March Madness is almost here! For those unfamiliar with what March Madness is exactly, it is the NCAA’s Division 1 college basketball championship that takes place throughout the month of March into April. This is a big deal. It is a tournament that sees 68 teams compete in single elimination rounds where the winner of each advances to the next stage. Of the 68 teams, each of the 32 division 1 conference champions enters into the tournament and the other 36 spots is chosen by the NCAA selection committee. This is one of the biggest annual sporting events in the United States watched on average by over 10 million people. With this many eyes, it is the chance for players to impress as they set their sights on the NBA. For the colleges themselves, this is the perfect moment to capture the attention of big sponsors and also to attract the next talents preparing to enter the college system.
Could Baylor be crowned national champions?
Deciding the favorite for this year’s March Madness is close. Looking at the teams hovering around seed 1, you have Michigan and Illinois who are predicted to be in or around the top seed. But the top two are clear-cut. The battle to be the favorite when looking at the March Madness odds is between the Gonzaga Bulldogs and Baylor Bears. Two excellent schools with incredible teams, but bookmakers are tipping Gonzaga as favorites just ahead of Baylor.
It has been an action-packed Big 12 season for Baylor led by star guard Jared Butler who helped them to seal their first conference title since 1948 (and their first Big 12). Butler won the accolade as AP Big 12 player of the year with the most 3-point-shooting and steals as well as averaging 17.1 points per game (3rd in the conference overall). Coach Drew also picked up his second consecutive title as Big 12 coach of the year to cap off an impressive season for the Bears. The Bears went onto achieve what would normally be considered a championship-winning worthy record with a 13–1 Big 12 and 21–1 overall record for the season, winning the first 18 games to signify the best start in the school’s history. This impressive record for the season was only bettered by Gonzaga who finished the season unbeaten in the WWC with a record of 15–0, 26–0 overall. These two are the standout teams in the country, justifying their positions as the top two in the rankings.
Although Gonzaga has the perfect record, many are arguing that Baylor is still the better team. While Gonzaga possesses the likes of Suggs, Kispert, and Timme, Baylor has a team just as strong. The already mentioned Butler is the headliner, but names like Davion Mitchell and MaCo Teague have put on an extremely impressive performance in their own right this season. Mitchell is leading the Baylor side in assists with 5.5 apg and Teague ranks second behind Butler with 16.1 ppg. You could also mention Mark Vital who leads the team in rebounds (6.5 rpg) and blocks (1 bpg), along with Jonathan TchamwaTchatchoua and Adam Flager who are two others that have been key to the success of this team this season. Overall, the quality in depth that Baylor has will be feared by any team and is why their odds of winning are so high.
The Bears have consistently been close to the top of the rankings in recent years. One of those reasons has been their recruitment. What started out trying to build the perfect combination of talented young players mixed with a number of veterans. The younger the team the better, but they eventually had to tweak their strategy as many talented players opted for other schools. They in fact flipped the playbook on this and decided to pursue older (couple of years removed from high school) and develop their recruits. This extra experience helped drive the team to bigger and better things.
Another reason has been their defense. Baylor historically has been a more offense-orientated side ultimately sacrificing the defense. Knowing their own strengths, they knew that their defense needed work in order to take them to the next level. Inspired by Texas Tech’s no middle defense, Coach Drew modified it to suit Baylor’s style that works by forcing the ball to the side of the court. Evidence of their success has been represented in their standings and dominant defensive performances with no clear trade-offs against their offense.
Thirdly, the culture that has been established at Baylor has offered an attractive opportunity not just for high-school grads but experienced ballers looking to transfer and rekindle their careers and chances of reaching the NBA. There are no grudges held at Baylor against those who chose other schools over Baylor originally, as the culture understands that the school and the athlete can help each other get to where they want to go. Jared Butler who transferred from Alabama and Davion Mitchell who switched to Baylor from Auburn are two examples of the current squad who have reaped the rewards from transferring. Some notable examples of Baylor grads reaching the big time in the NBA are Taurean Prince of the Brooklyn Nets and Royce O’Neale of the Utah Jazz.
In the build-up, it is obvious why Gonzaga is considered the favorite, they did achieve a perfect record after all. But Baylor is arguably just as good as Gonzaga and hopefully, fans will get to witness the two clash and settle the score. With the likes of Butler, Mitchell, and Teague, as well as not forgetting Drew as head coach, Baylor has arguably the best team in college basketball right now. As with every year, there is a lot of unpredictability around this tournament, but if you’re going for anyone, Baylor is definitely a worthy bet.