On Feb. 2, Baylor University’s men’s basketball team traveled to Austin to play the University of Texas in the first meeting of top-10 teams from the state since the Associated Press poll launched in the 1948-49 season. The No. 2 Bears showed it was the top team in Texas and the Big 12 conference, cruising to an 83-69 victory over the No. 6 Longhorns. Baylor improved to 17-0, tying the 2011-12 squad for the best start in program history.
Three weeks later, Baylor is still stuck with the same record, as the Bears have had their past six games postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. But on Tuesday night, Baylor will finally return to the court when it hosts Iowa State (2-16, 0-13 in the Big 12) at the Ferrell Center.
“Seeing everybody else play, I kind of feel like I’ve been missing out,” Baylor junior guard Jared Butler, who is averaging a team-high 17 points per game with 5.2 assists and 3.3 rebounds, told reporters on Monday. “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.”
Still, Baylor’s long Covid-related absence is not an anomaly when it comes to this season’s top teams.
No. 1 Gonzaga (22-0) had five games cancelled in December and three this month; No. 3 Michigan (16-1) had seven games postponed, including five consecutive from Jan. 27 to Feb. 11; No. 5 Illinois (16-5) had three Big Ten games postponed; No. 8 Villanova (14-3) had nine Big East games postponed; and No. 11 Florida State (13-3) had five ACC games postponed.
Numerous games between major programs have either been cancelled or postponed, most notably a scheduled matchup between No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 Baylor on Dec. 5 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. That matchup was postponed just prior to tip-off when two members of Gonzaga’s travel party tested positive for the coronavirus. The teams attempted to reschedule the game, but they couldn’t make it work.
Despite all the fits and starts to the season, Gonzaga and Baylor have clearly been the nation’s best teams by a wide margin. They have been first and second in the AP poll since the preseason.
Gonzaga is first in analyst Ken Pomeroy’s ranking with an adjusted efficiency margin of 38.38, while Baylor is second at 34.86, well ahead of No. 3 Michigan (30.58). If the season ended today, Gonzaga would have the highest such rating and Baylor would have the third-highest rating since Pomeroy began his ranking in 2002. The 2015 Kentucky team, which won its first 38 games before losing to Wisconsin in the Final Four, has the highest season-ending adjusted efficiency margin (36.91).
Gonzaga and Baylor are well-rounded, too. The Bulldogs are second in Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric and fourth in his adjusted defensive efficiency metric, while the Bears are fourth and fifth, respectively.
How rare is that? Only 11 teams have ended the season in the top-five of Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive and efficiency rating: 2002 Duke (lost in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16); 2003 Kentucky (lost in the Elite 8); 2004 Duke (lost in the Final Four); 2005 Illinois (lost in national title game); 2005 North Carolina (won national championship); 2007 North Carolina (lost in the Elite 8); 2008 Kansas (won national title); 2010 Duke (won national title); 2015 Kentucky (lost in Final Four); 2016 Villanova (won national title); and 2019 Virginia (won national title).
Based on those performances, chances are Gonzaga and Baylor will each make deep runs in the NCAA tournament, which this year will have all 67 games in Indiana to reduce travel. They are currently first and second in the NET ranking that the NCAA tournament’s selection committee uses to determine seeding, so they could be slotted to meet in the national title game on April 5.
That matchup would take place in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the same city the Bulldogs and Bears were supposed to meet in December. Still, that’s no sure thing, as there are always upsets in the single-elimination event. And this year, the pandemic makes it even harder to forecast which teams will be playing in the Final Four as some squads could be deemed ineligible based on positive tests.
Regardless, Gonzaga and Baylor have each so far had remarkable seasons and will be heavy favorites to win the title. They each are hoping to become the first team since the 1976 Indiana squad to finish the season undefeated, an accomplishment that would cement them as an all-time great.