In the semifinals of the Big 12 men’s basketball tournament, Baylor’s indomitable defense was mauled by phenom Cade Cunningham and the Oklahoma State Cowboys. The Bears allowed 83 points in the loss — the most they had given up all season in a non-overtime game. To hear the Bears tell it, that effort — one of their weakest defensive performances of the season — was just the thing to wake them up.
“It’s like when you put your hand on the stove and it burns you, you don’t want to put your hand back on that hot stove,” coach Scott Drew said after the game. “When you get a loss, it makes you realize, ‘Hey, I don’t like that feeling. I don’t want this again.”’ Baylor senior Mark Vital, in self-aware coach-speak, added: “I don’t want to say it like this, but we needed that loss in a way. Everybody says that, but we do.”
Suffice it to say, the hibernation period is over for the Bears.
No. 1 seed Baylor has won three of its four NCAA Tournament games by double digits and has thoroughly outplayed its opposition to earn a trip to the Final Four for the first time in the modern era. Both sides of the ball have rounded into form in Indy. Drew has led his team to its fourth-best, 10th-best and 13th-best defensive performances of the season, according to Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency stats.
Hartford had the unfortunate task of drawing No. 1 seed Baylor in the opening round. The Bears racked up a season-high 15 steals and a merciless steal rate of 19.6 percent, according to CBB Analytics, against the Hawks. “They present problems in a lot of areas,” said Hartford coach John Gallagher after his team was forced into a season-high 24 turnovers.
Baylor followed up the tournament-opening win with another masterpiece against traditionally ball-secure Wisconsin. The Badgers had 13 turnovers in the loss, the second-most coughed up all season. “The numbers tell us we turned the ball over higher than normal,” said Wisconsin coach Greg Gard.
Villanova — among the nation’s least turnover-prone outfits — waited in the Sweet 16. Six of Baylor’s eight players who saw minutes logged at least one steal as the Wildcats tied a season high in turnovers. “Down the stretch, their defense just got into us and wore us down,” Villanova Coach Jay Wright said. “And it made the difference in the game.”
Behind four steals from Adam Flagler off the bench, Baylor wrestled its way past Arkansas in the Elite Eight. “The turnovers, we knew coming in they’re a team that — our 15 turnovers, not astronomical, but 21 points off of them, just too much to overcome,” said Arkansas coach Eric Musselman.
The table is set for a defensive showdown in the Final Four between Baylor and Houston, the only other remaining team that ranks in the top 100 in opponent turnover percentage. Baskets should be tough to come by. Pressure shouldn’t.
Behind its tremendous trio of guards — Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler and MaCio Teague — the Bears have harassed opposing ball-handlers. Baylor’s 14.6 percent steal rate leads all tournament teams, and the Bears are scoring 31 points off those turnovers per 100 possessions, second-best in the tournament, according to CBB Analytics. The former is higher than their seasonlong steal rate of 13.1 percent, while the latter is in line with the team’s seasonlong average of 30.9 points off turnovers per 100 possessions. Forcing turnovers has been an area of improvement this season for the Bears, who are producing an opponent turnover rate of 24.7 percent according to KenPom — tied for the program’s highest mark in the KenPom era.
It all starts with Mitchell, the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, whom ESPN’s Jay Bilas considers the tournament’s most indispensable player. “We call him ‘Off Night,’ because people tend to have off nights against him,” Drew said. “He’s a nightmare to bring the ball up against. And he sets the tone for our defense. He’s the pace car. Everyone sees him working. So that leads to everybody else working.”
As good as Baylor’s defense is this season, it was even better in 2019-20, a season that ended before the Bears could earn the first No. 1 seed in program history. The team had to wait 12 months, and withstand a three-week COVID-19 hiatus, to get back to the front of the pack. They weren’t going to let a subpar ending to the conference season stop them. “We didn’t want to peak in January,” Teague said. “We want to peak at the time we’re peaking right now.”
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