Vital signs: Sophomore forward does the dirty work for Baylor

Baylor sophomore forward Mark Vital drives the ball against West Virginia on Saturday at the Ferrell Center. Vital notched 15 points in 14 rebounds in the 82-75 win over the Mountaineers. Shae Koharski | Multimedia Journalist

By Ben Everett | Sports Editor

West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins knows a thing or two about having tough, gritty players.

In 2012, Mountaineer power forward Kevin Jones put up almost 20 points and 10 rebounds per game for Huggins’ squad en route to a consensus second-team All American nod.

Last year, point guard Jevon Carter finished up his four-year career with his fourth straight selection to the All Big 12 Defensive Team as a Mountaineer.

When the Mountaineers traveled to Waco for a matchup against the Bears on Saturday, Huggins’ team faced a player that would fit right into his style: Baylor sophomore forward Mark Vital. Huggins said Vital’s most important contributions may not show up on the stat sheet.

“He may be the first MVP of the league that scores seven or eight points a game,” Huggins said. “He’s really, really good. He’s unselfish. He’s a great team guy. He makes big plays for [Baylor].”

Vital scored 15 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in the Bears’ 82-75 win over West Virginia as the two best rebounding teams in the Big 12 clashed. In a game that saw 51 fouls called and 69 free throws attempted, Vital said the small plays made the biggest difference.

“Every possession counts,” Vital said. “I know that when we’re down, if you see a loose ball you’ve got to dive on it, because every possession counts in the Big 12.”

Vital doesn’t shoulder a big offensive load, but he does all the dirty work. Vital is fifth on the team in minutes played, averaging 27.1 minutes a game, but he has only attempted 147 shots this season. To put that into perspective, Vital is sixth on the team in shot attempts and is 23 shot attempts behind sophomore forward Mario Kegler for fifth. Freshman forward Matthew Mayer, who plays 13 minutes per game, has just one less shot attempt than Vital.

At 6-foot-5, Vital leads the team with 7.1 rebounds per game. In the win over West Virginia, Vital’s 14 rebounds were double that of any Mountaineer. Baylor head coach Scott Drew said the front court of Vital and Kegler provided much-needed scrappiness against a physical West Virginia team.

“That’s where the toughness of Mario and Mark [come into play],” Drew said. “They had 10 and 14 rebounds. You got the two best rebounding teams in conference going at it. With that, you’re going to have a lot of contact and a lot of physicality. We did get more second chance points and we out-rebounded them, so our guys competed hard.”

Vital doesn’t just help on the glass. His ball-handling ability at the power forward position allows for more offensive movement and creativity. Vital is third on the team in assists, sitting only behind point guards Makai Mason and Jared Butler. Recently, Baylor’s offense has soared, and Vital is an important part of that. The Bears have best offensive rating, according to college basketball statistical website KenPom, in conference-only games. Drew said the team’s unselfishness is the reason for that.

“Our [offensive efficiency rating] has been number one in the conference for most of the conference season, and that’s a real credit to the guys and how much they’ve bought in,” Drew said. “They’re playing for each other, trying to make their teammates better. I think on the court they play better collectively than they do individually.”

Vital and the Bears face off against Texas at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Ferrell Center.