|It is hard to remember much about the last college basketball season – the one before the one that ended on Monday night – because of the weird and unscripted way in which it suddenly shuttered.|
We remember that there was no March Madness in 2020, no completed conference tournaments, nothing … just a giant hole in the calendar as the world figured out what the heck had just hit it.
As for the details, they’re sketchy. February of last year seems like an eternity ago, but as we’re talking about college hoops (and the day after the national title game seems like the perfect occasion to do so) it is worth looking back at the last time this column featured Baylor as its main topic.
It was on Feb. 20, 2020, when we took a peek at what made the season’s “surprise juggernaut,” Scott Drew’s Bears, tick so effectively.
They were then coming off a 23-game win streak and we marveled at how they weren’t supposed to be this good, not with having lost their leading scorer in Makai Mason and a key guard in King McClure, listing a roster filled with transfers from unheralded programs and with a new system in place.
We glanced at their lockdown man defense, implemented by Drew after years of zone, and pointed out the irony of how, after a bunch of blue bloods went tumbling, it was lightly-regarded Baylor that got to the top spot and made it stick for a while.
So, while Baylor’s dominant victory over previously-undefeated Gonzaga on Monday night was technically an upset, the 86-70 beatdown came as no surprise to those who have been paying close attention.
“I thought we were on a mission,” Drew told reporters. “If we had lost I wanted to have no regrets. We wanted to leave it all on the table.”
Drew took over a program in utter chaos, all the way back in 2003. Baylor basketball had been ravaged by tragedy, following the murder of redshirt junior Patrick Dennehy by a teammate.
Then 32, Drew knew he was walking into a mess of epic proportions and chose to do it anyway. It was a slow build at first, following a drain of talent after the scandal and the program being put on probation. It took until 2008 for Drew to get Baylor into the NCAA Tournament, and optimism was sparked by a pair of Elite Eight appearances in 2010 and 2012.
It was not until last year, however, that Drew appeared to finally have the kind of team that could compete with anyone.
This year, they proved it. Drew built a deep roster with most of his best contributors being transfers. Standouts MaCio Teague began his career at UNC-Asheville. Davion Mitchell came from Auburn, title game MVP Jared Butler from Alabama and sharp-shooter Adam Flagler from Presbyterian.
They found a place to excel, build momentum and carried it forward. Monday was the ultimate payoff.
Maybe we shouldn’t have been shocked by the result, although, in fairness, Gonzaga’s bid for a perfect season was always going to carry the narrative. Baylor lost only twice during the season, despite an extraordinary amount of disruption. In December, they played just one game during a stretch of 17 days. In February, they didn’t play for three weeks, both due to COVID issues.
Never mind. Once the tournament began, they soared through the bracket despite never facing an opponent more than one seed lower than the chalk. Ultimately, after saving their best for last, they – not Gonzaga – are the ones being outed for legacy-type greatness.
“Baylor did not have the gaudy undefeated record that Gonzaga did,” FS1’s Nick Wright said on First Things First. “But all records are not created equal. Baylor, all year long, looked poised to do this. They ran roughshod over the best teams in basketball.”
Baylor finished with nine wins over teams in the season-ending top 25, including the one (or the No. 1), that mattered.
The nature of college hoops is that we remember its most dramatic happenings. Before too much time has passed, it will be the events from Lucas Oil Stadium, not what came before it, that will be the primary reflection of Baylor’s season.
That sprinting start and that emphatic dominance.
“The Baylor win was a complete, thorough demolition, the likes of which you normally only see in video games—specifically, Mortal Kombat,” wrote Rodger Sherman of The Ringer. “The Bears made the championship game look like a first-round matchup.”
In the end it was the culmination of a process. This was something that took time and work, all the way from the start of Drew’s tenure, through the tough years, and hurdling over the unfairness of last season’s cancellations and the tribulations of this one.
Baylor was never the most popular choice, never the go-to pick, never everyone’s idea of a national champion … until they were.
Here’s what others have said …
Shannon Sharpe, Undisputed: “I’m surprised that Baylor won, and I’m shocked at how they won. The speed, the physicality that Baylor showed, Gonzaga had never seen anything like it. They made it look easy. I’m not so sure if they played five more times that Gonzaga would win any.”
Skip Bayless, Undisputed: “I was not shocked at what I saw. Everybody wanted to see perfection. Everybody wanted to see undefeated for the first time since 1976. Everybody was on the Zags national bandwagon … I’m not gonna go so far as to say Gonzaga was overrated. But Baylor was underrated! This is the rare team that enjoys playing defense even more than offense. And four guys that can take you off the dribble.”
Jeff Eisenberg, Yahoo Sports: “Under the cloud of scandal, the Baylor job was radioactive. Hardly anyone wanted to touch it. Except a 32-year-old with one year of head coaching experience at a tiny Division I school in Northern Indiana. How did a 32-year-old with a famous last name but little experience transform a program from a smoldering pile of ash into a national champion? It’s a tale of failed walk-on tryouts, dented trash cans, shaved heads and, above all, relentless perseverance and optimism.”