Baylor Bears

Baylor’s Defense Got The Job Done Against Gonzaga

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Houston at Baylor

Baylor’s offense gets the headlines. But on Monday night in the National Championship game, it was the Bears’ defense, frankly, that got the job done.

The Bears dominated the Gonzaga Bulldogs, 86-70, in winning their first national title in school history. Sure, the Bears poured in the points. Jared Butler had an incredible game in earning most outstanding player honors. The Bears just couldn’t be stopped.

But their 9-0 run to start the game wasn’t just about offense. No, that run, along with the entire 40 minutes, was about Baylor imposing its defensive will on Gonzaga.

“They (Baylor) literally — we haven’t played like that this year,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said after the game. “They literally busted us out of anything we could possibly do on offense. We were playing with our back to the basket — not facing up. And we couldn’t get anything generated to the basket; we were kind of playing sideways.”

 

Some had forgotten that, before Baylor’s COVID-19 pause on February, that they were among the top defensive teams in the nation, ranked in the Top 3 in several rankings, including Ken Pomeroy’s data-driven rankings and the NCAA’s NET rankings. Baylor didn’t always defend the way head coach Scott Drew was hoping for after the pause.

“I know there was some let-off when we came back,” Drew said. “I thought we were getting it back.”

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But, if Monday took people by surprise, then they hadn’t been paying attention to Baylor’s previous two games in the NCAA Tournament. Baylor had been setting the table for Monday night.

Against Arkansas in the Elite Eight, the Bears forced 15 Razorback turnovers and held them to 27.3 percent shooting from the 3-point line.

Against Houston in the Final Four, the Bears forced just 11 Houston turnovers, but outrebounded the Cougars by five and held them to 38.2 percent shooting.

Against Gonzaga in the national championship game, the Bears forced 15 turnovers, and while the Bulldogs did shoot 51 percent from the floor, they were 29.4 percent from the 3-point line and they were outrebouned by 16 overall, along with 11 on the offensive glass.

 

The data doesn’t necessarily tell you how stifling Baylor’s defense truly was, either.

“We just ran into a team tonight that was, they were the aggressor, clearly,” Few said.

Baylor’s defense has been the aggressor all year. Ask anyone that’s played them, especially in Big 12 action.

Baylor held Gonzaga more than 20 points below its season scoring average. Freshman guard Jalen Suggs was the only Bulldog to score 20 or more points, with 22 points. Forwards Drew Timme and Corey Kispert, who are used to shooting better than 60 percent from the field, combined to shoot 10-of-19 and scored a combined 24 points. The pair is used to averaging nearly 38 points per game.

The Bears made the most efficient offensive team in the country look lost. And it was quite a leap from their last matchup in the NCAA Tournament in 2019.

Back then, the Bears were a No. 9 seed and the Bulldogs were a No. 1 seed. In the second round, the Bears lost, 83-71. Gonzaga had only 11 turnovers in that game, shot 54 percent overall and 35 percent from the 3-point line. But one player, Brandon Clarke, flat dominated the Bears with 36 points in 36 minutes. Yep, he scored one point per minute played.

Many current Bears felt the pain that night, including Mark Vital (who actually led the Bears with 17 points), Jared Butler, Flo Thamba, and Matthew Mayer. All of them played in the that game. Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague watched from the bench. Both were transfers and couldn’t play yet.

“When they were in Salt Lake City (in 2019), they had several pros that aren’t on the team now,” Drew said. “And we had some young guys that were able to improve, get better. And we had some guys that were able to come in or were sitting out and redshirting, were able to see, ‘Man, this is how hard we have to play and how much we have to improve to get to their level.’”

 

Baylor reached that level on Monday night, and one decision was critical. Two years ago, Drew moved away from his usual zone defense and moved to a man-to-man defense. It was a sea change for Drew, driven by a change in personnel on his team. But it was also driven by a lesson taught to him by his father, Homer, the long-time coach at Valparaiso.

And that lesson helped drive the Bears to their first national championship.

“My dad’s a hall of fame coach for a reason,” Drew said. “He taught me the good coach adjusts your style to the personnel you have. And we had some unbelievable defenders this year. We had Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell and Mark Vital. And Davion won defensive player of the year. And those guys can flat out defend and guard. And we wanted to let them get after it. And we thought that would better suit our team.”

You can find Matthew Postins on Twitter @PostinsPostcard.

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