Opinion: The real Baylor is back and the timing couldn’t be better
INDIANAPOLIS — When Baylor went on pause Feb. 5 due to COVID-19 cases within the program, it seemed like an all-time stroke of bad luck. At the time, the Bears were decimating the Big 12, had a real shot at finishing the regular season undefeated and had wrestled the narrative from Gonzaga about who was the best team in the country.
“When the pause hits, your first instinct is: You’re in trouble,” coach Scott Drew said.
For every coach in the country, there was no manual for how to deal with this, nobody to call for advice, no track record for how a team that had been playing at such a high level for a couple months would respond after getting completely shut down for three weeks.
But in Drew’s most optimistic moments, he had hoped that the timing of Baylor’s mid-season break would ultimately prove to be fortuitous, giving the Bears just enough time to rebuild themselves before the games really started to matter.
“I was thinking, if and when we could play long enough, it would help us from the standpoint that when you're away from the game for three weeks and you’re watching everyone else play it makes you hungrier to be back together and be playing,” Drew said. “February can be a grind during the season, and we had some time away to reflect. But there’s no guarantee for how you’re going to come back, when you’re going to come back or if you’re going to make it far enough where it can pay off.”
Baylor, in fact, has made it far enough. In Sunday’s 76-63 win over No. 9 seed Wisconsin at Hinkle Fieldhouse to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2017, Baylor finally played at the level it had reached before the COVID-19 pause and sent a strong message to the rest of the field that it’s a real threat to win the national title.
The reason? It’s as simple as practice.
Baylor guard Davion Mitchell says the extra practice time before the NCAA Tournament – courtesy of an early exit from the Big 12 tournament – helped the Bears tighten up their defense. (Photo: Denny Simmons, IndyStar-USA TODAY Sports)
When Baylor came back Feb. 23, it began an NBA-like stretch of seven games in 18 days including trips to Kansas, then to West Virginia, then back home, then Kansas City for the Big 12 tournament and finally to Indianapolis. Though Baylor needed to play games to knock off rust and build back some endurance, the grueling schedule left precious little time to practice.
That changed after Baylor lost to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 semifinals, allowing Baylor a full week to get in the gym and regain some of the connectedness — particularly on defense — that had been lost in February.
“I think those practices before the tournament really helped us on our defense,” guard Davion Mitchell said. “We really pride ourselves on making things hard for other teams, giving them ball pressure, not making them feel comfortable.”
What made Sunday’s win so impressive for Baylor wasn’t just the defensive activity that made it really tough for Wisconsin to get clean looks throughout the game, it’s that Baylor didn’t play a great second half on offense and still never let the Badgers get closer than seven points.
The Bears made only 9-of-25 field goals in the final 20 minutes and left some free throws on the board, too. But every time Wisconsin hit a shot that might have cracked the door open just a little bit, Baylor came right back and made a timely play whether it was Matthew Mayer knocking down a couple jumpers or Mark Vital elevating for one of the most spectacular one-handed lob finishes of the tournament. And everything Wisconsin got on the offensive end in the second half, it had to earn by beating relentless pressure either in the backcourt or at the rim.
Except for maybe a few threes that they could have knocked down to make things even easier for themselves, Baylor actually looked like Baylor again. After some shaky moments down the stretch, including a loss to Kansas and some wins over Kansas State and Iowa State where it just didn’t look like Baylor had its edge, it should be a huge relief for Baylor fans to see that brand of basketball again.
"We were on the road 9 of 14 days, traveled like 3,500 miles so you’re in prep, play, recover; prep, play, recover,” Drew said. “If you shoot one time in three weeks you're not going to be a good shooter. Same thing with defense. We just had a lot of errors, a lot of breakdowns and after that Oklahoma State loss, we needed some practice days and I attribute our success to our upperclassmen. They bought in. We needed to practice well. We needed to practice hard. A lot of times coaches can say something but if players aren’t bought in it doesn’t work. Our defensive rotations, our errors are way down compared to where they were when we came back from the pause.”
That’s great going forward for the Bears, who will have yet another week to practice before the Sweet 16. And for the rest of the field, there should be no illusions about whether they’re playing the team from before its COVID-19 pause or after. With Sunday’s win, the real Baylor is back.
Follow columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken
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