Baylor is the best team in college basketball. The Bears are ranked atop the polls, have the best tournament resume, and will likely be placed atop the Selection Committee’s initially rankings released this weekend.
If you’re looking to knock Baylor, you might assume that while they are playing the best basketball, the Bears might not be as talented as other top teams or have a lower ceiling than teams full of NBA prospects and big name players.
No one would suggest that after actually watching Baylor. These Bears are talented, enough to compete with any team in America and clearly strong enough to win the national title. Scott Drew can pit his starting five against any in all of Division I. But those five players, despite how good they’ve been this season, came seemingly out of nowhere. None of Baylor’s starters were honored as First Team All-Big XII last season. Only one Bear was named on the preseason All-Big XII Team, but it was junior Tristan Clark, who is averaging 4.6 points in 14.6 minutes per game off the bench this season. (Good try, Big XII coaches!)
Instead, the Bears five excellent starters have emerged from obscurity. Few basketball fans outside of Waco knew the names of Baylor’s key contributors when the season began. Just a few months later, Baylor is 20-1 and has its sights on the Final Four in Atlanta.
How did this happen? In a world where every recruit, every transfer, and every team receives an avalanche of coverage, Baylor built a team of super talented under-the-radar stars. Let’s dig back into the history of each Baylor starter to see who they are and how they remained relatively obscure until their breakout season this year.
Jared Butler – Sophomore, Guard
Butler has been the Bears best player and offensive catalyst. This season, he’s been one of college basketball’s best guards and has a case to be a First Team All-American. He’s scoring 15.3 points per game, adding 2.9 assists and 1.5 steals nightly, and has the highest usage rate in the Big XII.
It’s Butler’s second year at Baylor, after entering campus as the 95th ranked recruit in the 2018 class. As a freshman, he started 21 games and pitched in 10 points per game. His strong play as a freshman was a key reason that Baylor found its way to the NCAA Tournament last season. Yet in his first collegiate season, Butler was erratic at times. He coughed up seven turnovers at Texas Tech. In the Big XII Tournament, he shot 2 for 9 against Iowa State and scored just 4 points. In the Big Dance, he put up 8 threes against Gonzaga, but made just one.
While he showed flashes of success, no one could have guessed that by his sophomore year Butler would be the main cog in a top 25 ranked offense.
Freddie Gillespie – Senior, Center
None of Baylor’s contributors has emerged from deeper depths than Gillespie, who just two years ago was playing Division III basketball. Not only was he stuck in a non-scholarship program, Gillespie wasn’t even dominating DIII competition. He was the fourth leading scorer at Carleton College in Minnesota in 2017.
In 2016, as a freshman, he played just 16 minutes all season for Carleton. It was an uphill climb for a player whose basketball career started in 10th grade and was derailed by a Jones fracture, a torn ACL, and two broken ankles. His bones could barely handle his growth spurt. Without the experience or track record to go anywhere but the Division III level, Gillespie chose Carleton and struggled to find his way before choosing to walk-on for a bigger program. By the time he found his way to Baylor last season as a walk-on transfer, Scott Drew referred to him as the most raw player he’d ever coached. After a redshirt season and a year as a bench contributor, he’s starting for the Bears.
To recap: Gillespie barely played high school basketball, was a mediocre Division III player, walked-on at Baylor, sat out a year, found his way last season, and is now the starting center on the No. 1 team in college basketball.
And he isn’t just a token starter or role player. Gillespie anchors Baylor’s defense, the fourth best in the nation by defensive efficiency. Gillespie averages 10 points, 9 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game, while commanding the paint on defense. His rise from the end of Baylor’s bench to an all-conference performer is exactly how a program makes a leap like the Bears did this year.
MaCio Teague – Junior, Guard
Teague is Baylor’s one player with an all-conference performance under his belt, but it came two years ago in the mid-major Big South Conference. Teague scored 16 points per game in two seasons at UNC-Asheville, but chose to transfer when head coach Nicholas McDevitt left Asheville for Middle Tennessee.
Following the required redshirt year for transferring, Teague hasn’t missed a beat in adapting to power conference competition. He’s scoring 14 points per game and playing lockdown perimeter defense. If he’s had any trouble, it’s been as a shooter. In two seasons at Asheville, Teague hit 44 percent from long range, but he’s managed only 34 percent this season at Baylor. If he can see some positive regression to the mean the rest of this season, he’ll get red hot and become even more valuable for the Bears.
Davion Mitchell – Sophomore, Guard
Mitchell is also a transfer who sat out last season, after leaving Auburn following his freshman year. As a freshman, he played 17 minutes per game for the Tigers, all off the bench. Mitchell scored in double-figures just twice at Auburn, but failed to score in 10 of the 34 games he played that season.
After choosing Baylor and sitting out last season, he’s returned as a different player. He doesn’t have the nose for the bucket or pure scoring ability of Butler or Teague, yet Mitchell is an excellent athlete and finds the right opportunities to attack offensively. He’s a valued playmaker offensively but makes his biggest impact on defense, where he is a bulldog on the perimeter. Mitchell averages 1.6 steals and brings energy for 94 feet of defense. He would have fit in nicely had he stayed at Auburn to play in Bruce Perl’s tenacious scheme. Instead, his motor drives Baylor to greater heights on that end of the court.
It’s easy to see how Baylor snuck up on the rest of college basketball. Two of the Bears’ starters sat out last season and a third was a Division III walk-on the year before.
Mark Vital – Junior, Forward
Although Vital is not the Bears leading scorer, rebounder, or assister (?), he may be their most important player. The Bears valued veteran leads the team in just two categories, steals and minutes played as a Baylor Bear. The junior has averaged more than 25 minutes per game in each of his three seasons in Waco and never posts eye-popping numbers. He’s not scoring or rebounding in double-figures on a regular basis.
Vital provides nearly everything that doesn’t appear in the box score. At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, Vital is a versatile defender. He’s capable of chasing guards on the perimeter or banging with bigger bodies in the paint. No matter how Baylor matches up to its opponent, Scott Drew knows he can count on Vital to defend his assignment, rebound and make smart decisions.
In a lineup with two transfers playing their first season at Baylor, a sophomore point guard, and guy once described as the most raw player Scott Drew has ever coached, a cornerstone role player takes on even more importance. I can’t believe it’s taken us thing long to get here, but it’s clear that a player like Baylor’s junior forward is absolutely….vital.
Sorry. Kind of.
The explanations of where these players came from and how they developed can seem like a tedious exercise. It could call into question their ability to live up to the expectations they’ve now built up for themselves. These aren’t surefire future pros. They weren’t five star recruits.
None of that matters. It’s irrelevant how and why this team came together. What matters is how good they are now and how well they play together. On both ends of the court, this team plays generously, efficiently, and united.
Baylor isn’t just a contender to win the national title. Based on what we’ve seen and how far the Bears have come, they are the favorite to cut down the nets in Atlanta and should be respected as such.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.