By Will Chamblee | Sports Writer
Just over a year ago, Baylor men’s and women’s basketball were preparing for their first-round matchup in the 2020 Big 12 tournament. The men’s team woke up on the morning of March 11, 2020, expecting to play Kansas State that day but had no idea it would be the beginning of a crucible that would span an entire year.
The Day Of
Baylor head coach Scott Drew got the call early in the morning that Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby canceled the Big 12 tournament in the wake of NBA player Rudy Gobert testing positive for COVID-19, the first major case in American sports.
“Right away I was on the phone with other coaches, seeing if there were any alternatives and what they were hearing,” Drew said. “It moved so quick. We were meeting, preparing to go to practice for shootaround for the game that day and then we get the call there is no game.”
Drew went back to his hotel room in Kansas City, Mo., and called his fellow coaches and colleagues searching for answers, with the predominant question being if the NCAA Tournament would continue as planned.
Soon after the news that the Big 12 tournament was canceled broke, the NCAA announced its tournament would be canceled as well. Drew found out over Twitter.
It would be easy to assume that sadness dominated the room when Drew delivered the news to his players, three of whom would never wear a Baylor uniform again, but that would be wrong. Instead, the players’ reaction was one consistent with the team’s culture of joy.
“It’s always sad the last time you’re with a group,” Drew said. “One of our walk-ons, Obim [Okeke], said right away, ‘Hey, Coach, we’re not going to be sad. We’re going to celebrate all the success we had.’ That really changed the mood.”
This would be just the first of many encounters that both the Baylor men’s and women’s basketball would have with COVID-19 in their quest to make it back to the NCAA Tournament. For both the men’s and women’s teams, COVID-19 has been a constant nuisance, sending players, coaches and the entire program into constant quarantines and pauses. But against all the odds, the programs persevered.
The Women Move On
However, the path back to the NCAA Tournament wasn’t easy for either team. Baylor women’s basketball found out how difficult a COVID-19 related pause could be when head coach Kim Mulkey tested positive in December.
Games against UConn, Kansas State and Kansas were canceled or postponed following Mulkey’s positive test. After nearly two weeks, the team returned against Iowa State, the team that handed them their only conference loss in the previous season.
A heroic 27-point performance from Iowa State’s Ashley Joens led the Cyclones to a shocking 75-71 win over the defending national champions, snapping a home winning streak of 61 games.
The Lady Bears seemed tired, rusty and lethargic against Iowa State coming out of the COVID-induced break, and it’s easy to understand why. Baylor had been unable to practice the entire week leading up to the game, and Mulkey hadn’t been with her players since her quarantine began over two weeks earlier.
“I don’t want to say I expected it, but I didn’t expect great things when you’re not practicing all week,” Mulkey said. “I’m a realist. You could not practice all week and beat a lot of teams. But you can’t beat that team. That team has three-point shooters that expose us. That team has great coaching. It was the perfect timing for what you saw happen to happen.”
Junior forward NaLyssa Smith echoed Mulkey’s sentiment, saying that for the first time in the season, the Bears felt underprepared and unready, something not usually said about Kim Mulkey-led teams.
“Going into the Iowa State game, we hadn’t practiced with each other for a while, so we were very, I wouldn’t say unprepared, but we weren’t as prepared as we usually are for every game,” Smith said.
Mulkey said the break affected the team’s overall fitness as well, a common side effect for teams that have had to quarantine due to COVID-19 this season. The missed practices meant the team wasn’t in shape for the matchup against Iowa State, stressing the importance of fitness.
“This game is a game of conditioning,” Mulkey said. “The conditioning comes with the basketball, that just comes from being in the gym at practice every day. It’s a fast-paced game. And we gotta get back to the floor, and we have all got to be together at some point. We’ll get there. I don’t know when, but we’ll get there.”
The Lady Bears did get there, overcoming the COVID break to find the success that has typified the Baylor program under Mulkey. Following the loss to Iowa State, the team went undefeated, winning their 11th straight Big 12 regular-season title and 11th Big 12 Tournament title en route to a 25-2 record.
The Men’s Turn
But the women weren’t the only team to have an encounter with COVID-19. Baylor men’s basketball was rocked by multiple positive tests and cancellations throughout the year. The most impactful one was in February, when the Bears were on hiatus for 21 days and had to postpone or cancel five games.
Like the women’s team, the break hit the men’s team hard, affecting the players’ fitness, sharpness and preparation. But the COVID-19 pause affected more than just the physical condition of the players.
“It was hard emotionally,” junior guard Jared Butler said “You know, basketball is just a big part of our lives. You expect to play all through February. You kind of felt this void in your life.”
The 21-day break also happened to coincide with one of the worst snowstorms in Waco history, meaning that even players who did not have the virus were unable to work out or practice in a gym for almost a week. Some players, like senior forward Mark Vital, had to turn to unconventional methods to work out. Vital’s plan was to take his Alaskan Malamute named Fendi to the dog park and simply chase her.
“I took her out, and I used to chase her and stuff like that,” Vital said. “She’d be trying to juke me and everything, because she loves the snow. That’s what I used to do, take her to the dog park and just run with her.”
The odd workout regimen actually worked for Vital, as he played 32 minutes in Baylor’s first game after the COVID pause, a season-high for him up until that point. However, the rest of the Bears weren’t as lucky.
While Vital looked sharp, snagging 15 rebounds, the rest of the team struggled, and Baylor limped its way to a close 77-72 win over the Big 12’s last-place team, Iowa State. Baylor shot a poor 32% from the three and was unable to find the shooting touch they’d had all season.
Similar to what Mulkey said after the women’s team returned from their break, senior guard MaCio Teague said the team’s fitness had been severely diminished by the lack of games due to the COVID-19 break.
“Playing in a game is way different than playing in practice,” Teague said. “Playing five-on-five is way different than going through workouts, no matter how hard the workout is. Simulating a game is really hard to do.”
The tired legs obviously had an impact on the Bears against the Cyclones, and Drew went as far as to say that he thought it could be up to three games until Baylor had their legs back underneath them.
“For anyone that is used to working out though, whenever you’re used to working out and you’re used to being in a routine, and then if you take two weeks or three weeks away from that, you’re not coming back right where you were at before,” Drew said. “I’ve talked to a lot of coaches that have had long pauses and for those who have had it for reasons like us, normally they say three games until you’re normal.”
Drew and the coaches he talked to couldn’t have been more right about the time it would take for Baylor to return to normal. Baylor would suffer its first loss of the season in the very next game, losing 71-58 to Kansas.
“Even Superman has kryptonite, and I guess COVID protocols is ours,” Drew said following the loss.
While the loss was disappointing for the Bears, it wasn’t the end-all-be-all for Baylor. Like they did in Kansas City a year ago, Drew and his players decided to focus on the positives that emerged from the three-week-long COVID-19 pause, not the negatives.
The men bounced back in their third game after the COVID-19 pause against fearsome opponent West Virginia, who was ranked No. 6 at the time. The Bears finally found their groove against the Mountaineers, winning 94-89 in overtime to clinch the program’s first Big 12 regular-season title in 71 years.
COVID-19 affected both the Baylor men’s and women’s basketball programs in ways that were unimaginable a year ago. But through a global pandemic, both teams persevered in conditions that are once in a lifetime, showing heart, grit and determination.
“You learn about your team when they are in adverse situations,” Drew said. “To see how they stuck together and encouraged one another, stayed positive, didn’t point fingers, didn’t try to take over themselves but stayed within what we were doing as a team and what we wanted to accomplish as a team, speaks to the player leadership of the team.”
Their hard work has paid off, and March Madness is now here. One year ago, the future was uncertain and in many ways it still is. But one thing that is certain is that Baylor men’s and women’s basketball will finally get their chance in March.