Even in its heyday, the Southwest Conference, resting in pieces, never had it quite as good as this, with not just one but two of its heirs within a win of playing for a national title.
This was different Saturday, too: Baylor not only beating Houston, but dominating the Cougars, 78-59, in the Final Four semifinals at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium.
Remember when the Coogs simply left the Bears in the dust of old Heart O’ Texas Coliseum? Remember the Houston of those five other Final Fours?
Remember when Baylor was ever close to this good in the old SWC?
No, you don’t. Neither does Vinnie Johnson or Terry Teagle. Or the gentlemen on Baylor’s last Final Four team, 71 years ago.
Because after all these years Scott Drew has finally done what seemed impossible, building a program to rival the women’s at Baylor and making Waco, of all places, the center of the college basketball universe.
Of course, to compete with Kim Mulkey’s resume, Drew still has a little work to do Monday. But Saturday’s warm-up, in which the Bears rudely awakened the Cougars from their Phi Slama Jama dreams, proved they’re at least as good as anyone figured.
“We’ve got one more to go,” Drew said.
Monday doesn’t look too big for them.
“We didn’t come all this way,” said Jared Butler, who led Baylor with 17 points, “not to win it all.”
The Bears didn’t waste any time making their one-sided case Saturday. Houston went into the semis with, statistically speaking, the nation’s best defense. The Cougars held opponents to 37.3% from the field, 57.6 points per game and just 55.6 in the NCAAs, the 10th fewest points in tournament history.
And how did Baylor answer that challenge? By scoring 45 points in the first half, the most Houston had given up all year, and holding the Coogs to 20, their season-lowest output.
Had it not been for Marcus Sasser, who scored 17 of his 20 points in the first half, it might have been far worse for Houston. The Cougars didn’t make it back to the Final Four for the first time in 37 years because of their offense. These aren’t Guy Lewis’ Coogs. They play hard-scrabble, nose-to-nose defense and make do on offense by giving themselves second chances.
The problem Saturday was that Baylor showed it can do all that and score. The Bears shot 52.7% from the field, 45.8% on 3s, accumulated 23 assists on 29 made field goals and outrebounded Houston 33-28.
The Cougars’ best player, Quentin Grimes, didn’t score until almost two minutes into the second half.
This is how bad it got for the Cougars: The 19-point loss was the second-worst in their six Final Four appearances, surpassed only by their second, in 1968, when they lost in the semis to John Wooden’s UCLA juggernaut by 32.
Sampson said before the game that Baylor would be the best offense they’d faced all season, and he was half right. The Bears, led by Davion Mitchell, the nation’s premier defender, had the best defense, too.
Houston, which faced double-digit seeds throughout the NCAAs until Saturday, was simply out of its league.
And I don’t mean the old SWC.
The good news is that basketball is back in Texas, baby. This is what it looked like in the ’80s, kids, when dinosaurs named Olajuwon and Drexler and Koncak and Thompson and Pierce roamed the state.
Chris Beard, who coached Texas Tech to a runner-up finish two years ago and promised to do one better in his introductory news conference at Texas last week, is good at making big promises. If you hadn’t seen what he did in such a short time in Lubbock, you’d think he was, well, nuts. For one thing, he talked about national “championships,” as in plural. Texas fans probably would settle for their first one.
Meanwhile, Drew has his Bears on the precipice, and if they can duplicate the effort they showed Saturday, I like their chances. Baylor got to the Final Four without demonstrating the 3-point touch common before COVID-19 temporarily shut down the program.
But now Drew has Baylor playing at the top of its game, which is saying a little bit, given that, since Nov. 8, 2019, they’ve lost just five games. Who knows? If not for the pandemic canceling the NCAAs last year, the Bears might be playing for back-to-back titles.
No, sir, these aren’t your father’s Bears. Not your grandpa’s or great grandpa’s, either.
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