WACO -- Seventeen years of Baylor basketball built up to Saturday’s heavyweight prize fight at the Ferrell Center.
In one corner, you had the Baylor Bears. Baylor came in ranked No. 1 in the nation and No. 2 in KenPom. In the other corner, Kansas was No. 3 in the polls, but a sturdy No. 1 in KenPom. The teams came in with a combined 47-4 record; no other high-major team in America has fewer than four losses alone.
The hype was uncontrollable. Some Baylor students showed up at 11 a.m. the day before to camp out for a spot in the student section. College GameDay was on hand from Waco. University luminaries like Robert Griffin III, Curtis Jerrells, Chip Gaines and Rico Gathers made their way to Waco for the game. It was one of the hottest Baylor athletics tickets of all time, if not No. 1 on the list.
“The energy is the building was loud, fans were in it,” Kansas point guard Devon Dotson said. “You could just feel the buzz around it. It was just an exciting time.”
The capacity crowd of 10,627 were treated to perhaps the best game of the college basketball season. Baylor opened the game on a run. Kansas responded. The Jayhawks went up double-digits in the second half. The Bears responded. Every time one team seemed to have an answer, the other took it away. It was a chess match of epic proportions, all the way up until Baylor guard Jared Butler missed a 3-point attempt at the buzzer to snap Baylor's historic 23-game win streak in a 64-61 loss.
“Well I liked the first game against Kansas better than this one,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “I told Coach [Bill] Self that I hope we see him again, but I hope it’s in the Final Four because that would be great for the Big 12.”
Everything about this game highlighted the gap between these two teams and the rest of the sport. The fight went 12 brutal rounds, all the way until the very end. It featured two teams very much capable of winning a national title.
“It’s high level,” Butler said. “I think all these guys on the court want to win, wants to win a Big 12 championship and that’s what you want out of a 19, 20-year-old college kid.”
Kansas coach Bill Self called Baylor the best Big 12 opponent that he’s played since entering the conference in 2003, slightly ahead of 2004 Oklahoma State and 2019 Texas Tech at this point. Bringing his team on the road to beat the Bears after giving up Baylor’s first ever win at Allen Fieldhouse was major motivation.
“I think it meant a lot to our guys, a lot more than the league race,” Self said. “We didn’t talk about the league race. They beat us at home the first time, and they controlled the game at home a lot more than we did here. But I think we were pretty motivated to play a highly motivated game in a great atmosphere with a lot of eyeballs watching. That meant a lot more to us than the actual league race.”
Perhaps no player showed that more than Udoka Azubuike. The Kansas center was held to just six points in the first matchup. Baylor used a combination of fronting and backside rotations to take Azubuike out of his game in Lawrence. He flipped the script in Waco, responding with 23 points and 19 rebounds in one of the most dominant performances of his career.
Baylor found ways to stay in the game, even as its star four-guard rotation struggled. Butler was the only Baylor guard to crack double-figures; MaCio Teague, Davion Mitchell and Devonte Bandoo combined for just 14 points on 5-for-20 shooting. But still, there were the Bears grinding until the end.
These two teams are now tied at the top of the Big 12 with identical 13-1 conference records. The third place team, Texas Tech, has five losses. Baylor and Kansas are undefeated against the rest of the conference. If that keeps up through the final four games, Baylor and Kansas will finish as co-champions.
The Kansas win snaps a 23-game Baylor winning streak, which was the longest of all time. The Bears passed the previous record of 22 games on Tuesday against Oklahoma, which was set by a Jayhawks team that featured Paul Pierce and five other future NBA players. But even so, it cements Baylor and Kansas as the teams to beat in college basketball.
The last time Baylor lost a game – against Washington in the second game of the year – the Bears responded with a historic run. With the Big 12 tournament and NCAAs still ahead, there’s no reason why Baylor couldn’t do the same again. And who knows, the Bears and Jayhawks could even find their way to a rematch in the Final Four.
“I think it humbles,” Butler said of losing. “It fires up our approach for the next game. Now we look more for the little things we didn’t do in this game. It just refines our focus and it’s up to us to either let this break us or let this make us.”