INDIANAPOLIS — When Jared Butler left Alabama in the summertime of 2018, enrolling at Baylor simply earlier than his freshman 12 months began, he walked into what was a middling program, one which had not reached the N.C.A.A. event the prior season and had been identified for its early flameouts.
His eyes had been on what was in entrance of him — competing for a beginning job, getting adjusted to faculty and profitable as many video games as doable.
A visit to the Final Four appeared as unlikely as a visit to the moon.
“Could I believe it three years ago?” Butler mentioned on Friday. “No.”
Here the Bears are, although, having arrived not simply on the Final Four for the primary time since 1950, however on the cusp of profitable their first nationwide championship. They seemed the half on Saturday evening, overwhelming Houston, 78-59, in a nationwide semifinal by rediscovering their deadeye Three-point capturing and unleashing a clampdown protection.
The win strikes Baylor into Monday evening’s title sport towards both undefeated Gonzaga or unsung U.C.L.A. If is certainly the Zags, it might be a match 4 months in making, ever since their sport right here in Indianapolis was canceled in December simply 90 minutes earlier than tipoff due to a constructive instances within the Baylor program. The ambiance for that sport, which might pit the groups who’ve been ranked atop The Associated Press Top 25 ballot nearly all season, nearly actually wouldn’t match the anticipation.
Contemporary Final Fours have lengthy grown past mere basketball video games into mega occasions, performed in cavernous soccer stadiums and accompanied by weekend-long leisure. The tipoffs, accompanied by a sea of flashbulbs, carry a palpable power.
This one is noticeably muted due to the pandemic, from the absence of throngs of followers carousing by downtown Indianapolis on Friday evening, to the big curtain that divided Lucas Oil Stadium in half — limiting the group to lower than 10,000. (The semifinals drew a document 72,238 right here in 2015.)
Also absent, as they’ve been all through the event, are the workforce’s cheerleaders and bands — such a staple of the lads’s event that the N.C.A.A., by its tv contract, is required to transport them to the Final Four.
“It still feels like we’re playing basketball,” Butler mentioned. “We go back to the hotel. It’s just us, us the team. And we just got one mission, one goal. I think it will sink in later on in life or maybe two months from now when I’m, like, wow, we’re really in the national championship game.”
In making an attempt to create a extra customary aesthetic for tv, the organizers stuffed most of the empty seats with cardboard cutouts — usually together with colleges’ well-known basketball gamers. Occupying a number of seats had been Michigan’s Cazzie Russell, the Fab Five and a newer star, Trey Burke. Elgin Baylor, in a Seattle University jersey, occupied another. As did a startlingly clean-shaven Justin Turner — in his Cal State Fullerton baseball uniform.
Turner’s presence was a reminder that, while the men’s and women’s tournaments have largely proceeded uninterrupted — the Virginia Commonwealth men were the only team to leave the tournament because of virus cases — playing in a pandemic can be a capricious exercise. Turner, the third baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers, was pulled near the end of the clinching Game 6 of the World Series because of a positive test.
There was no such intervention on behalf of Houston on Saturday.
The Cougars, playing in their first Final Four since 1984, had their mettle tested on path to a national semifinal — rallying from 10 points down to beat Rutgers and mustering enough to finish off Oregon State after blowing a 17-point lead — but they only had to beat double-digit seeds to get there.
Houston carried with it an intransigent defense team whose senior guard, spindly DeJon Jarreau, locked down two of the tournament’s hottest scorers, Syracuse’s Buddy Boeheim and Oregon State’s Ethan Thompson. But it is hardly an exaggeration to suggest that the Cougars’ best scoring option is an offensive rebound. They led the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, according to KenPom.com, grabbing 39.8 percent of their missed shots.
The Cougars’ first possession had to give Baylor Coach Scott Drew pause when Reggie Chaney and Justin Gorham grabbed offensive rebounds for Houston before Marcus Sasser sank a wide-open 3-pointer.
It turned out to be the last hurrah for Houston.
Baylor locked down everybody but Sasser, securing the defensive boards and assailing the Cougars defense with a hail of 3-pointers. When Davion Mitchell swished a 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer, it put them up 45-20 — all but giving them a pass-through to Monday night.
The Baylor defense shackled the entire Houston offense with the exception of Sasser, who scored 17 of his team’s 20 points in the first half. Everyone else was a combined 1 for 15 at halftime.
The Bears, who were the best 3-point shooting team in the country during the regular season, regained their form — especially Butler, who made 4 of 5 behind the arc and scored 17 points, all in the first half. His backcourt mates, Mitchell and MaCio Teague, contributed mightily with 12 points and 11 assists for Mitchell and 11 points and 6 assists for Teague.
And while Houston did manage 14 offensive rebounds, those were offset by 13 by Baylor and the Cougars’ 38.2 percent shooting.
If Baylor can replicate Saturday’s performance, it would cap a lengthy climb from an ignominious depth.
Drew was hired in 2003 after one of the N.C.A.A.’s most horrific scandals — one Baylor player murdered another and the coach at the time, Dave Bliss, instructed players to lie to investigators, who uncovered a variety of rule breaking in the program. The Bears were hit with severe penalties, including a ban on nonconference games in 2006, and won 21 games total in Drew’s first three seasons.
They reached respectability eventually. And they took advantage of broken brackets to reach regional finals in 2010 and 2012. Those accomplishments came amid an N.C.A.A. investigation that found that Baylor coaches had made 1,200 impermissible phone calls or texts to recruits and Drew was cited for failing to monitor his program.
Now, though, the Bears are one game away from a title that few, including their star guard, might have seen coming.