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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Baylor basketball’s patience, belief pay off

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The odds of a top-seeded NCAA Tournament team returning the bulk of its starting lineup the next season are low in the modern college basketball game.

The Baylor Bears technically haven’t done that — there was no NCAA Tournament last season — but the players who will take the floor April 3 against the Houston Cougars are by and large the same ones who would’ve made the Bears a title contender in 2020.

“It’s like, wow, this is what we missed out on last year,” junior guard Jared Butler said at a virtual press conference April 2.

No. 1 seed Baylor (26-2) will play No. 2 seed Houston (28-3) in the first semifinal game April 3 at Lucas Oil Stadium, followed by No. 1 seed Gonzaga (30-0) and No. 11 seed UCLA (22-9).

Butler starred on last season’s Baylor team that finished 26-4 and probably would have been a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament had it not been canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He tested the NBA draft but decided to return to Baylor, playing his way to Associated Press Big 12 Player of the Year and unanimous first-team All-American honors.

Butler, who leads the team in scoring with 16.5 points per game, was one of four primary starters to stay with the Bears, joining redshirt junior MaCio Teague, who also considered the NBA last offseason, senior Mark Vital and redshirt junior Davion Mitchell, the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year.

“It’s like we’re getting the band back together,” Butler said.

The lone newcomer in the starting lineup is junior forward Flo Thamba.

Head coach Scott Drew, who has a 15-8 record in the tournament with Baylor, commended his players not just for coming back but for working individually in the offseason to get better. They did hill sprints, cone drills, worked out at parks.

“These guys found ways and opportunities to improve themselves,” he said.

Teague, one of the best shooting guards in the country, arrived at Baylor as a transfer from UNC Asheville at the same time Mitchell transferred from Auburn in 2018.

One of the things that swayed Teague to Waco, Texas, was a text from Mitchell, who told Teague they could go to the Final Four together at Baylor.

It didn’t happen in 2019 — when they both had to sit out for a year because of NCAA transfer rules — and it wasn’t possible last year. Now the Bears are back in the Final Four for the first time since 1950, two wins away from making belief in each other and patience in their game pay off.

“I just felt like we could do something special here at Baylor University,” Teague said, “and we’ve lived up to that so far.”

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