The Baylor Bears triumphed as the unlikely Men’s NCAA Champions this year, beating Gonzaga to claim said honors after going into the Championship game as underdogs.
Who knows how things would have worked out for the Bears in the 2020 NCAA Tournament, given its cancellation due to COVID-19. We know just how it unfolded for Baylor this year, however, but the journey always seems secondary to the result.
The university started the year off on an 18-game winning streak, winning the Big 12 and losing just two games before Selection Sunday.
Led by coach Scott Drew, the Bears finished first in their conference with a 28-2 record but lost the conference tournament, bowing out in the semifinals.
The team returned key players from the 2019/20 campaign, including Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell, all of whom were drafted by NBA teams this summer. Mitchell joined the Sacramento Kings as the ninth overall pick while Butler and Teague are both with the Utah Jazz.
It will be interesting to see how things pan out next season but Mitchell is a huge loss for the team, which will definitely be looking to run it back next season. To that end, you can follow the NCAAB odds if you’re keen on placing bets.
They did lose some important pieces in Freddie Gillespie, Devonte Bandoo, and Tristan Clark but brought six of their nine rotation players from the previous squad back while adding top transfers Adam Flagler and Jonathan Tchamwa.
Scott’s coaching saw Baylor end the season armed with the second-most efficient offense in the country. The Gonzaga Bulldogs, who they beat in the final, finished at No.1 in that regard. They led the country in three-point percentage at 41.3 percent and came in at fifth in offensive rebounding at 37.3 percent, snatching nearly four of every 10 shots they missed to create second-chance opportunities.
Defensively, they were quite strong too, not least because they boasted the best on-ball defender in the country in Mitchell. The guard was honored with the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year and NABC Defensive Player of the Year awards and helped Baylor force one turnover on nearly a fourth of the opposition’s offensive possessions. So while the Bears made the most out of their own possessions by crashing the offensive boards, they also made it more difficult for opponents to score.
They didn’t draw that many fouls throughout the season, ranking 295 in the country with a 26.5 free-throw rate, and weren’t all that great rebounding defensively, ranking 274th nationally.
Drew’s team was efficient in every other aspect of the game, though, and showed that throughout the course of the NCAA tournament, up until their clash with the Zags in the final. They had to get through the No.5 seeded Villanova, No.3 seeded Arkansas, and No.2 seeded Houston in their last three contests before the Championship Game.
Villanova looked pretty strong, though they were missing two players, including co-Big East Player of the Year Collin Gillespie, and went into halftime with a seven-point lead. Baylor’s defense shone in the second half, with Mitchell leading the charge. He also scored 14 points, the most among the team’s starters, while Flagler led the scoring with 16 points off the bench to help secure a 62-51 win.
“When we are 2-for-12 at the half, we figured we’ve got to get inside,” Drew said after the game. “We got good looks but not great looks. The guards did a great job of not settling and probing more.”
They defeated the Razorbacks 81-72 in their next game, sinking 8 of 15 attempts from beyond the line as Arkansas shot just 3-11. Teague led the scoring with 22 points, Butler added 14 and Mitchell chipped in with 12 of his own.
The Baylor defense held Houston to just 20 points in the first half of the following game. The Bears went into halftime up 25 and they would never look back, churning out a 78-59 win. “Every day you’re grinding, and you don’t really look back. You’re pressing forward,” Drew earmarked on the back of that win, “but I’m so blessed to have these unbelievable players that bought into what we like to do with the program.”
Jalen Suggs’ miracle shot vs. UCLA was the talk of the semis and Gonzaga went into the finale as favorites to win, yet they would feel Baylor’s blitzing defense very early as the Bears took a commanding 11-1 lead and went into the half with a 10-point lead. Baylor kept the pressure up in the second half to force 14 turnovers with a plus-16 rebounding average inclusive of 16 offensive rebounds. That they shot 43.5 percent from three-point land was also very helpful.
Butler scored a team-high 22 points, adding seven assists and three rebounds. Teague scored 19, with Mitchell and Flagler also posting double figures with 15 and 13 respectively to win Baylor its first-ever national championship.