Life is good at Baylor: The No. 1 team in the nation is on a program-record 19-game winning streak and has a new $105 million facility on the way. Gillespie played through more humble times. So did MaCio Teague, who remembers his own bus-riding days at UNC Asheville. Fellow Bears guard Devonte Bandoo had his, too, at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas.
Those arrivals from off the beaten path, plus a fourth transfer, guard Davion Mitchell from Auburn, have helped get the Bears in contention for the program’s first national championship.
“We just know where we came from, and we just don’t want to go back to those places,” Teague said. “We went from riding buses to the games. Just the lifestyle is a lot different. … We’ve just got a bunch of guys who’ve experienced the other side, and we know that we’re fortunate now. So we’re just not taking days for granted.”
The Bears began the season as the No. 16 team in the nation coming off a second-round loss in the NCAA tournament. There were high aspirations but plenty of uncertainty: Last season’s leading scorer, Makai Mason, and guard King McClure were out of eligibility, and second-leading scorer Tristan Clark was coming off knee surgery. The program also lost starter Mario Kegler in September after he was suspended indefinitely and decided to turn pro.
Starters Jared Butler and Mark Vital returned, but the play of the four transfers, including two eligible to play for their first time at Baylor, has boosted the Bears (20-1, 9-0 Big 12) into national title contention entering Saturday’s game against visiting Oklahoma State. Butler leads the team with 15.3 points per game, with Teague (14.1 points), Gillespie (10.0 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.3 blocks), Mitchell (9.9 points) and Bandoo (8.0 points) next up.
Other than Mitchell, who was a four-star recruit out of high school, the group is hardly a collection of blue chips.
Gillespie and Bandoo were unranked by the recruiting site 247Sports coming out of high school. Ricardo Hill, Teague’s coach at Walnut Hills High in Cincinnati, said Teague didn’t get any real attention until he scored a school-record 51-points in the Flyin’ to the Hoop Tournament in Ohio in January 2015. Even then, he spent a postgraduate year at Montverde Academy in Florida in search of more exposure before landing at UNC Asheville. Teague was content in Asheville until his coach there, Nick McDevitt, left for Middle Tennessee.
Gillespie originally went to Carleton, less than an hour from his hometown of St. Paul, Minn., with the plan of getting a solid education and playing basketball on the side. He started at Baylor as a walk-on in 2017 after he watched a North Carolina game and decided he had the size (6-foot-9) and athleticism to play in Division I.
“Everybody doesn’t have the same route,” Teague said.
Baylor has played in the NCAA tournament in five of the past six seasons and eight times under Coach Scott Drew, who has frequently recruited the transfer market, though perhaps never this successfully. He has six transfers on the 14-man roster, including Adam Flagler and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, both of whom are sitting out this season under NCAA rules.
“I think recruiting is a real fluid situation,” Drew said. “Nowadays you have people that leave that you don’t expect it. They could go pro; they could transfer. You used to map out, ‘We have four scholarships or three scholarships.’ Now it’s, ‘Okay, this is what we have today, but we could have this or this or this.’ You have to stay flexible.”
Gillespie said he had a good feeling about this season during a summer exhibition trip to Italy, where he saw a deep, unselfish team with a ridiculous work ethic. That level of optimism has been exceeded.
“They’re just a really connected, mature team,” said Seth Greenberg, the ESPN analyst and former college coach. “They’re like an old-school team. … You’ve got the blue bloods that are trying to play their way into the NCAA tournament. So what you’re seeing is an emergence of a Dayton [20-2 and ranked sixth nationally]. You’re seeing an emergence of a Baylor. But the Baylor team is interesting because they are older. … The DNA of the Final Four championship team looks like Baylor over the last four years. … You look at the teams that have made these runs, they look like Gonzaga and Baylor.”
This season may be the perfect storm of opportunity for the Bears. There’s no dominant power — seven teams have been ranked No. 1, none for longer than four weeks — and Baylor’s team-centric approach with the No. 5 scoring defense in the nation may have more value than in previous years.
“This year, I think more than ever, you have a lot of parity, and with a lot of parity it means you have opportunity,” Drew said.
The Bears also have the right profile. Twenty-nine of the past 31 national champions were ranked in the top 12 on Feb. 1 of that season, according to the NCAA. Baylor also has its first 9-0 conference start since the 1947-48 season. The signature wins are there, too: No. 3 Kansas, No. 10 Villanova, No. 19 Butler, No. 23 Arizona and Texas Tech.
“It’s definitely surreal a lot of times,” Gillespie said. “I didn’t think that I was going to be contributing like I do on a team that’d be that successful. … It’s something that we definitely embrace. One thing, MaCio and Dave still call me ‘Scout Team Freddie.’ … We’re proud of the fact that we were overlooked and that people might still be overlooking us and still don’t think that we’re the real deal.”