INDIANAPOLIS — The Baylor men’s basketball rebuilding project began nearly two decades ago, when Scott Drew took over a program in shambles. Drew’s climb here — to such a dominant performance in a Final Four matchup against Houston — was gradual and seemingly on the cusp of coming to fruition for years. Losing seasons turned into NCAA tournament appearances. Those became Elite Eight berths, obvious markers of the program’s growth.

This postseason, the Bears climbed to the summit, reaching the Final Four for the first time since 1950. And when they finally had a chance to compete on that stage Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, they delivered a showcase, proving their worthiness and potential as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. They dismantled No. 2 seed Houston, 78-59, and asserted their will from the start to earn a spot in Monday’s national title game.

Each time point guard Jared Butler nailed a three-pointer and at the end of every suffocating defensive possession, Baylor reinforced that it stood on a tier above the Cougars. Once a struggling program, the Bears have evolved into a consistent tournament team that has finally made it to the top.

“Every day you're grinding,” Drew said. “And you really don't look back. You just keep pressing forward.”

The championship game will cap a strange season played during a pandemic and mark the end of a tournament confined to one region and inside six sparsely filled Indiana arenas. But after an upset-ridden first weekend of the tournament, Baylor’s win in this semifinal was the first piece to a marquee title game matchup that pits the Bears against No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga, which defeated 11th-seeded UCLA, 93-90, in overtime Saturday night.

Gonzaga and Baylor have been considered the nation’s top teams all year, and their planned nonconference meeting was canceled because of coronavirus cases in Gonzaga’s program. After the cancellation, Drew said, he and Gonzaga Coach Mark Few joked, “If we end up playing this game in the Final Four or the championship game, that sounds like a better idea.”

By reaching the title game in such commanding fashion, the Bears demonstrated that they should be able to compete with the best. Against the Cougars, Baylor delivered a well-rounded performance, with sharp shooting from three-point range and the same solid defense that has stymied opponents throughout the tournament.

Baylor guard Davion Mitchell hit a three-pointer at the halftime buzzer, a fitting end to the team’s first-half offensive show. The Bears made eight shots from deep in the opening 20 minutes, helping them climb far ahead to ensure the Cougars could never threaten. Houston, meanwhile, only had one player with more than two points at the break, and the Cougars’ 25-point deficit at halftime was the fourth largest in national semifinal history.

“Houston doesn't give you anything,” Drew said. “You have to be really good. And that first half was about as well as any team could play against Houston.”

Butler, the Bears’ leading scorer, fueled his team’s early surge by hitting 4 of 5 three-point attempts in the first half on his way to a 17-point performance. Butler, one of the nation’s top point guards, entered the tournament shooting 42.9 percent from three, but he slumped to 25 percent during the four tournament games before the Final Four. Butler reemerged as Baylor’s offensive leader Saturday and powered the Bears all evening. Mitchell, recently named the national defensive player of the year, added 12 points with 11 assists, and five Baylor players finished in double figures.

“When we're all connected and we're all united,” Butler said, “it's hard for anybody to beat us.”

A team’s path to the final weekend hardly matters when fans and players remember tournament runs. Like Baylor’s, Houston’s Final Four berth also marked a landmark accomplishment for the program, which has been revived under Coach Kelvin Sampson and reached this round for the first time since 1984. But the Cougars arrived at Saturday’s matchup without having needed to beat any team with a single-digit seed.

The gap between these Texas programs was stark Saturday, particularly when the Cougars shot 26.9 percent from the field in the first half. Houston could hardly find any production outside sophomore guard Marcus Sasser, who made five three-pointers to score 17 of the Cougars’ 20 points before halftime.

The Bears thrive with their depth and experience. “I thought all year long our secret to our success has been our bench,” Drew said, adding that his team has a “starting rotation” rather than a starting lineup.

Early in the matchup, before Baylor had positioned itself firmly ahead of Houston, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Matthew Mayer entered the game off the bench, and together they generated a 10-0 Bears run. Both of those players reached double figures — 11 points for Tchamwa Tchatchoua and 12 for Mayer — and those contributions helped highlight Baylor’s excellence. When the Bears’ offense is at its best, with help from across a roster of experienced players, they can compete with the best programs and easily topple those not on that top tier.

The Bears started the season with 17 straight wins, making a case early on that they would be a title contender, but then their season abruptly paused because of coronavirus issues in the program. The team had to wait three weeks before it could play again, and even though Baylor won its first game back, the Bears appeared as though they had lost some of their moxie. But now with a chance to play for the program’s first national title, Baylor’s performance Saturday appeared to be a full return to that peak form.

“If we’re not where we were,” Drew said, “I can’t see the difference.”

— Story by Emily Giambalvo

Find updates below

11:21 p.m.
Link copied
link

Images from Baylor’s 78-59 win over Houston

10:55 p.m.
Link copied
link

Other Cougars chipping in, Houston struggling to chip away

Houston used a 10-2 run to cut into its 25-point halftime deficit and has come within 16 points in the second half.

Marcus Sasser scored 17 of Houston’s 20 first half points and made six of its seven shots — with DeJon Jarreau responsible for the other three. Five other Cougars have scored halfway through the second half. But Houston now trails 60-41 at the under-8 TV timeout.

10:25 p.m.
Link copied
link

Halftime: Baylor 45, Houston 20

Houston succumbed to sloppy turnovers and frosty shooting, surrendering more first-half points than it has all year and falling behind Baylor, 45-20, at halftime.

Baylor used runs of 16-3, 11-0, and 7-2 to seize control, dominating Houston in almost every major statistical category. The Bears shot 57.1 percent from the field and 53.3 percent from three-point range. They forced nine turnovers and had nine more rebounds than the nation’s sixth-best rebounding team.

Houston shot 7-for-26 (26.9 percent), and its 25-point halftime deficit would have been worse if not for Marcus Sasser, who made six of the team’s seven shots. He has 17 of Houston’s 20 points, shooting 6-for-11 from the field and 5-for-8 from distance.

Six Baylor players have scored while just four Houston players have taken shots outside of Sasser — totaling 1-for-15 from the field.

This is shaping up to be one of the more lopsided games ever at this stage in the tournament.

9:44 p.m.
Link copied
link

Kelvin Sampson risks perfect record vs. Baylor

Among the things on the line in Saturday’s Final Four game between the Cougars and the Bears is Houston Coach Kelvin Sampson’s perfect mark against Baylor. He carries a 22-0 record against Bears, having last defeated them, 80-52, as the coach of the Oklahoma Sooners on Feb. 11, 2006.

9:14 p.m.
Link copied
link

How they got here: Baylor (26-2)

NCAA tournament results: Hartford, 79-55; Wisconsin, 76-63; Villanova, 62-51; Arkansas, 81-72

Elite Eight: Arkansas committed 15 turnovers leading to 21 points for Baylor, which is playing in its first Final Four in 71 years.

Baylor will face Houston in a clash between old Southwest Conference foes. The Bears have the country’s sixth-highest scoring offense (83 points per game). They used it to pull away early then fend off a second half challenge from No. 3 Arkansas in the Elite Eight. The game — and Baylor’s tournament run — showcased the most visible of the team’s strengths: its guards.

MaCio Teague scored a game-high 22 points against Arkansas, leading a Bears offense that shot 8-for-15 from three-point range (53.3 percent) and led by as many as 18 points in an 81-72 victory.

The Bears were less productive in the first half against No. 5 Villanova in the Sweet 16, however, mustering just 23 points and falling behind by seven by halftime. But their guards, namely Davion Mitchell and Adam Flagler, took control after intermission. The Bears harassed the Wildcats, forcing 16 turnovers (to Baylor’s six), and outscoring Villanova 22-4 off those takeaways. They won, 62-51.

All-American Jared Butler, arguably Baylor’s best guard, has yet to lead the team in scoring this postseason. But his 29 total points helped push Baylor past Hartford and Wisconsin in the first two rounds.

9:14 p.m.
Link copied
link

How they got here: Houston (28-3)

NCAA tournament results: Cleveland State, 87-56; Rutgers, 63-60; Syracuse, 62-46; Oregon State, 67-61

Elite Eight: The No. 2 Cougars stormed out to a 17-point halftime advantage but allowed the Beavers to tie the game with 3:48 left. A pair of late Oregon State turnovers helped Houston secure a spot in the Final Four.

Houston’s tough defense is hardly its only strength. The Cougars rank in the top eight nationally in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. They’re the sixth-best rebounding team (40.9 per game) in the country and led the American Athletic Conference in three-pointers made (9.2 per game).

But defense has been Houston’s calling card throughout Coach Kelvin Sampson’s tenure and the team’s current campaign. The Cougars rank second nationally in scoring defense (57.6) and are tied for fifth in total steals.

They held No. 15 Cleveland State to 56 points in the first round and limited Syracuse to 46 in the Sweet 16, smothering Buddy Boeheim, who had averaged 28.3 points in his previous four games but struggled to 12 points on 3-for-13 shooting against Houston. In the second round, Houston kept Rutgers off the scoreboard in the final two minutes, facilitating a come-from-behind victory.

This is the school’s first Final Four appearance in 37 years and the first for the once-banished Sampson since he led Oklahoma to the national semifinals 19 years ago.

8:58 p.m.
Link copied
link

When Houston and Baylor meet in the Final Four, it will be father vs. son on the sidelines

INDIANAPOLIS — As the son of a college basketball coach, Alvin Brooks III spent late nights in the gym after a loss. His dad would pore over game film in his office, searching for answers for why his Houston team struggled that day. The family lived about 30 minutes from campus. Brooks, a high-schooler, didn’t have a car. So he would wait for his dad, sometimes getting home at 3 a.m., before waking up for school that morning.

Brooks had no interest in following his dad into coaching. He didn’t want those tortuous nights. Brooks’s dad didn’t think his son would coach either. Brooks excelled academically, eventually earning a degree in finance, and he’s a “numbers guy,” his dad said.

“But you can’t stop what you love,” the younger Brooks said.

8:45 p.m.
Link copied
link

The transfer portal has taken Houston, Baylor, Gonzaga and UCLA to the Final Four

INDIANAPOLIS — As the Houston men’s basketball team celebrated its Final Four berth, a jumbled crew of athletes from various places deserved much of the credit. These players didn’t intend to play for Houston. They started their careers elsewhere. But eventually they landed with the Cougars on Coach Kelvin Sampson’s transfer-heavy team. And together, they have thrived.

A former Kansas Jayhawk (Quentin Grimes) scored more points than any other Houston player in its four wins on the path to the national semifinals. In Sampson’s system, which values rebounding as much as scoring, a former Towson Tiger (Justin Gorham) has grabbed the most boards during his team’s extended Indianapolis stay. And the leading assist man? That’s DeJon Jarreau, formerly a Massachusetts Minuteman, who also happens to be the team’s best defender.

The second-seeded Cougars, with four transfers in their starting lineup and two more on the roster, are an extreme example of a program that leans on players from elsewhere. But they’re also a reflection of their peers, both in the men’s Final Four and across the college basketball landscape, as players take advantage of more freedom to transfer and programs embrace how those athletes can be valuable additions.