Publish date:

2021 Men's Final Four Preview: Can Baylor Keep Rolling Into Title Game?

Ahead of Saturday’s men’s Final Four, we'll be previewing each of No. 1 Gonzaga, No. 1 Baylor, No. 2 Houston and No. 11 UCLA this week. Houston went first; next up is Baylor, a program in search of its first men’s national championship and making its first men’s Final Four appearance since 1950. Here's everything you need to know about the Big 12 team coached by Scott Drew.

How It Got Here

The Bears’ run through March Madness has been relatively smooth. They opened their journey with a 79–55 win over No. 16 Hartford, a game that was never close after a few nervy moments late in the first half. Baylor then cruised past Wisconsin thanks to 17 points off the bench from Matthew Mayer.

In the Sweet 16, Drew’s club was tested by a Villanova club playing without star point guard Collin Gillespie. The Bears scored just 23 first-half points and trailed by seven at intermission before bouncing back in the second half, finishing on a 21–10 run to win 62–51. Baylor then punched its ticket to the Final Four with an 81–72 victory over Arkansas, keyed by a 13–2 start.

One Big Thing We’ve Learned

Baylor has so many different guys who can hurt you. MaCio Teague led the team in scoring against Hartford and Arkansas, Mayer led the way against Wisconsin and Presbyterian transfer Adam Flagler was the team’s leading scorer against Villanova. That’s not even mentioning consensus All-America Jared Butler or likely first-round NBA draft pick Davion Mitchell! It’s so hard to beat Baylor because even when a star player or two has an off night, guys like Flagler and Mayer can come off the bench and burn you. Everyone has bought into their roles and you never know whose night it will be to step up.

Best-Case Scenario

Baylor isn’t rattled by Houston’s high-intensity defense and is still able to execute offensively. The Bears’ only two losses all season have come when they haven’t been able to make perimeter jump-shots, shooting 6 for 28 against Oklahoma State and 6 for 26 against Kansas. If Baylor can knock down threes at its usual clip, it should be in great shape for this one. Forcing a few turnovers against a Houston team that generally takes care of the ball well would also help.

SI Recommends

Worst-Case Scenario

The Bears’ season-long struggles on the defensive glass come back to bite them against a Houston team that is a force to be reckoned with on the boards. Houston has had double-digit offensive rebounds in every NCAA tournament game so far, including 18 against Oregon State in the Elite Eight. Meanwhile Baylor gave up 10 offensive rebounds to Arkansas last time and really struggled to keep Justin Smith off the glass in the second half. If Houston shoots it better than it has lately and gets lots of second chances, it could be a long night for Baylor.

X-Factor: Davion Mitchell’s Defense

Mitchell is as disruptive a perimeter defender as there is in college basketball and it’s a huge reason for Baylor’s success this season. Mitchell has hounded opposing guards all year long, refusing to let the many stars the Bears faced in Big 12 play ever get comfortable. His ability to lock down one of Quentin Grimes or DeJon Jarreau could absolutely change this game, particularly because Houston’s offense is so reliant on those two players creating offense for others. Arkansas made its biggest sustained push against Baylor when Mitchell went to the bench with foul trouble. If Mitchell can stay on the floor, Baylor will be really tough to beat.

One Shining-Moment Candidate: Adam Flagler

Flagler is a true March underdog story, a guy who had one Division I offer from Presbyterian out of high school who is now playing a key role on a Final Four team. Flagler starred in his one season at Presbyterian before hitting the transfer portal and landing at Baylor. Now he’s a key bench presence who shoots a blistering 42% from deep and has made several clutch shots this season for the Bears. What a story it would be if Flagler makes a key shot to help Baylor win a national title.

Crystal Ball

Baylor is just a bit too much for Houston and wins a highly entertaining all-Texas battle. When the Bears are locked in from beyond the arc, they are tough to beat, and the presence of bench shooting from the likes of Flagler and Mayer makes it that much harder to knock off the 26–2 Bears. While the Cougars’ hard work on the offensive glass will keep them in it, they simply don’t have enough shotmaking to match Baylor in this one. 

SI’s tournament newsletter analyzes everything you need to know about the Big Dance: what just happened and what’s happening next. Sign up for Morning Madness here.