Man, this would’ve been a much easier story to write if Baylor had just stuck to the script. Two years ago, they lost as a 3-seed to Georgia State on a stunning 3 that sent the Panthers’ injured coach toppling off his stool. Last year, the Bears lost as a 5-seed to 12th-seeded Yale, playing in its first NCAA tournament since the Kennedy administration.
And for at least a half on Friday, they were doing their job perfectly. Coach Scott Drew, who has earned a reputation for misusing incredibly talented teams in March, called for a zone, and 14th-seeded New Mexico State was destroying it, hitting its final four 3-point attempts of the first half to take a 40–38 lead into the break.
Then Baylor stopped playing and started playing. They dumped the zone, forcing the Aggies to try to succeed in any way besides chucking. (They couldn’t.) Johnathan Motley, an enormous human and one of the best players in the country, nearly had a double-double in the second half with 11 points and nine of his 10 rebounds. Baylor had six second-half dunks; New Mexico State had none. The Bears finished with 10 offensive rebounds on 26 missed shots — slightly below their average offensive rebound rate of 39.9, but still incredibly high. NMSU made the tournament by being a physically large team in a small league. But Baylor is bigger and better. After trailing by two at the half, they won 91–73.
Tournament upsets are, by nature, weird and flukey. Baylor’s two recent losses were, and they happened for different reasons. Against Georgia State, they shot themselves in the foot with 21 turnovers and got beaten by a buzzer-beater by eventual first-round draft pick R.J. Hunter. Against Yale, they gave up 31 points to Makai Mason — decidedly not an NBA player — and got outrebounded even though rebounding was one of the Bears’ strengths. (That led to this wonderful press conference moment.)
In the grand scheme of Baylor basketball, those games are actually odd outliers: In the five years before the Georgia State loss, the Bears went to two Elite Eights and a Sweet 16, and won the NIT. Their postseason losses were to Duke, Kentucky, and Wisconsin, two 1-seeds and a 2-seed.
Baylor was head-and-shoulders above the league champion it trounced on Friday — at least for a half. It’s nice to trash a team for its tendency to stumble early — without it, college sports would be much less fun — but Friday was normal. It was the upsets that were the beautiful, absurd outliers.