Ready or Not: Baylor Basketball Faces Early Tests Against Two High-Ranking Teams

Written By Martin Harris on December 1, 2020 - Last Updated on February 9, 2021

No doubt Baylor has high hopes for the 2020-21 men’s basketball season.

How high? A chance to make its first Final Four since 1950 is within the realm of possibility. A first-ever NCAA Championship isn’t out of the question, either.

Those lofty expectations will get a serious test this week, however, as the No. 2-ranked Bears face a couple of other teams with championship dreams of their own. And it could lend credence to Baylor as a title contender.

Following a Wednesday night clash with No. 5 Illinois, Baylor has a Saturday afternoon contest against No. 1 Gonzaga.

Here’s a quick preview of what could be two of the more important games ever for Baylor basketball.

Baylor cruises to wins in weekend warm-ups

Baylor’s high hopes for this year stem from a successful 2019-20 season during which the Bears ranked No. 1 for five straight weeks late in the season.

When the campaign was cut short in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, Baylor sported a 26-4 record and appeared positioned to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But just before their first game in the Big 12 conference tournament, Baylor’s season — everyone’s season, for that matter — ended.

After that strange end to the 2019-20 campaign, Baylor’s 2020-21 season began in unusual fashion as well.

COVID-19 cases force game cancellations

The Bears had originally been scheduled to participate in the Empire Classic in Connecticut last week.

That plan fell apart, however, when Baylor head coach Scott Drew tested positive for COVID-19, forcing Baylor to pull out of the event. The Bears’ third scheduled game expected to be against Seton Hall, but both teams agreed to cancel that contest.

New games were arranged, however. On Thanksgiving, Baylor flew to Las Vegas to play a pair of contests at T-Mobile Arena.

On Saturday, the Bears easily topped Louisiana-Lafayette 112-82. Then, on Sunday, the team delivered an 86-52 thumping of the Washington Huskies.

Guards Jared Butler (18.5 ppg) and MaCio Teague (18 ppg) led the charge, leading a balanced attack with multiple players in double-digit scoring. Those two led Baylor in scoring a year ago, and, along with Donovan Mitchell, will again likely set the pace for the Bears.

Baylor finished last season with one of the top-ranked defenses in the NCAA, allowing opponents only 60 points per game. They’ll look to continue that trend this year, albeit without big men Freddie Gillespie (now a Dallas Maverick) and senior Tristan Clark (out with with a career-ending knee injury).

Baylor vs. Illinois: Dec. 2, 10 p.m. ET

Both the Illinois and Gonzaga games will be played at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Wednesday night’s game will feature as the nightcap of this year’s Jimmy V Classic.

Just as Baylor has been picked by many to win the Big 12, Illinois is a popular pick to win the Big Ten.

The Fighting Illini return five players who started the most from an Illinois team that finished 21-10 a year ago. The Illini are led by preseason All-American guard Ayo Dosunmu, who very nearly went pro before deciding to return to Champaign. Joining the squad is a top-ranked recruiting class highlighted by sure-handed shooting guard Adam Miller,who is already making his presence felt on the court.

Coached by Brad Underwood, Illinois enters the game 3-0, having last week crushed North Carolina A&T and Chicago State before squeaking by Ohio University. Dosunmu averaged over 25 points in those games, while Miller has started his career averaging 18.

Baylor vs. Gonzaga: Dec. 5, 1 p.m. ET

As if Illinois weren’t a big enough test, Baylor takes on the top-ranked Bulldogs of Gonzaga on Saturday, surely providing an ultimate early challenge for the Bears.

The Associated Press Poll released on Monday saw Gonzaga claim 57 of 63 first-place votes to secure the No. 1 spot. Baylor was right behind at No. 2, having picked up the other six first-place votes. Meanwhile, Baylor sits atop the USA Today Coaches Poll, where Gonzaga is ranked second.

Gonzaga has already shown its mettle to start the new season. The Bulldogs debuted with an impressive 102-90 win against Baylor’s Big 12 rival Kansas. They followed that with a 90-67 waxing of Auburn. Those high scores aren’t surprising to see, as Gonzaga was the top-scoring team in the country year ago on its way to a 31-2 record.

The Bulldogs did lose All-American Filip Petrusev from last year’s squad. But they’ve got another talented big man in Drew Timme. Forward Corey Kispert and guards Jalen Suggs and Joel Ayayi add even more firepower to a fast-paced squad coached by Mark Few.

Baylor will have an opportunity to get an early, in-person look at Gonzaga, as the Bulldogs play No. 11 West Virginia in the Jimmy V Classic opener on Wednesday.

All’s well in Waco for Baylor basketball

As of today, Drew should be back on the Baylor bench in time for Wednesday’s tilt, taking back the reins from assistant coach Jerome Tang.

Current lines at legal sportsbooks show Baylor as a 2.5-point favorite against Illinois. Looking ahead to Saturday, though, the Bears sit as a 2.5-point underdog versus Gonzaga.

Of course, with a schedule like this, Baylor can’t be looking ahead themselves — not to the end of the week, and not to the rest of the season.

But a pair of wins this week sure would put Baylor in great position early in the season.

Photo by AP / John Locher
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