Baylor Bears

Baylor Proves It’s Here to Stay in Big 12 Race and NCAA Tournament Discussion

NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Baylor

WACO, Texas — We’re still more than six weeks away from March Madness. Plenty can happen between now and then. But going into Saturday’s Alabama-Baylor game the buildup for this game was that it MIGHT make a difference to both of these teams if the NCAA Tournament selection committee had to sort between the two of them for a spot in the 68-team field.

ESPN’s resident Bracketologist Joe Lunardi backed up that thought on Friday when he updated his 68-team field. He had Alabama (12-7, 3-3 in SEC) as one of the last four teams in. And he had Baylor as one of the first four teams out.

This wasn’t a “win and you’re in” type of game. It’s too early for that. But a “win and you get a leg up on a team that could be your competition for an NCAA Tournament seed” type of game? Oh, yeah.
This early game of the Big 12-SEC Challenge lived up to that sub-drama. Baylor’s 73-68 win came in a contest where neither team ran away and hid from the other. Leads were small (neither team had a lead of bigger than six). There were plenty of ties (a dozen in all). The contrasts in styles were apparent.
And by game’s end the Bears (13-6, 4-2 in Big 12) had a win they can, potentially, hang their hat on come March, though you won’t hear anyone talk about it right now.

Head coach Scott Drew would rather talk about this team’s hot streak, which has seen the Bears win five of their last six and sneak into the top half of the Big 12. To him, what you’re seeing now was a long time coming.

“I saw the predictions like everyone else when Big 12 play started,” Drew said on Saturday. “When you return the fewest lettermen in Power 5 basketball (3) you understand that. But that’s why you play the game. Whoever is predicted to win, or should win, doesn’t always win.”

When Baylor lost its forward, Tristan Clark, to a knee injury early in Big 12 play they appeared to be done. The Bears didn’t look like they had much depth and Clark, to that point, had clearly been their best player. Without him? Your guess was as good as anyone’s as to what direction the Bears would go. The assumption was that the direction would be down.

But Drew has managed to emphasize what this team has in order to help them thrive in the Big 12. The Bears start five guards (the tallest player is Mario Kegler at 6-foot-7). No team in the league is starting a smaller lineup. It sounds almost suicidal in Power 5 college basketball. But the Bears make it work for a few reasons.

First, players like Kegler, Mark Vital and King McClure play taller than their listed height. Alabama had outrebounded every team it has played this season — including No. 1 Tennessee — before Saturday’s game. Baylor outrebounded Alabama 35-31. Crimson Tide head coach Avery Johnson pointed to Vital, who had 4 rebounds, as one of the culprits. He should have pointed at Kegler, too, as he had 7 rebounds along with 17 points. Vital is a known quantity in this conference. Despite being 6-foot-5 he’s averaged 7.5 rebounds per game, best on the team. In Big 12 play McClure has led the Bears in rebounding and he’s 6-foot-3. Because of the constant effort on the glass the Bears are winning second-chance point battles in January, including Saturday when the Bears won that category 18-9.

Second, the bench is producing in unexpected ways. After Clark’s injury the Bears moved Jared Butler — the former Alabama signee who transferred to Baylor in August — into the starting lineup. It had the potential to detract from their bench. Instead Devonte Bandoo, Flo Thamba, Matthew Mayer and Freddie Gillespie have, gradually, started to own roles off the bench. All had contributions on Saturday. Thamba didn’t score but had five rebounds. Mayer had a fine game, scoring 9 points, 5 rebounds and a deft assist on the fast break. Gillespie scored 8 points in 16 minutes.

Bandoo played just 12 minutes, but his only four points were huge. Baylor was up 63-61 and Bandoo had just come into the game. His first shot was a missed 3-pointer, but Vital grabbed the board and sent it right back to Bandoo, who made the 2-point jumper to push the lead to four. Bandoo then created a steal and took it to the other end for a layup to give Baylor a 67-61 lead with 2:01 left. That was enough to keep the Crimson Tide at bay the rest of the way.

Bandoo had a chance to talk about his state of mind during that stretch in the video below.

Drew is grateful the bench is starting to really produce. Bandoo is averaging 7.1 points per game. Mayer is averaging 5.3 and can run the floor like a guard with his 6-foot-9 frame. Gillespie and Thamba have had the least amount of playing time to this point but their size allows Drew to give the Bears a different look at key times of the game. Gillespie was tremendous around the rim at times on Saturday, with a couple of key put-backs, one of which came late.

“It’s huge in that every game we’ve won has been a team effort,” Drew said. “As a coach it’s trickier because you don’t know whose day it is or whose night it is. At the same time the great thing is that as long as they’re putting the team first and they’re cheering on each other then I think that’s a part of the reason we’ve been winning.”

And the cheering is contagious. Two veteran players Drew had hope to have on the floor this year — Clark and guard Jake Lindsey — are out for the year. But both were seriously into this game and keeping their teammates focused. Now that the team “knows each other’s names” as Drew joked after the game, the chemistry is starting to really come together.

Third, the development of Makai Mason as a key part of this team. The Yale transfer missed two seasons of basketball. He even missed the first three games of this season with a minor injury. He’s come along slowly. But on Saturday Johnson called Mason a “problem,” pointing to the guard’s 15 points, 4 assists and a steal. He’s now directing Baylor’s offense with command and the quality of his play during this stretch reflects that. Drew knew the type of player they were getting then Mason became the program’s first graduate transfer. But he also said Mason was going to need time to reclaim his past play. It’s coming at the right time for Baylor.

“He lost his athleticism, he lost his timing, he developed some rust, and with the injury right before the season it really took him the month of December before he got back to what he’s capable of doing,” Drew said. “Knock on wood and say your prayers that he stays healthy because February should be better than January.”

If Drew is right, and Mason’s play reflects how the Bears play next month, the Bears are here to stay in this Big 12 race. They might not win the title, but they look a lot closer to making it to the NCAA Tournament than they did in November. We’ll check with Joe on Monday.

**Sign up here for our HCS weekly e-mails for a chance to win FREE Heartland College Sports and Big 12 team gear!!**

To Top