MaCio Teague was well aware of the fact Arkansas had rattled off three straight double-digit comebacks in three tournament games. As he strode into Baylor’s locker room at halftime, he knew the vibe was off. The top-seeded Bears’ first men’s Final Four berth in 71 years hung in the balance. Baylor played well, but the Razorbacks had cut its lead to eight points at halftime. The type of March-specific pressure you can’t simulate had started to to seep in. Teague, spoke up, his messaging pointed and quick. Keep it simple, stay together.
Already in the room was Mark Vital, Baylor’s eldest statesman and resident pot-stirrer, as aware of the stakes as anyone. It was on his mind too. We can’t come this far just to come this far. He let Teague do most of the talking. “A lot of guys had their head down,” says Mark Vital. “[MaCio] was like man, the game’s not over with. If anything, we lose this game, we’re gonna beat ourselves.”
“That was the message I wanted to get across,” Teague says. “Regardless of anything that’s said, we’re [still] in the Elite Eight, and everybody’s still on edge. Regardless of what happens, we’re not gonna go further unless we’re going as a unit.”
Teague and Vital, both seniors, are not the faces of their 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 garner most of the national attention. Scott Drew comfortably plays eight deep, but Baylor goes as those four returning starters go. It tends to work well: the Bears are 52–6 over the last two seasons, entering Saturday’s Final Four. It was Teague and Vital who eventually broke the Arkansas game open with less than five minutes to go, the former nailing consecutive threes, the latter putting back a missed floater for a thunderous, loud two points, which more or less announced the eventual outcome.
To point out the strange yin and yang intertwining Baylor’s seniors borders on lazy cliché. But at the same time, it’s sitting right there. And everyone feels it. Mitchell and Butler are beloved teammates and projected first-round NBA draft picks. Everyone knows the offense and defense primarily run through those guys. Yet the Bears are far from the only team in college basketball with bonafide talent. And it’s the unusual dynamic between Vital and Teague that’s laid the foundation for a culture of accountability, one that’s transcended the last few years of Baylor basketball. “They aren’t afraid to hurt anyone’s feelings,” says one Baylor staffer.
“My whole thing is, nobody wants to be screamed at,” Teague says. You scream at people, it’s like fighting fire with fire. You’re 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 bowls his way around the court, dripping with emotion. The 6′ 5”, 250-pound power forward flexes and fouls and screams and channels energy, sometimes at players, sometimes at officials, always somewhere. He effectively toes the line between grimy and gregarious. Vital likes to invoke Dennis Rodman from time to time in interviews. One benefit of minimal fans at this year’s tournament was that someone avoided a massive collision with Vital during the Sweet 16 at Hinkle Fieldhouse, as he barreled over a corner table chasing a loose ball. “He plays one speed, and that’s full speed,” Drew says.
“I think I low-key set the tone,” Vital says. (Author’s note: there is nothing low-key about Mark Vital.) “Because, bro, I’m a prime example. I score five points. But I’ll go grab 15 rebounds and play as hard as I can for y’all. And I still get all this recognition.”
Teague is cerebral, thoughtful and direct with teammates. He can be funny, but he’s always serious. He ping-pongs ideas off of Drew during games, and his coach cites him as a stabilizing force. He’s made the All-Big 12 team two years running. The 6’ 4” guard’s work ethic has become the stuff of legend within the program. On most days, he’ll spend an extra 45 minutes shooting after practice. Teague grew up idolizing Kobe Bryant, which, the more you learn about him, makes a lot of sense. “I don’t really like to talk all day long,” Teague says of his leadership style. “But if something’s wrong, we’re not practicing hard enough, I’ll definitely just say it, straight up.”
Vital and Teague grew tight on Baylor’s exhibition trip to Italy in 2019, a nine-day voyage on which the Bears handily beat four Italian teams, but mostly hung out. It was Teague’s first opportunity to play in real games, after sitting out the first year following his transfer from UNC Asheville. Teague, Vital, Mitchell and Obim Okeke (now a graduate assistant for the team) were inseparable throughout. They’ve grown tight enough to confront and consult one another with full confidence and zero pretense. “MaCio’s probably the closest [to me] on the team,” Vital says. “He’s also my therapist. That’s what I say. “I’m like the Hulk, you know. I get out of control and get real mad. You got that one person that can calm you down and talk to you. MaCio’s that guy.”
“Yeah, you know, sometimes he’s really intense,” Teague says of Vital (and, presumably, deadpanning). “I know how to talk to Mark. I can calm him down in certain situations. We just get along, and a lot of it came with trust. He knows I truly care about him.”
“He’s just a positive person,” Vital says of Teague. “I was always the muscle and he was the brains. He’s one of those guys you gotta have on your team. He’s gonna always push you, he’ll tell you what’s right or wrong, he’s real blunt, he’s just 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 tenured person in the program, behind Scott Drew and top assistant Jerome Tang. (Technically, that person would be Director of Athletic Performance Charlie Melton.) He turned 24 last year, already ancient by college basketball’s standards. Vital grew up in a rough part of Lake Charles, La., and committed to the Bears in September 2013, entering his sophomore year of high school, two years before he actually signed.
A physical specimen once labeled as “middle school basketball’s most impressive dunker,” Vital wound up redshirting on arrival in Waco in 2016. Entering his sophomore year, Vital had something of an awakening. “Even if I wanted to go try to score 20 points,” he says, “that wasn’t going to win games.” Instead, he made the Big 12’s All Defensive team three years running.
“With Mark, it’s the loyalty and his unselfishness. He’s looking only at the win column. It gives credibility to it,” says former Bears center Freddie Gillespie, a captain on last season’s Bears team, which was 26–4 before COVID-19 cut things short. “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 at the way I’m playing.’ ”
In an era of transfers and early departures, Vital never wavered from Baylor. He’s been around long enough to perceive the 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 in the practice facility.
Take it from Gillespie, the lone starter to graduate. Gillespie picked up basketball late, but blossomed at Division III Carleton, where he caught the eye of Baylor’s staff. He transferred in 2017 as a walk-on, training relentlessly as he sat out a year, working hard to catch up. When Butler, Mitchell and Teague arrived a year later, transfers from different schools all searching for opportunity, Baylor’s staff placed Gillespie on a pedestal as the example for others to follow.
That didn’t last. Gillespie recalls Teague approaching him early in their time as teammates with a clear message: “By the time I’m done, after this year, you won’t be the hardest worker on the team anymore.”
“That’s probably true,” says Teague. “Our team chaplain always says 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 made a point of trying to be there more often than me, go harder than me, that was just in his nature,” says Gillespie, chuckling. “He was like, ‘I don’t want people to say that about you anymore. I wanna be that guy.’ I respect how clear he was about his intentions. He didn’t want anyone to outwork him. That was his mentality.”
Teague came to Baylor in search of a bigger platform, and with no pre-existing relationship with Drew or his staff beyond the initial recruitment. A native of Cincinnati, Teague was not highly rated in high school. He spent a year on Montverde Academy’s postgrad team, and still had limited interest from high-major programs. He landed at Asheville, where he averaged 16.7 points as a sophomore, shot 43.7% from three over two years and became a hot commodity in the transfer portal. Knowing how he operates, nothing about what he’s done since has been surprising. “He’s invested so much, he has so much skin in the game, he’s put in so many hours,” Gillespie adds. “You know he’s not just saying things.”
“My voice carries a lot of weight. But [MaCio] came in with the positivity, and also changed my perspective on a lot of things,” Vital says. “And we started winning a lot. That’s really what happened. I’ve been on teams that was very toxic for each other, that cuss each other out, blame each other. This team doesn’t do that, because we changed the culture.”
Revered as he is by teammates and staff, Teague is eager to deflect some of the praise onto Drew. “A lot of it has to do with the leadership up top,” he says. Baylor’s players describe their coach as a clear communicator, who empowers his leaders to regulate the team dynamic. They also acknowledge that the Bears are better off when he can actually focus on coaching, not managing chemistry.
After spending the better part of a month quarantined 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 likely all be gone next season. And they may never experience another team that actually likes each other this much. “We definitely realize that,” Teague admits. The hours they have left together are fleeting, whichever way this breaks.
Baylor is two wins away from vindication, with Houston on tap, and a potential meeting with Gonzaga that the entire sport has been hoping for. But the heavy lifting—redefining the attitude of an entire program, 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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