Baylor's 'Tasmanian Devil' may be key to its national title hopes

Pete Thamel
·5 min read

INDIANAPOLIS — The skip pass from Baylor star Davion Mitchell found junior guard Jared Butler alone in the deep corner. With Houston ace defender DeJon Jarreau reaching with his arm stretched to close out defensively, Butler rose confidentially and drained a 3-point shot.

Houston coach Kelvin Sampson called a timeout in exasperation after Butler’s splash, as No. 1 Baylor spent the first half speeding downhill on the way to a 78-59 blowout in the national semifinal on Saturday.

When Butler’s shot hit nylon and play stopped for the timeout, Baylor coach Scott Drew celebrated at midcourt with an accentuated fist pump from the Tiger-on-18 collection. The vigor of the celebration offered a window into just how important the revival of Butler, Baylor’s first-team All-American guard, is for the Bears’ national title hopes.

In a statement game that offered a flashing neon reminder that Baylor isn’t just going to be anyone’s speed bump to history on Monday night, the Bears treated No. 2 Houston as if they were a November buy game against a directional Louisiana school.

"That first half was about as well as any team could play against Houston," Drew said.

But the most important takeaway could be gleaned from Drew’s fist pump. Baylor needs Butler, the program’s first-ever first-team All-American, playing like an All-American again. He’d sputtered in spots in this tournament, shooting just 6-for-24 from 3-point range as his Baylor teammates carried him along to the Final Four.

Baylor's Jared Butler gestures during a game against the Houston Cougars in the 2021 NCAA Final Four semifinal on April 03. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Baylor's Jared Butler gestures during a game against the Houston Cougars in the 2021 NCAA Final Four semifinal on April 03. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

But on Saturday, Butler played as if shot out of a cannon, hitting 4-for-5 from 3-point range in the first half to allow Baylor to lasso control of the game. He finished the game with 17 points on just nine shots, with all the points coming in the first half. “He’s doing it all,” said an NBA scout. “He’s the Tasmanian Devil.”

Butler has looked pedestrian in this NCAA tournament. He shot just 1-for-8 from 3-point range against Hartford in the first round and 1-for-9 against Villanova in the Sweet 16. Perhaps Saturday will be remembered as a high-octane turning point.

“They remind me of what I saw in December,” said Hartford coach John Gallagher, who faced the Bears in the first round and actually led the game 14-13 in the first half. “Even when they played us in the first round, they were hesitant. I thought since the second half of our game, they’ve been different.”

As a team, Baylor showcased the pathway to the program winning its first-ever national title. Baylor opened the game 8-for-15 from 3-point range, and the Bears entered the game ranked No. 1 nationally in 3-point percentage at 41.1%. Baylor’s five leading scorers are all over 39.5% 3-point shooters, and they have a clear game plan of spreading the floor, sharing the ball and dominating from beyond the arc.

“When Butler is playing well, him and [Davion] Mitchell just control the game and make life easy for the other guys,” said a Big 12 assistant who scouted Baylor this year. “On top of that, they have one of the best defensive efficiencies in college basketball.”

Baylor started the season 17-0 as a team, displaying consistent dominance on both ends of the floor much like they did on Saturday evening at Lucas Oil Stadium. In the wake of an extended COVID-19 pause that included no games for three weeks and severely limited practices, the Bears looked inconsistent at times after returning in late February. Instead of peaking in March, the Bears were scrambling back to form and dropped games to Kansas and Oklahoma State. More telling, perhaps, was a narrow home win over Iowa State.

Baylor's Jared Butler (12) passes over teammate guard Adam Flagler (10) and Houston forward Justin Gorham (4) during the first half of a men's Final Four game on April 3. (AP)
Baylor's Jared Butler (12) passes over teammate guard Adam Flagler (10) and Houston forward Justin Gorham (4) during the first half of a men's Final Four game on April 3. (AP)

Baylor had looked like Baylor of December in spots since the pause. That includes one of the country’s most versatile defenses. As impressive as Baylor was shooting 57% in the first half against Houston, it also ground the Cougars' offense to a halt by switching nearly every ball screen, rendering them helpless. Houston had just one field goal (1-for-15) by someone other than Marcus Sasser in the first half, and they finished shooting 27% as a team.

"If we're not where we were, I can't see the difference," Drew said. "So credit these guys for really buying in on the practice days we've had to get better and put in the work to get back to what they were. Because prior to the pause we were top three defensive team in the country and then fell all the way to 44."

But Butler finding his groove is helping Baylor find that ultimate gear. The Bears finished the game 11-for-24 from 3-point range, reaffirming their status as the tournament’s most judicious marksmen. Mitchell chipped in 11 assists to keep up the argument that he could be the tournament’s most outstanding player from wire-to-wire.

By the 1:46 mark in the second half, Drew was emptying his bench to let Baylor’s starters soak up a well-earned salute.

Baylor is on the cusp of the long road from the most scandal-riddled program in college basketball nearly two decades ago to the top of the sport. If the Bears win on Monday night, the legacy of this largely forgettable game may just be that Jared Butler found himself after two forgettable weeks in the NCAA tournament.

"When we're all connected and we're all united, it's hard for anybody to beat us," Butler said. He added: "That's why we're making it to the national championship game. And that's what we're going to need in the championship game, too."

And that resurgence gives Baylor a path to victory on Monday night, where we could again see Scott Drew executing exclamatory fist pumps of celebration for Butler playing like an All-American again.

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