INDIANAPOLIS – When Jared Butler left Alabama in the summer of 2018, enrolling in Baylor just before his freshman year began, he entered a somewhat middle program, one that did not reach the NCAA tournament last season and was known for early stage flameouts.
His eyes were fixed on what was in front of him – competing for a starting job, adjusting to college and winning as many games as possible.
A trip to the Final Four seemed just as unlikely as a trip to the moon.
“Can I believe it three years ago?” Butler said Friday. “No.”
But the Bears arrived here not only for the Final Four for the first time since 1950, but one step closer to winning their first national championship. They looked part on Saturday night, overtaking Houston, 78-59, in the national semifinals, rediscovering their shot from the dead eye with 3 points and releasing a tight defense.
The win moved Baylor to the title game on Monday night against undefeated Gonzaga, which beat UCLA in a thriller which ended with Jalen Suggs hitting a three-pointer as time ran out in overtime. That set the game four months in the making, and the Baylor-Gonzaga game here in Indianapolis was canceled in December just 90 minutes before the tipof due to positive cases in the Baylor program. The atmosphere for that game, which would set the teams that ranked the Top 25 best polls for most of the season, would almost certainly not meet expectations.
The modern Final Fours have long since grown into mere basketball matches into mega events that are played at cavernous football stadiums and are accompanied by entertainment over the weekend. Tipofi, accompanied by a sea of flashes, carry tangible energy.
This one was noticeably dampened by the pandemic, from the absence of a crowd of fans passing through downtown Indianapolis on Friday night, to the large curtain that split Lucas Oil Stadium in half – limiting the crowd to less than 10,000. (The semifinals drew a record 72,238 here in 2015)
Also absent, as they were throughout the tournament, were the fans and bands of the team – such a basic component for a men’s tournament that the NCAA, through its television contract, is required to transport them to the Final Four.
“We still seem to be playing basketball,” Butler said. “We’re going back to the hotel. It’s just us, we team. And we just got one mission, one goal. I think it’s going to sink later in life or maybe in the two months since I’ll be, roughly, wow, really in the state championship game. “
In an attempt to create a more common aesthetic for television, organizers have filled a host of blanks with cardboard cutouts – often including famous school basketball players. Several places were taken by Caczie Russell of Michigan, Fab Five and newer star Trey Burke. Elgin Baylor, in a University of Seattle jersey, took another. Like the amazingly well-shaven Justin Turner – in his Cal State Fullerton baseball uniform.
Turner’s presence was a reminder that, although men’s and women’s tournaments were mostly held non-stop – Virginia Commonwealth men were the only team to leave the tournament due to virus cases – playing a pandemic could be a whimsical exercise. Turner, the third seed of the Los Angeles Dodgers, was drawn near the end of the 6 World Series clinching game due to a positive test.
There was no such intervention on behalf of Houston on Saturday.
The Cougars, who have played their first Final Four since 1984, had their test on their way to the national semi-finals – gathering 10 points down to beat Rutger and collecting enough to complete Oregon State after taking a 17-point lead – but they only had to beat the double-digit seed to get there.
Houston had with them a relentless defensive team whose senior keeper, the tough DeJon Jarreau, locked the two most interesting scorers of the tournament, Buddy Boeheim of Syracuse and Ethan Thompson of Oregon. But it’s hard to over-suggest that the best option for scoring Cougars is an offensive jump. They led the nation in an offensive bounce rate, according to KenPom.com, grabbing 39.8 percent of missed shots.
The Cougars ’first possession had to give Baylor coach Scott Drew a break when Reggie Chaney and Justin Gorham grabbed offensive jumps for Houston before Marcus Sasser sank a wide-open triple.
It turned out to be the last hour for Houston.
Baylor locked everything except Sasser, securing defensive boards and attacking Cougar’s defense with a 3-point brawl. When Davion Mitchell swung the triple at half-time buzzer, he increased them to 45-20 – all but giving a pass until Monday night.
Baylor’s defense shackled the entire attack in Houston, except for Sasser, who scored 17 of his team’s 20 points in the first half. All the others combined 1 for 15 at half time.
The Bears, who were the best 3-point shooting team in the country during the regular season, regained form – especially Butler, who made 4 out of 5 behind the arc and scored 17 points, all in the first half. His teammates, Mitchell and MaCio Teague, contributed strongly with 12 points and 11 assists for Mitchell and 11 points and 6 assists for Teague.
And while Houston managed to score 14 offensive rebounds, 13 of them made up for Baylor and shooting a 38.2 percent cougar.
If Baylor can repeat Saturday’s performance, it would limit a long climb from an embarrassing depth.
Drew was hired in 2003 after one of the most horrific NCAA scandals – one Baylor player killed another, and the coach at the time, Dave Bliss, ordered the players to lie to investigators, who discovered a multitude of rule violations in the program. The Bears were hit by severe penalties, including a ban on non-conference games in 2006, and won a total of 21 games in Drew’s first three seasons.
In the end, they achieved a reputation. And they used broken parentheses to reach the 2010 and 2012 regional finals. Those accomplishments followed an NCAA investigation that found Baylor coaches made 1,200 illegal phone calls or texts to recruits, and Drew was quoted for not following his program.
But the Bears are now just one game away from a title that few, including their star guard, could see coming.