Twenty-five days ago, a consensus was building that Baylor — not Gonzaga — was the best team in college basketball. The Bears were 17-0, routinely beating good teams by double digits and seemed to have a realistic shot of entering the NCAA Tournament unbeaten.
Then COVID-19 hit, the program shut down for three weeks and all the momentum No. 2-ranked Baylor had built was suddenly at risk.
Since coming back from its coronavirus outbreak, Baylor has survived a close game against Iowa State, the worst team in the Big 12, and lost Saturday at No. 19 Kansas, 71-58.
In the big picture, Baylor suffering its first loss of the season isn’t a big deal. It might even be a blessing in disguise. If the goal is to make the Final Four and ultimately win the national championship, there are no bonus points for being undefeated going into the tournament. If anything, taking a loss in the regular season — and a reasonable one at that — eliminates any pressure or unnecessary focus on trying to become the first team since Indiana in 1976 to complete an unbeaten season.
It was also the kind of game that, if you look beyond the final score, somewhat flatters the team that lost. Baylor did not play well by its standards, making just 35 percent of its field goals and 6-of-14 from the foul line. A Baylor team that led the nation from 3-point range at 43.2 percent as a team made just 6-of-26 in Allen Field House and was trailing by just five points at the 6-minute mark.
Despite all the rust and perhaps fatigue Baylor experienced Saturday, it had a chance to win down the stretch.
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But as the Bears enter the final week of the regular season, whether they can get their mojo back looms as one of the biggest questions for college basketball entering the NCAA Tournament.
Baylor has three tough games in six days next week and the Big 12 Tournament after that before Selection Sunday. It’s not a lot of time for a team that had been rolling through the schedule to build back up to its peak level.
That’s one of the cruel parts for college basketball teams in this unusual season.
Baylor has actually had to pause twice for COVID-19 — once in December right before they were about to play Gonzaga — and in the middle of the conference schedule. When the virus struck the second time, Baylor was playing better than anybody. Now it’s a team trying to get its rhythm, endurance and confidence back.
There’s no guarantee that will happen. In fact, the whole idea that Baylor is a lock for a No. 1 seed could be tested if things go sideways at West Virginia on Tuesday, against Oklahoma State on Thursday and Texas Tech next Sunday.
If Baylor can work its way back to the way it was playing in January, its final record won’t really matter. Because that team was good enough to be penciled into the Final Four and perhaps win it all.
Can Baylor be that team again, or did COVID-19 irreparably strip the Bears of their destiny? We’ll find out in the next few weeks.
Follow columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken