Another phase of the moon, another No. 1, as the parade keeps marching past. Since it is Baylor’s turn in the spotlight — after six others, this is starting to feel a little bit like a spelling bee, isn’t it? —we should get acquainted with what the Bears have been up to.
Seventeen things to know about this week’s team coming through the top-ranked revolving door.
These Bears are climbers. Back in week 3 of the season, they were No. 24 in the Associated Press rankings. They’ve won 15 in a row and moved higher in each of the nine polls since, until now, when there is nowhere up to go. Well, until March. “We have bigger goals,” coach Scott Drew mentioned Monday.
Baylor is 6-0 in league play. The last time the Bears could say that, they were in the Southwest Conference. And it was 1948.
Here’s one big reason Baylor has charged to No. 1, zipping past Gonzaga in the AP poll like it was the back stretch at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Bears are 5-0 against ranked opponents – the victims’ list including Villanova, Arizona, Butler, Texas Tech and Kansas. They led for 156:36 of the 200 minutes in those games, and the biggest deficit they ever faced was six points, against Villanova.
Here’s another reason. They’re rolling at 16-1. In the past 11 games, they have been behind for only 53 of 440 minutes, or 12 percent of the time.
They’re proven frontrunners. Baylor is 160-20 since 2011 when leading at halftime, and 104-21 since 2015 when ahead at any point in the second half.
The program was in shambles when Drew took over in 2003. This will tell a little about the success of his reclamation project: Baylor has been ranked in 228 games under his watch. Before he landed in Waco, the Bears had been ranked in two of 2,197 games. He's been in four Sweet 16s and two Elite Eights, and he has not yet turned 50.
Here’s another indicator of Baylor’s surge in recent years. In 2010, the Bears were 5-35 all-time against Oklahoma. The 61-57 victory Monday made them 13-10 against the Sooners since. They had also been 0-17 at Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse and 0-22 all-time on the road against top-5 teams. Both those were changed with a 12-point win over the Jayhawks.
Monday was the first home game Baylor ever played as the No. 1 team. They were top-ranked only once before, then lost on the road the next night.
Defense has been the preferred weapon. The Bears have limited five of six Big 12 opponents to 57 points or under. Four of their ranked opponents – Arizona, Butler, Texas Tech and Kansas – were held to season lows. Kansas’ 55 was the Jayhawks fewest points at home since 2000. Texas managed only 44 points. Nobody has scored more than 63 in nine Baylor home games. All this reflects a change in style by Drew. Baylor has often been a zone-oriented team, but has used man-to-man nearly all this season, and it has kept the Bears safe, even without a particularly explosive offense. “I think that tonight proved that our defense can bail us out of some sticky situations,” Freddie Gillespie said of the Oklahoma game.
Baylor has eight players who have used red-shirt years for various reasons, including four starters.
The Bears lead the Big 12, and this is why that’s kind of a big deal. Their last conference championship was 1950. While we’re at it, that was their last Final Four, too.
Gillespie, who had a 12 point-15 rebound double-double against Oklahoma Monday, started his college career at Division III Carleton in Minnesota, where he played only 16 minutes his entire freshman year. Now he’s a senior with seven double-doubles this season for the No. 1 ranked team in the nation.
Eight of nine point guards to start for Drew at Baylor ended up all-Big 12. Now meet Davon Mitchell, Auburn transfer and this year’s point guard. He scored in double figures only four times in the first 43 games of his college career. He’s reached double figures six times in his past eight games, so he might be following the same path.
Only two players average in double figures in scoring, Jared Butler at 16.1 and MaCio Teague at 13.6. Tristan Clark was averaging 14.6 points and shooting 73.7 percent last season when he was lost with a knee injury. He’s worked his way back but is now seventh in minutes and points.
Baylor looks like a nice mix on the stat sheet, from being sixth in the nation in scoring defense, 20th in field goal defense, 29th in turnover margin and 44th in rebound margin. “They really have all the ingredients to be what they are,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said.
College basketball is the hottest thing to come out of Waco since Chip and Joanna Gaines went on TV with Fixer Upper. The men are ranked No. 1 in the nation, the women No. 2. Their combined record is 31-2. But the women are defending national champions.
They'd — the men — be unbeaten had they not blown a 13-point lead in a 67-64 defeat by Washington in Alaska, going the last 5:32 without a field goal.
So now the Bears have the heat of the top spot. As noted basketball analyst William Shakespeare once observed, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Or this season, the No. 1 ranking.
Six teams have come and gone, and Baylor has nibbled at defeat twice the past four days. The Bears had to rally from 12 points behind to beat Oklahoma State Saturday and would have been in trouble Monday had the 3-pointer from the corner by Oklahoma’s Austin Reaves fallen with six seconds left. If this season has proven anything, there’s nothing safe about being No. 1. “I was thinking that when the ball was in the air,” Drew said in a TV interview about Reaves’ shot.
Saturday, Baylor visits Florida, where the all Gator chompers in the stands now have another reason to be inflamed. No. 4 Auburn just visited there and lost by 22 points. Just in case, who's in the waiting room for No. 1?