NCAAB
April 1, 2021

Final Four Preview: Baylor Bears

Before the start of the college basketball season, the Baylor Bears seemed like a good bet to make the Final Four.

And for the most part, things went according to play for Scott Drew’s team this season and the Bears have indeed fulfilled their destiny as a championship contender.

But are the Bears the best team to bet on in the Final Four? 

Final Four Preview: Gonzaga | UCLA | Houston

How’d They Get Here

For a while, it looked like Baylor might be able to traverse the entire regular season undefeated.

The Bears were 18-0 before suffering their first loss of the season. To be fair, that loss was mainly a result of an extended pause due to COVID-19 concerns. It took a little bit of time for the Bears to get back on track after more than three weeks without a game. Ultimately, the Bears lost to Kansas in the regular season and Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Tournament, entering the Big Dance at 22-2.

The Bears have gotten back to business as usual since the start of the NCAA Tournament. Baylor made quick work of Hartford and Wisconsin during the first weekend of the tournament. In fairness, things got a little tricky in the Sweet 16. Baylor scored just 23 points in the first half against Villanova. But since the second half of that game, the Bears have been locked in. Baylor overcame a halftime deficit and pulled away late to beat the Wildcats and then held a comfortable lead from start to finish in the Elite Eight against Arkansas.

Key Player

While there is no shortage of star power on Baylor’s roster, there’s no doubt that point guard Jared Butler is the team’s best player.

The junior has been a First-Team All-Big 12 selection in back-to-back seasons and was a consensus All-American this season. On the season, he’s Baylor’s leading scorer at 16.5 points per game and shoots 40.4% from three-point range.

During the NCAA Tournament, Butler hasn’t been overly dominant, but he’s remained steady. He’s averaging 13 points and close to five assists per game during Baylor’s four wins despite a couple of subpar shooting performances.

Of course, some of his best games this season have come against Baylor’s toughest opponents, so he might be saving his best for the big stage.

Complementary Pieces 

Baylor doesn’t always need Butler to be at his best with the supporting cast the Bears have.

Joining Butler in the Baylor backcourt is Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague, who were also two of the best guards in the Big 12 this season. Both averaged at least 14 points per game during the season with Mitchell chipping in better than five assists per game. Together, Butler, Mitchell, and Teague make up the most dangerous backcourt trio in the country.

But it doesn’t stop there for the Bears. Adam Flagler and Matthew Mayer give Baylor two more players who shoot at least 40% from three-point range. Meanwhile, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Flo Thamba have done a fine job of holding things down in the Baylor frontcourt all year. Senior guard Mark Vital is also an important part of Baylor’s rebounding, grabbing 6.7 boards per game, even if he’s not a consistent scorer. 

Biggest Weakness

Outside of being a little rusty following their COVID pause, the Bears were rarely vulnerable this season. At times, Baylor can be too reliant on the three-point shot. But against Villanova, they were able to attack the basket and do their damage inside in the second half to overcome a halftime deficit and a poor shooting performance. 

If the Bears have an obvious weakness, it might be their lack of size in the frontcourt.

In Baylor’s loss to Kansas, not only did they have an off-night shooting but they were also out-rebounded by 20. Even with players like Tchamwa Tchatchoua, Thamba, and Vital, the Bears could be vulnerable against teams with a lot of size and physicality in the frontcourt.

If they give up a lot of offensive rebounds and second-chance points, it could be harder for the Bears to put teams away, putting a lot more pressure on their shooters to make up for a significant disadvantage on the boards.

X-Factor

For a team with three star guards, the Bears have a surprisingly deep rotation, which means they have a plethora of potential X-factors in the Final Four. However, junior guard Matthew Mayer might be the biggest X-factor to watch. He gives the Bears a 6-foot-9 guard who’s big enough to contribute on the boards but skilled enough to help with ball-handling as well. 

Mayer saved the Bears with 18 and 19 points against West Virginia and Oklahoma State, respectively, soon after they returned from their COVID pause. He had a similar performance against Wisconsin in the Round of 32.

It’s tough for teams to game plan for Mayer given the other guards that Baylor has, but his unique body type and shooting ability make him someone who can come out of nowhere to be a difference-maker. 

Worth Betting On?

With four teams left, the Bears are +230 to win the national championship. That means the potential payout on Baylor winning the title would be just enough to make the Bears a worthwhile bet. A little bit of a slump coming out of the COVID pause created some skepticism around Baylor. But with the four games they’ve played in the tournament, it’s safe to say that the Bears are close to the high level they were at in the middle of the season before their hiatus. 

Obviously, Baylor will have to get through a Houston team that’s tough defensively and a Gonzaga team that can run up the score as well as the Bears can. But it’s worth keeping in mind that Baylor has the best backcourt of the four remaining teams, and that’s enough to make them a worthwhile bet to win the national championship. 

Photo: Getty Images