’ dominant early-season play probably set an unfair standard, but it’s been pretty tough to guess which version of this team will show up at a given point in time. Sometimes, there’s no rushing it.

In that rocky half, emotions ran high, and very little broke right. Baylor shot just 2 of 12 from three in a mucky first half, in which neither team managed a fast-break point. They were settling for tough threes and trailed by seven. Scott Drew closed the half with a four-guard lineup. The Bears were searching.

As great teams do, they found whatever it was they were looking for at halftime. “We know [threes are] not gonna fall every night,” Davion Mitchell told reporters postgame. “We gotta guard and be able to get to the rim.” With about 10 minutes left in the game, Baylor dug in. The Bears redoubled their emphasis on the drive and used their speed as an advantage. Mitchell’s committed ball pressure and frenetic energy sped up Villanova’s perimeter players in the worst way. Baylor’s guards played up in the gaps and disjointed the Wildcats’ flow. Matthew Mayer and Adam Flagler turned in impact minutes off the bench.

“We knew if we wanted to win, we had to make them uncomfortable,” Mitchell said. Despite the absence of injured Collin Gillespie, the Wildcats had turned it over just six times in each of their first two tourney games. Baylor forced nine turnovers in the second half alone. Villanova shot 0 for 9 from three in the second half and went to the foul line just three times. Meanwhile, Baylor scored 28 points in the paint, scored 13 points off nine turnovers and forced six steals.

The Bears have been widely pegged since fall as the only team with a chance to topple title favorite Gonzaga. A February COVID-19 pause broke up their rhythm. They’ve taken their lumps since. They didn’t win the Big 12 tournament. Heading into Monday’s Elite Eight matchup with Arkansas, there’s not much leeway left for the Bears’ temporary lapses in identity.

If you picked Baylor to win the whole thing, you’re in the minority. But there’s still reason to be bullish. The Bears’ backcourt is still the deepest and toughest around. The requisite balance for Mitchell and Jared Butler to thrive in the same game is delicate. But when they all share the ball, (and they usually do), they reap the benefits. MaCio Teague has been quiet the last two games, while Adam Flagler seems to have rediscovered his confidence.

The real item of concern moving forward is the distribution of playing time in the frontcourt. Mark Vital remains a big piece of the rotation, and his motor is valuable, but he clogs up Baylor's spacing, and his minutes sometimes create diminishing returns. Matthew Mayer played just five minutes in the first half, and couldn’t match Villanova’s physicality. He bounced back with a real effort on the glass, and if he keeps it up, we may see more of him from here on out. Flo Thamba and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua combined for just six points and five rebounds at center, and frankly, that platoon has to play much better. If the Bears keep giving up the rim the way they did for much of Saturday, even making the Final Four is going to be an uphill climb.

Baylor was up and down against Wisconsin last week, too. They probably can’t afford another game like this, or even another average day. We’ll find out Monday whether what we just saw was a vivid dream, or a proper awakening. Whether Baylor’s best is good enough, though, has never been in doubt. 


ICYMI

A women's Sweet 16 Saturday that was marketed as being about just two players instead offered space for many, and on a huge stage. (By Emma Baccellieri)

After a masterful gameplan vs. Loyola, Oregon State is 40 minutes from being the lowest seed to ever make the Final Four. (By Pat Forde)

USC boasts the most talented player left in the men's tournament. Here's how Evan Mobley gives the Trojans a shot at a historic upset. (By Jeremy Woo)

The legend of Max Abmas began long before he was draining threes in the men's NCAA tournament for Oral Roberts. (By Kevin Sweeney)

The last play of the thrilling Oral Roberts-Arkansas game unfolded like a dream. (By Pat Forde)

Best Thing We Saw

Paige Bueckers is fearless.

Pick 'Em: Sweet 16

SI's Kevin Sweeney makes picks for two of Sunday's men's games:

No. 2 Alabama over No. 11 UCLA: The Bruins have a chance if they can control the tempo, but the Tide are nearly impossible to beat when they are hitting outside shots.

No. 6 USC over No. 7 Oregon: It’s tough to bet against a Dana Altman team in March, but the Ducks will struggle with USC’s size and star power up front. 

SI's Molly Geary makes picks for two of Sunday's women's games:

No. 6 Oregon over No. 2 Louisville: The Cardinals looked shaky against Northwestern, and the Ducks have played well through two rounds. 

No. 2 Maryland over No. 6 Texas: The Longhorns don't have a lot of depth, and the Terps' offense, fresh off its 100-point outing vs. Alabama, will come at them in waves.

Crystal Ball

The basketball world hasn’t heard the last of Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor. Both have NCAA eligibility remaining, whether they return to ORU or test the ever-popular transfer portal. And between Obanor’s 47% shooting from deep at 6’ 8” and Abmas’s limitless range and quickness, both have very legitimate chances at cracking the NBA.  —Kevin Sweeney

At the Buzzer

Talk about the bracket breaking in your favor. Per ESPN Stats & Info, the Houston men's team will be the first team in NCAA tournament history to face four double-digit seeds in a single tourney. The Cougars' path so far: No. 15 Cleveland State, No. 10 Rutgers, No. 11 Syracuse and (up next) No. 12 Oregon State. Will they make it a clean sweep?