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Baylor’s dominance leaves Gonzaga as its only true challenge

In the opening minutes of Baylor‘s 83-69 win at Texas, two things happened that could have some bearing on the future.

The Bears’ featured scorer recorded an exquisite steal in transition and turned away what would have been a Longhorns fast break. Then the BU star being talked up for national defensive player of the year honors took his defender to the rim off the dribble and scored with his left hand.

The players in question were, of course, Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell, respectively. That kind of versatility on both sides of the ball fairly screams one thing: Gonzaga better be ready.

Yes, there’s a good deal of basketball still to be played. The Big 12 is one of the two strongest conferences in the country, and Scott Drew’s Baylor team still has road games to play at Oklahoma, West Virginia and Kansas.

In an ordinary season, that would be a gauntlet. But you might have noticed that this is no ordinary season. Games are being canceled, blue-chip programs are struggling and, not least, Baylor is absolutely cruising through its schedule. No BU opponent has lost by fewer than eight points this season.

Tuesday’s win against Texas stands out because it should have been the toughest remaining game faced by the Bears. The Longhorns entered the evening alone in second place in the Big 12, and they were playing at home — albeit in front of a reduced crowd made up largely of friends and family. Nevertheless, Baylor rolled to its 17th consecutive victory.

The single most impressive feature about this Baylor team statistically on either side of the ball is that it simply hits its shots. To this point in the Big 12 season, BU is connecting on 56% of its 2s and 43% of its 3s. No other team in the league is even close to matching that level of accuracy.

Yet we’ve seen great shooting teams before, and they often sacrifice toughness and defense in exchange for all those makes. This is where Baylor is different. After the win in Austin, BU’s defense is, of all things, slightly better than its offense relative to the respective averages in Big 12 play.

The Bears are attaining this kind of comprehensive excellence with a rotation that’s as relentless on defense as it is efficient on offense. Butler is connecting on 45% of his 3-pointers this season yet claims the team’s highest assist rate. Mitchell is matching Butler stride for stride in assist and steal rates while also shooting 49% on his 3s.

Drew often puts a rotation on the floor with no player taller than 6-foot-8, yet Mark Vital and his teammates force misses in the paint and hold their own (albeit barely) on the defensive glass. Mostly, this group of Bears harasses opponents into turnovers. It has proved to be an unstoppable combination of excellence on offense and defense.

In fact, Baylor appears to have run out of challenges in the Big 12. The Bears now await the only opponent able to give them a run for their money. That would be Gonzaga, of course, the No. 1 team in the country.

On paper, the Bears and the Bulldogs are head and shoulders above the rest of Division I. Naturally, surprises can happen, and we have a long way to go before we reach the national championship game. Still, if all the basketball played to date has led us to one conclusion, it is this.

Let’s cut to the chase, already. Baylor and Gonzaga are the two best teams in the nation, by far, and we need to see them on the same floor, at last. The Big 12 appears to hold no more challenges for the Bears

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