Baylor is the 2021 Division I men’s basketball champions, and it is one of the most deserved titles in my lifetime.
In January, as I was watching Baylor absolutely tear Oklahoma apart, I remember thinking to myself that this is one of the best teams I’ve ever seen. The ball moved like it floated in midair. The unselfishness was palpable. This team could shoot, rebound, defend, pass – it could do it all. I was in awe as the Bears wrecked the Sooners in the first half, 42-25, and eventually won by 15 points.
My feelings about Baylor continued throughout the month as I witnessed it dispatch of, and often demolish, all competition in its way. Texas Tech put up a fight in Lubbock, but Baylor was too good. Kansas tried to contend in Waco, but Jared Butler had 30. Baylor washed Auburn, then handled Texas in Austin in a top-10 matchup as Davion Mitchell and Butler combined for 48 points and seven assists. After Texas tied the game at 49-49 with 14:21 to go in the game, Baylor exploded, ripping the Longhorns entirely apart defensively and soaring to an 83-69 victory – the Bears put up 34 point in a little more than 14 minutes.
Then, COVID-19 hit the Bears, like it had many other teams already. After pulverizing Texas on Feb. 2, Baylor didn’t play again until Feb. 23 when Iowa State came to Waco.
Baylor looked like, well, it had just had a respiratory illness tear through the team. Against a Cyclones team that would win two games the entire season, the Bears were horrific. The shooting disappeared, the defense was half of what it once was, and the speed and athleticism that was so apparent before was hampered mightily. Baylor survived, but only because of Iowa State’s ineptitude.
Kansas wasn’t so nice. The Jayhawks didn’t have tons of issues with Baylor, handing the Bears their first loss of the season, 71-58, on Feb. 27. As much as I believed in the Baylor team I had watched for months before that point, I was concerned. Did COVID-19 ruin what I had previously felt was one of the best college teams I’d ever seen? Was my evaluation totally off base? Was the late-season tank on?
Head coach Scott Drew wasn’t worried.
“We were the No. 1 shooting team in the country, and we’ll get back to that,” he said after the Kansas loss. “But even Superman has kryptonite. And I guess COVID protocols is ours.”
Baylor played an immensely close game with West Virginia next, narrowly escaping in overtime, and showed a lot of the positives I had seen in November, December, and January. That was the turning point, and from there, Baylor looked like the Baylor I had known, even with a blimp in the Big 12 Tournament against Oklahoma State.
Other than 2019 Texas Tech, I can’t think of a team from the last few years that I enjoyed watching as much as 2021 Baylor. It didn’t matter how much the Bears were blowing their competition out by – the games were so much fun. Mitchell has some of the best vision I’ve ever seen from a college point guard. Butler can do it all. I love how little remorse Matthew Mayer shows when he has the ball on the perimeter. Mark Vital is a machine on the glass. Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua is an unrelenting beast and has one of my favorite names and nicknames (you can’t beat Everyday John) of any college player ever. MaCio Teague and Adam Flagler are two of the most silent killers I’ve seen in college hoops. Three Baylor players – Butler, Mitchell, and Flagler – shot better than 41 percent from beyond the arc, and Mayer and Teague weren’t far behind. The team’s ability to extend its defense out well beyond the three-point line is staggering, and there’s not really a player in the rotation who can be exploited defensively – just ask Gonzaga about that.
The Bears found their form from before the coronavirus hit them by the time March Madness came around, and everything that was on display before came back to dismiss with relative ease all six of their challengers, from Wisconsin to Villanova to Arkansas to Houston, and including an undefeated Gonzaga team that you could very reasonably rank as a top-20 squad from the last 20 years of men’s college basketball
The destruction of the Zags from the opening tip was the perfect display of what this team had shown all year, the weeks after the COVID pause notwithstanding. The Bulldogs could not stay with Baylor’s speed and athleticism, and Drew excellently forced Gonzaga into ball screens and switches it didn’t want, prompting mismatch after mismatch for the Bears to capitalize on, and they did. It got to the point where Gonzaga went to a zone in the first half, because it had no other option. Let that sink in – Gonzaga had to zone the best three-point shooting team in the country, because man-to-man was no longer viable.
There was a special sort of magic surrounding this team, and I believe it could have gone undefeated if not for COVID-19 ravaging it in February. The team had a player for every situation, an answer for every issue, and forced opponents to deal with the team’s strengths head on. In modern college basketball, it’s all about shooting and defense – 2021 Baylor epitomizes that. This team knew what it was capable of from the very beginning of the season. Only COVID-19 could slow it down.
2021 Baylor was really that good.
I’m not sure how many 2021 Baylor players will have long NBA careers, and I’m sure the team will have a much different look never season even with the extra year of eligibility offered to this year’s players. But I do know that I will never forget this 2021 Baylor team, and I believe it should be held in similar esteem to 2009 North Carolina, 2001 Duke, 2018 Villanova, and the other squads that men’s college basketball fans consider to be some of the greatest teams every assembled.