MaCio Teague was well aware of the fact that Arkansas had made three consecutive double-digit comebacks in three tournament games. As he walked into Baylor’s locker room at halftime, he knew the vibe was off. The Bears’ first men’s berth in the Final Four in 71 years was up for grabs. Baylor played well, but the Razorbacks had cut their lead to eight points at halftime. The kind of March specific pressure that you can’t simulate had started to leak out. Teague spoke, his message was direct and quick. Keep it simple, stay together.
Already in the room was Mark Vital, Baylor’s senior statesman and resident pot shaker, as aware of the stakes as anyone. It was also on his mind. We can’t go this far just to go this far. He let Teague do most of the talking. “A lot of guys had their heads down,” says Mark Vital. “[MaCio] It was like a man, the game is not over. In any case, we lose this game, we are going to beat ourselves. “
“That was the message I wanted to get across,” says Teague. “Regardless of what is said, we are [still] at the Elite Eight, and everyone is still nervous. Regardless of what happens, we will not go further unless we go as a unit. “
Teague and Vital, both seniors, are not the faces of his team; That designation belongs to juniors Davion Mitchell and Jared Butler, All-American-level players who handle the ball, supply most of the offense and attract most of the national attention. Scott Drew comfortably plays eight deep, but Baylor is going as those four returning starters do. It usually works out well: The Bears are 52-6 the last two seasons, entering the Final Four on Saturday. It was Teague and Vital who finally broke the Arkansas game with less than five minutes to go, the former nailing consecutive triples, the latter returning a missed float for two thunderous and loud points, which more or less announced the final result.
Pointing out the strange yin and yang that entwine Baylor’s seniors verges on a lazy cliche. But at the same time, it is there. And everyone feels it. Mitchell and Butler are beloved teammates and projected first-round NBA draft picks. Everybody knows that offense and defense mostly go through those guys. However, the Bears are far from the only team in college basketball with genuine talent. And it’s the unusual dynamic between Vital and Teague that laid the foundation for a culture of responsibility, one that transcended the later years of Baylor basketball. “They are not afraid of hurting anyone’s feelings,” says a Baylor staff member.
“My thing is, nobody wants to be yelled at,” says Teague. You yell at people, it’s like fighting fire with fire. You are not accomplishing anything. Well, Mark does that. He knows how to get people to respond that way. “
Watch a Baylor game and find Vital as he makes his way across the court, full of excitement. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound power forward flexes, fouls, yells and channels energy, sometimes to the players, sometimes to the officials, always somewhere. He effectively draws the line between grubby and gregarious. Vital likes to invoke Dennis Rodman from time to time in interviews. A minimum fan benefit at this year’s tournament was that someone avoided a massive collision with Vital during Sweet 16 at Hinkle Fieldhouse, as he hurtled over a corner table chasing a loose ball. “Play at one speed, and that’s the maximum speed,” says Drew.
“I think I quietly set the tone,” says Vital. (Author’s note: there is nothing low-key about Mark Vital.) “Because, brother, I am an excellent example. I earn five points. But I’m going to grab 15 rebounds and play as hard as I can for all of you. And I still get all this recognition. “
Teague is cerebral, thoughtful, and direct with his teammates. It may be fun, but it is always serious. He gets ideas from Drew during games, and his coach cites him as a stabilizing force. He made the All-Big 12 team two years in a row. The 6’4 ”guard’s work ethic has become a legend on the show. Most days, you will spend an additional 45 minutes shooting after practice. Teague grew up idolizing Kobe Bryant, which, the more you learn about him, makes perfect sense. “I really don’t like talking all day,” Teague says of his leadership style. “But if something goes wrong, we are not practicing enough, I will definitely say it, directly.”
Vital and Teague narrowed down on Baylor’s exhibition trip to Italy in 2019, a nine-day trip in which the Bears comfortably beat four Italian teams but mostly hung out. It was Teague’s first chance to play in real games, after staying out the first year after his transfer from UNC Asheville. Teague, Vital, Mitchell and Obim Okeke (now the team’s graduate assistant) were inseparable throughout. They have become close enough to confront and consult with each other with complete confidence and unpretentiousness. “MaCio is probably the closest [to me] on the team, ”says Vital. “He is also my therapist. That’s what I said. “I’m like the Hulk, you know. I get out of control and I get very angry. You have that person who can calm you down and talk to you. MaCio is that guy. “
“Yeah, you know, sometimes it’s very intense,” says Vital’s Teague (and presumably deadpan). “I know how to talk to Mark. I can calm him down in certain situations. We just got along, and a lot of that came with confidence. He knows that I really care about him. “
“He’s a positive person,” says Vital de Teague. “I was always the muscle and he was the brain. He’s one of those guys you must have on your team. He will always pressure you, he will tell you what is right and what is wrong, he is very frank, he is a great leader. You know, he’s more of a leader than me. And I’ve been here longer. “
The running joke at Baylor is that Vital is the third longest-serving person on the show, behind Scott Drew and senior assistant Jerome Tang. (Technically, that person would be Athletic Performance Director Charlie Melton.) He turned 24 last year, old by college basketball standards. Vital grew up in a tough area of Lake Charles, Louisiana, and became engaged to the Bears in September 2013, entering his sophomore year of high school, two years before signing.
Vital, a physical specimen once labeled “the most impressive vaulter in high school basketball,” wound up wearing a red jersey upon arrival in Waco in 2016. Entering his sophomore year, Vital had something of a wake-up call. . “Even if I wanted to go try to score 20 points,” he says, “that wasn’t going to win games.” Instead, he was part of the Big 12 defensive team for three years in a row.
“With Mark, it’s loyalty and his altruism. He’s just looking at the win column. It gives him credibility, ”says former Bears center Freddie Gillespie, a captain of last season’s Bears team, who was 26–4 before COVID-19 disrupted things. “No matter how upset he was, you knew it wasn’t, ‘Oh, I don’t like you’ or ‘I want the ball more.’ It’s, ‘I really want to win. Look how I’m playing. ‘ “
In an era of early relocations and departures, Vital never left Baylor. You have lived long enough to notice changes, big and small. And he’s quick to credit Teague as the player who raised the bar for everyone else and changed the energy at the practice facility.
Take it from Gillespie, the only newcomer to graduate. Gillespie learned basketball late, but flourished in Carleton’s Division III, where he caught the attention of Baylor staff. He transferred in 2017 as a walker, training relentlessly while sitting for a year, working hard to catch up. When Butler, Mitchell and Teague arrived a year later, transferring from different schools in search of opportunities, the Baylor staff placed Gillespie on a pedestal as an example for others to follow.
That did not last. Gillespie recalls that Teague approached him early in their time as teammates with a clear message: “When I’m done, after this year, you will no longer be the hardest worker on the team.”
“That’s probably true,” Teague says. “The chaplain of our team always says that I have good charisma. I was probably laughing when I said it. “
“I was serious,” he clarifies. But I was laughing. And it was probably while we were in the gym together at the same time. “
“If I was in the gym, he would strive to be there more often than me, to go harder than me, that was in his nature,” says Gillespie, laughing. “He was like, ‘I don’t want people to say that about you anymore. I want to be that guy. ‘ I respect how clear he was about his intentions. He didn’t want anyone to work harder than him. That was his mentality. “
Teague came to Baylor in search of a larger platform and without a pre-existing relationship with Drew or his staff beyond initial recruitment. Born in Cincinnati, Teague did not receive a high grade in high school. He spent a year on the Montverde Academy graduate team and still had limited interest in high-level programs. He landed in Asheville, where he averaged 16.7 points in his sophomore year, shot 43.7% out of three in two years and became a hot commodity on the transfer portal. Knowing how it operates, nothing he’s done since has been surprising. “He has invested a lot, he has a lot of skin in the game, he has invested so many hours,” adds Gillespie. “You know he’s not just saying things.”
“My voice has a lot of weight. But [MaCio] It came in with positivity and it also changed my perspective on many things, ”says Vital. “And we started to win a lot. That is really what happened. I’ve been on teams that were very toxic to each other, that cursed each other, blamed each other. This team doesn’t do that, because we change the culture ”.
Revered as he is by his teammates and staff, Teague is eager to deflect some of the praise on Drew. “A lot of this has to do with leadership at the top,” he says. Baylor players describe their coach as a clear communicator, empowering their leaders to regulate team dynamics. They also recognize that the Bears are better off when he can really focus on training, not handling chemistry.
After spending the better part of a month in quarantine in Indianapolis, where options outside of basketball have been limited and Connect Four has become their game of choice, the Bears are aware of their circumstances. Butler, Mitchell, Teague and Vital will probably be leaving next season. And they may never experience another team that really loves each other that much. “We definitely realize that,” admits Teague. The hours that are left together are fleeting, break as it breaks.
Baylor is two victories away from vindication, with Houston on tap and a possible reunion with Gonzaga that the whole sport has been waiting for. But the heavy lifting, redefining the attitude of an entire program, from top to bottom, was done a long time ago.
“We don’t really care who eats,” says Vital. “And that’s why I think a lot of other teams are out of this tournament.”
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.