The last time anyone saw the Baylor Bears play a basketball game, they had all the pieces working and were making a strong case for No. 1.
It was three weeks ago when Baylor blew past then-No. 6 Texas, 83-69, in Austin.
The No. 2 Bears finally came out of COVID-19 protocol to practice Sunday. Now the most pressing question is if they can play with the same efficiency and cohesiveness that made them 17-0 overall and 9-0 in the Big 12.
“I hope it’s not hard,” said Baylor guard Jared Butler. “I’d like to believe that we’re going to pick up where we left off. It’s going to be a little hard in the first few minutes just to get our wind back, but I think ultimately we’re going to get back in our groove.”
The Bears will return with a flurry of games as they host Iowa State at 7 p.m. Tuesday and No. 10 West Virginia at 4 p.m. Thursday at the Ferrell Center before flying to Lawrence to play No. 17 Kansas at 7 p.m. Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse.
Next week the Bears could face a similarly demanding schedule with at least three games. The Big 12 hasn’t yet announced next week’s schedule, but it appears unlikely that all six remaining postponed games for the Bears can be rescheduled before the Big 12 tournament begins March 10 in Kansas City.
The Baylor players can’t wait to get back on the court. The more games, the better.
“I think it’s going to be just like if we were playing in the NCAA tournament or the Big 12 tournament,” Butler said. “It’s going to be like a one-day scout, short turnaround, and you have to lock in the day you have to prepare. And then ultimately, it just comes down to competing.”
Baylor coach Scott Drew said any unavailable players for the Iowa State game will be announced an hour before tipoff as usual. But Butler said the Bears were able to hold a five-on-five scrimmage Sunday, and the excitement of being back together was evident.
“We played five-on-five, and it was a little rusty, some of the shots were short, sometimes we lost the ball in the paint,” Butler said. “But I think all in all, we competed and it didn’t seem like we lost that much step. It wasn’t like we just lost complete control and we weren’t able to play basketball. It was good. I think it was better than what we expected.”
During the past three weeks, the Baylor players were at different stages of COVID-19 protocol and contact tracing. Some players were able to work out at the Ferrell Center more than others. Last week’s snowstorm stopped everybody from coming to the arena for a couple of days.
Drew said the return to practice was much like returning from Christmas break: The players and coaches were thrilled to see each other, but they had to knock off some rust.
“You were just excited to be back in the gym, excited to see everybody,” Drew said. “Obviously like Christmas break as a coach you want to make sure no one gets injured and you can get some rhythm and chemistry going again. Needless to say, I think the guys were pretty tired, and hopefully can get as much junk out as possible between now and Tuesday.”
During most seasons, players aren’t as excited about practice in late February due to the wear and tear of the season. But Drew hopes the long COVID-19 pause will have an opposite effect by making them more eager to practice and become a fresher team heading into March Madness.
“We know the long game of this that hopefully come March we’re able to be healthy and continue to grow from this past Sunday on to being at our best,” Drew said. “Maybe we’re a little fresher because of it. Again taking the positives, we were playing really well, we were on a roll, but again you have to adjust and make the most of each and every situation.”
Iowa State is 2-16 overall and sits at the bottom of the Big 12 at 0-13. The Cyclones have been competitive in a lot of games in the second half, but haven’t been able to finish strong.
In their 76-66 loss to No. 7 Oklahoma on Saturday in Ames, the Cyclones took a 46-45 lead when Tre Jackson hit a 3-pointer with 11:29 remaining. But the Sooners gradually pulled away down the stretch to stay in second place in the Big 12 with a 9-4 record.
In Baylor’s first game against Iowa State on Jan. 2 in Ames, Butler scored 21 points while Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague hit 13 apiece to take a 76-65 win. Javan Johnson led the Cyclones with 17 points and Solomon Young hit 15, but the Bears pressed the Cyclones into committing 21 turnovers.
“With Iowa State, one thing that’s been consistent if you watch most of their games is they’re either leading in the second half or definitely were close the last five minutes,” Drew said. “If you look at us, we got out to a 10-point lead and they came back and took the lead with under 10 minutes to play at their place.”
While Baylor’s six games were postponed during the last three weeks, the players got a chance to watch a lot of Big 12 basketball on TV. But that only fueled their desire to get back on the court.
“Seeing everybody else play, I kind of feel like I’ve been missing out,” Butler said. “What do you call it when your parents punish you and you can’t go outside and play with your friends? That’s what it’s been feeling like.”
BEAR FACTS — Butler has been selected as one of five finalists for the 2021 Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Award, as announced Monday by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The other four finalists are Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham, Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs, Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu and Villanova’s Collin Gillespie.