There is an O in Baylor. There is no D. That was how it seemed in the final weeks of college basketball’s regular season, as the Bears lost an undefeated record, a Big 12 Tournament championship and their standing as co-favorites with Gonzaga to capture the 2021 NCAA title.
The defense that had terrorized opponents from the start of the 2019-20 season through the middle of this one was missing, until it wasn’t.
Villanova dominated Baylor for 28 minutes of their South Region semifinal Saturday, but the dozen minutes the Bears owned were enough to produce a 62-51 victory that served as a threat to every other team still alive in the NCAA Tournament.
“It was the plan in the whole game, but the second half it worked better,” Baylor coach Scott Drew told reporters after the game. “To force Villanova to 16 turnovers; I don’t know when the last time they had 16 turnovers, but normally they’re at six, seven or eight.
“I always know they have it in them. They’ve shown me that through the years. In the last two years, we’ve won more games than any Power 5 team in the country. So they’ve earned that right; they’ve earned that trust. Now, that doesn’t guarantee you’re going to come out and win. It doesn’t guarantee you’re going to play a great second half.”
Baylor’s revitalization as a basketball program had begun with defense. The Bears had the No. 4 defense in the 2019-20 season, and they broke teams every way a team can. They ranked among the best in steals, blocks, defending opponents’ shots and rebounding their misses.
That character still was there as this season began, so even if it had withered, it seemed rational to believe when this season was at stake it would blossom again.
Against Villanova, that came at halftime. The Wildcats shot 50 percent from the field, 38 percent on 3-pointers and built a 30-23 lead at the break.
The Bears did not completely change their personality until they changed their defense. Around the 12:20 mark, after they’d played man defense just long enough to surrender a thunderous dunk to Brandon Slater that claimed three Bears defenders as victims, they switched to a matchup zone that left the Wildcats bewildered.
Villanova converted just 38 percent of its field goal attempts, missed each of the nine 3-pointers, turned over the ball nine times and scored only 21 points. They moved the ball well on the first couple possessions against the matchup, creating open right-side 3s for Cole Swider and Chris Arcidiacono, but neither fell. Then the Wildcats fractured, dribbling too often into traffic for turnovers or forcing quick, contested jump shots.
“We did a really good job of staying in front of our man,” All-American guard Davion Mitchell told reporters. “And we knew defense was going to turn to offense. And that’s what it did.
“I felt I had to put pressure on the ball more. … Especially because those guys are really good one-on-one. They make the right plays most of the time. If I can disrupt the offense and make them swing it to the other side and waste time, it’ll help us out. Justin Moore is a really good guard. I just tried to make it hard for him, and we came out with the win.”
Many had traced the decline of Baylor’s defense to the three-week COVID pause that impacted the program. And certainly the D was not A-OK after all that time off.
It didn’t take a whole lot of research, though, to discover the Bears had started to slide on that side of the ball even before their program shut down for so much of February. Entering Saturday’s game, they had allowed each of their eight high-major opponents following the pause to score at least one point per possession. But they had done the same in the two games directly before that break.
It might have been just a touch of competitive fatigue. They were dominating the Big 12. They had invested so much energy in their defense last season only to see the season end with the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament. There still were another six weeks before this year’s March Madness would begin, presuming it did.
They had reached a point with the might of their offense where it was able to carry them through even the toughest Big 12 games. They had risen to third in the nation in offensive efficiency because of their ridiculous 3-point accuracy, which ranked No. 2 in Division I, and they were able to outscore such teams as Kansas and Oklahoma State. It was not going to work against Villanova, and this time there was no margin for error.
“We knew if we wanted to win, we had to turn them over, we had to make them feel uncomfortable,” Mitchell said. “They’re a really fundamental team. They don’t turn the ball over. They’re the No. 1 team in the country in not turning the ball over. So we knew for us to win we had to get them out of their comfort zone. And we did a really good job of that.”
Baylor is back. Yes, that Baylor: the one many believed could win an NCAA championship in 2020, the one that looked like a fair bet to match Gonzaga’s undefeated regular season until the shutdown exacerbated a defensive slip into a slide.
Now it’s a strength again.