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Baylor men’s basketball was a superpower hiding in plain sight

The best team won the 2021 men’s NCAA tournament.

The conversations about where the 2021 Gonzaga Bulldogs ranked in historical context were already taking place before the national championship game of the men’s NCAA tournament against Baylor. The Zags were the team on the brink of history, entering at 31-0 and one win away from becoming men’s college basketball’s first undefeated champion since Indiana in 1976.

Gonzaga had an All-American at guard in Jalen Suggs, at forward in Corey Kispert, and at center in Drew Timme. They also had an honorable mention All-American in Joel Ayayi and the best player from last year’s Florida Gators in Andrew Nembhard as their fourth and fifth options. There was solid depth behind that starting five, too. The numbers Gonzaga had amassed all season showed how talented this roster really was: it had the second most efficient offense the sport had seen since 2002, and it had the best adjusted efficiency rating in the same time frame, per KenPom. The defense was top-10 the entire year, too.

The last team that felt this dominant against its peers was 2018 Villanova, and we know that story ended with a national title. The last team that faced this type of historical pressure was 2015 Kentucky, and we know that story ended with an upset loss in the Final Four.

Anything can happen in a single-elimination tournament, and that’s why we love March Madness. This Gonzaga team just seemed too talented to fall. There was really only one thing that could stop them: a team on the other side of the bracket who was nearly as good all year.

It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time when Baylor looked like it might be poised to run the table, too. The Bears started the year No. 2 in the preseason polls, only behind Gonzaga. In their third game of the season, Baylor ran an Illinois team out of the gym that would eventually finish with a No. 1 seed. After the regular season game against Gonzaga, scheduled for Dec. 5, was canceled because of Covid protocol, the Bears’ flirtation with perfection began in earnest.

Unlike Gonzaga, Baylor would have to go through a gauntlet in conference play to get there. After a month in the Big 12, their record was still unblemished, with only Kansas and Texas Tech playing them within 10 points. The Bears were 17-0, and all the talk that applied to the Zags also applied to them.

Then Baylor had to pause for three weeks as the program was shutdown for Covid concerns.

The Bears looked shaky when they came back, but still edged out a struggling Iowa State team to move to 18-0. The next game against Kansas would be their first loss. As they moved into the conference tournament, Baylor’s defense looked a little shaky and their timing seemed off. It wasn’t all that surprising to see future No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Cade Cunningham and Oklahoma State knock them off in the Big 12 semis.

Baylor earned its top seed in the South region, but the draw wasn’t easy. A round of 32 game against the winner of Wisconsin vs. North Carolina was looming. A potential matchup with Villanova in the Sweet 16 would be difficult, even though the Wildcats were without injured starting point guard Collin Gillespie.

Was Baylor the team that threatened to go undefeated for more than half the season, or the one that looked vulnerable coming off the lay-off? If it was a legitimate question heading into the tournament, Baylor left no doubt on their own greatness as soon as it started.

Baylor v Gonzaga Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

It’s possible Baylor would have been making its second straight Final Four appearance if the world allowed us to have an NCAA tournament last year. Baylor was considered the second best team in the country all year in 2020, too, this time only behind Kansas. The Bears lost breakout center Freddie Gillespie to the pros, but the rest of the foundation of that team returned with another year of experience.

Jared Butler was entering his junior year coming off an All-American season. Davion Mitchell was back for his fourth season of college ball after being named Big 12 Newcomer of the Year. MaCio Teague was coming off a second-team All-Big 12 campaign where he proved he could thrive in a power conference after coming from the Big South. Mark Vital was returning for year five as a player who originally committed to the program way back in 2013.

There were reinforcements on the way, too. Adam Flagler, a 6’3 guard with a sweet three-point stroke, was eligible after sitting out last year as a transfer from Presbyterian. Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua was a bouncy 6’8 big set to join the rotation after transferring from UNLV. Matthew Mayer and Flo Thama were original Baylor commits who would provide depth on the bench as juniors.

Baylor had something that even the country’s best college basketball programs couldn’t dream about: experience and continuity. There were no teenagers in the rotation — 20-year-old Butler, with two years of starting experience already under his belt — was the youngest player getting minutes. Vital turned 24 years old just before the season started, and was the same age as a six-year NBA veteran like Devin Booker. Teague was 23 and Mitchell was 22. Baylor’s starting lineup was older than the Chicago Bulls’.

If the key to college basketball is to get old and stay old, head coach Scott Drew had mastered it. Now his Baylor team just had to prove that it could win where so many of Drew’s other talented teams fell short.

It’s probably true that any other coach in a power conference would have been fired for losing as many games as Drew did in his first three seasons at Baylor. It’s definitely true that no other coach in college basketball history had to face what Drew was up against.

When Drew was hired in 2003, Baylor was only months removed from one of the most tragic stories college athletics had ever seen. Bears forward Carlton Dotson murdered teammate Patrick Dennehy during an argument while firing guns near campus. Former head coach Dave Bliss tried to smear Dennehy as a drug dealer when the NCAA started poking around the program, which only made a horrible situation even worse. Baylor men’s basketball was the most hopeless job in America, but Drew took it anyway with relentless positivity.

It seemed like a miracle when Drew made his first tournament appearance in his fourth year, only the second for the program since 1950. As Drew turned the program into a sustainable winner over the next few seasons, the plucky upstart started to become the team that couldn’t breakthrough in March.

Baylor was the team that stubbornly stuck to a 1-1-3 zone defense even as it bled corner threes. It was the program that was upset in the first round of the tournament by No. 14 seed Georgia State when R.J. Hunter hit an instant classic buzzer-beater. It was the team that got upset by No. 12 seed Yale which prompted Taurean Prince the give history’s most sarcastic post-tournament press conference. It was the program that couldn’t reach the Final Four even after it started landing five-star recruits like Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller, and Isaiah Austin.

The Bears always felt like they were on the cusp, but could never quite get there. Baylor watched Villanova get its breakthrough after so many early tournament failures, then watched Virginia do the same thing. The program had the potential to get there, Drew just needed to find the perfect mix that had always barely eluded him.

Baylor v Gonzaga Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Baylor found that mix this year. This was an elite team in every way, and one that always seemed built for March.

Guard play is so important in the NCAA tournament, and no one had better guard play than Baylor. Butler had the ball on a string as a handler and could drain a three-pointer off the dribble or from a spot-up. Mitchell had arguably the best first-step in the sport and could collapse the opposing defense in any situation. Teague was a true three-point threat who put together his fourth straight year of impressive marksmanship from beyond the arc. All could handle, pass, and shoot, and had games that complemented each other so well. The addition of Flagler gave them another deadly shooter on the bench.

No team in America made a greater percentage of their threes than Baylor at 41.3 percent. Only four teams were better on the offensive glass. The defense could get after you too even if their efficiency slipped following the Covid lay-off. Mitchell in particular was incredible at the point of attack, while Butler, Mayer, and Vital were active in the passing lanes. Baylor’s takeaway percentage ranked No. 4 in the country.

All of this played out in perfect fashion against Gonzaga in the title game. Baylor torched the nets from three by going 10-of-23 from deep. It dominated the offensive glass, led by Vital’s eight o-boards. The guards cut up a top-10 Zags defense so badly it had to switch to zone, which it had hardly played all year.

If Gonzaga was supposed to be an all-time great team, what does that make Baylor? Add in the blowout against a talented Houston team in the Final Four, and there’s plenty of evidence to support that the Bears were the team we should have been talking about in historical context all along.

Baylor just finished a run of going 54-6 over two seasons. It did it playing in a conference that was rated as the second most difficult in the country both years by KenPom. Their closest game in March was a nine-point win over Arkansas in the Elite Eight. This was was as impressive as a college basketball team in this era can be.

Baylor won’t go down in history for an undefeated season. They never got the chance to try for back-to-back titles with this core because of the pandemic. If you watched them, though, you know how good they were. It doesn’t always happen in the NCAA tournament, but we can say it for sure this time: the best team won.