As No. 2 Baylor creeps closer to its scheduled return on Tuesday against Iowa State following 21 days between games, questions will arise about how the undefeated Bears will fare after such a long layoff. Will Baylor simply resume its systematic annihilation of all opponents? Or will going three weeks between games negatively impact their conditioning and rhythm, and cause the Bears to slip from their historic pace?
While the latter may seem like a logical concern, the results of other teams that have gone through similar layoffs because of COVID-19 protocols this season suggest that Baylor won't merely survive the return to play but may actually benefit from it as the Bears try to remain unbeaten and in contention for the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
As of the beginning of this week, teams from college basketball's top seven conferences and Gonzaga sported a 21-16 record in their first game back from a layoff of 14 days or longer. But among the eight teams in this week's AP top 25 poll that have gone 14 days or more between games, their record is 9-0 in the first game back (Florida State has done it twice).
The most recent example is No. 3 Michigan, which won 67-59 at No. 21 Wisconsin on Sunday during its first game in 23 days. The Wolverines outscored the Badgers 40-20 in the second half, despite coach Juwan Howard's uncertainty about whether his team could maintain normal intensity for a full game after such a long layoff.
"I knew our guys were going to come out and compete," Howard told reporters. "I was looking at the first 10 minutes like, 'how much energy would we bring.' Then if we brought 10 minutes of great energy, 'can we sustain it for 40 minutes?' That was a big concern of mine coming in."
Howard said he saw rust in the team's first practice back, along with turnovers, excessive fouling and some "wobbly legs." But when it came time to play, the Wolverines seemed to have shaken off all the rust by the second half and ultimately looked as good as they had all season against a quality foe.
"We kept it simple," Howard said. "Simple plays, limited our mistakes, valuing the basketball. Yeah, there was a pause. We couldn't do anything about it."
Baylor will be the sixth team in this week's top-10 to return from a hiatus of 14 days or more between games this season along with Gonzaga, Michigan, Houston, Virginia and Villanova. Among that group, No. 10 Villanova had the most difficulty as the Wildcats squeaked out a 76-74 win over Seton Hall on Jan. 19 during their first game in 27 days.
That the Bears' return is coming against Iowa State, which is 2-15 (0-12 Big 12), should be even greater reassurance that their transition back to the court will be smooth. But the welcome back game against the Cyclones is just the first in a busy week for Baylor, which is scheduled to host No. 13 West Virginia on Feb. 25 and play at No. 23 Kansas on Feb. 27.
But of the other top-10 teams that have gone at least 14 days or more between games, only Virginia suffered a loss in one of its first three games back. Even that one was excusable, though, as the Cavaliers lost to No. 1 Gonzaga in their second game following an 18-day pause in December.
Though West Virginia and Kansas will be formidable foes for Baylor, the Bears have made a habit of shellacking good opposition this season, and it's been proven repeatedly by other quality teams returning from extended pauses that even a break of two weeks or longer is not enough to break good habits.
If Baylor fans are worried about the quick turnaround of playing two games in three days (as well as a third in five), there is a blueprint. Florida State provided it on Monday with an 81-60 win over Virginia just two days after the Seminoles won their first game following a 14-day break between contests.
Florida State has now gone two weeks between games on two occasions this season and handled it masterfully each time. The No. 16 Seminoles (12-3, 8-2 ACC) suffered both their league losses in their final game before the pauses and have come back with a winning streak both times to position themselves to potentially defend their ACC title.
"That's the new normal," FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said after his team beat NC State 105-73 last month during the Seminoles' first game in 15 days. " We can't have a pity party. That's what we've got to deal with. Somebody is going to deal with it efficiently and somebody is not. We want to be the team that deals with it and shows a level of maturity to get better so we can have some postseason opportunities available for us at the end of the season."