Key Departures: Jared Butler (NBA); Davion Mitchell (NBA); MaCio Teague (Grad); Mark Vital (Grad)
New In Town: James Akinjo (<–Arizona); Kendall Brown (#13); Langston Love (#40); Jeremy Sochan (#110)
State of the Program:
What Scott Drew has done with this program is incredible and woefully underappreciated. To get an irrelevant program to be consistently very good, and then reach the mountaintop in year 18 had to be one of the most satisfying feelings you can ever have in coaching. He took a program that had made 1 tournament since 1950 and made them a perineal contender, and now they’re the defending National Champions. Last season’s final game was the matchup we all wanted, the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object, as Baylor and Gonzaga met with a combined 58-2 record. Drew and the Bears were absolutely dominate in their dismantling of the undefeated Zags, and now get to attempt to go back-to-back, something only 2 previous schools have done since the tourney expanded in 1985. It will be a very challenging task to do so however, as the 4 best players from a season ago have left town. What they’ll get to lean on though is the bench players from a year ago that were vital to their success. They will be led by Adam Flagler (JR), Matthew Mayer (SR), and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua (JR). Those 3 all had huge roles a year ago, and are set to become stars of their own with expanded roles. They also welcome back starting C Flo Thamba (SR) and LJ Cryer (SO) who appeared in most games a year ago in a limited role. While they won’t have the firepower they had last season, this core mixed with the group coming in will absolutely make them contenders in the Big 12 and make them a tough out come March.
There are a couple of guys coming in that can have a major impact right away, and the first is Arizona transfer PG James Akinjo (SR). Akinjo can come in and lead an offense at the point, and is coming off an All-PAC 12 selection after averaging 15 ppg and 5 apg. He’s an athletic G that can score at all 3 levels, and is money from 3 as he shot nearly 41% a year ago. He and Flagler together aren’t quite Mitchell and Butler, but they still should be one of the better backcourts in the Conference. Also coming in looking for a starting gig is 6’8” wing Kendall Brown (#13). The Freshman comes in as an explosive athlete that is absolutely electric to watch. His offensive game needs development, but his length and quickness will allow him to be a versatile weapon on defense. Brown will also be dangerous in transition, as he excels when attacking downhill. He will likely be a one-and-done, but the Bears will enjoy his highlight reel ability for however long they have him. Langston Love (#40) is a 6’4” guard who will be competing for backup minutes this year and could develop into a star in the coming years. He’s strong, athletic, and can shoot it, much like we’ve become accustomed to seeing in a Baylor G. He will likely join Cryer as the primary guards off the bench. The last newcomer is 6’8” PF Jeremy Sochan (#110), who comes in a little undersized to be a big man but not quite developed enough to be a stretch 4 or wing player. He can certainly develop a jumper and become a dangerous stretch big, and if he does can become a very productive starter down the road for Baylor.
Coach Drew and the Bears are primed for yet another year of contention at the top of the Big 12 and the country. The addition of Akinjo to pair with Flagler and Mayer give them solid scoring punch, and the athleticism of those 3 go perfectly with Brown, Tchatchoua, Cryer and Thamba to allow them to continue to be an elite defensive team. They should be able to play big with Brown, Mayer, and Tchatchoua/Thamba and dominate the interior every night. While their offense will not be as explosive as it was a year ago, I like them to get even stingier on D and use that to create more transition opportunities. Akinjo is the exact type of playmaker they needed to help get Flagler and Mayer open looks. What lowers their ceiling is the loss of a go-to guy like Butler. They don’t have a star, and that could haunt them in the tournament. While I love Mayer and Flagler and believe they’ll excel in their expanded roles, in order to do what you have to do in March to repeat, you need a guy who can go get you a bucket at any moment. The lack of that guy is what keeps me from having Baylor as a legitimate threat to repeat and get to the Final Four. I think a sweet 16/Elite 8 exit will be in order for this Bears group, and they won’t have enough for the Jayhawks at the top of the Big 12 either.