During 18 seasons at Baylor, Scott Drew’s program has risen from college basketball’s gutter to one of the most consistent winners in the country.
Baylor was a job nobody seemingly wanted to take until a 32-year-old Drew left the security of Valparaiso to clean up a scandal-ridden program in 2003.
Five years later, Drew propelled the Bears to their first NCAA tournament appearance in 20 years. Since then, the Bears have made eight trips to the Big Dance with two Elite Eight appearances and two more Sweet 16 dates.
Last March would have been Drew’s ninth NCAA tournament appearance before COVID-19 shut down the Bears’ legitimate dream of making their first Final Four since 1950.
But that dream is still alive in high definition.
The Bears head into the season ranked No. 1 in the USA Today coaches poll and No. 2 in the Associated Press poll. For the first time, Big 12 coaches chose the Bears as the preseason favorite over defending conference champion Kansas.
“Well, they’re loaded,” said Kansas coach Bill Self. “l love their roster and their pieces seem to fit well. I really believe they deserve to be ranked where they are.”
After exploring the NBA draft waters, both preseason All-America junior guard Jared Butler and senior guard MaCio Teague decided to return to Baylor.
Joined by fourth-year junior guard Davion Mitchell and fifth-year senior forward Mark Vital, the Bears return four starters from last year’s team that finished 26-4 and was ranked No. 1 five straight weeks.
The Bears open a demanding nonconference schedule against No. 18 Arizona State on Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. The Bears believe they have the experience and talent to play as many as four of the first five games against Top 25 teams.
“They’ve got returning players, and that’s always a relationship in college basketball for success,” said Texas Tech coach Chris Beard. “They’ve got one of the best coaches in college basketball who probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves. It’s a great combination when you have that.”
The Bears not only have experienced veterans who learned last year how to play with a target on their backs, they’ve also got depth which will be more important than ever since COVID-19 could sideline players at any time.
Junior forwards Matthew Mayer and Flo Thamba have played significant minutes while transfers like former UNLV center Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Presbyterian College guard Adam Flagler will likely play important roles after redshirting last year.
“We have a lot of people coming back, and we get another swing at this,” Drew said. “For some programs out there, you lose half your team or three or four of your key starters, it is a different situation. We’re definitely going to miss the guys that are gone, but we return enough that I know they’re all excited to get a chance to finish what we started last year.”
When Butler decided to return for his junior year, Baylor was assured of being a top 10 preseason team. Butler is not only a preseason All-American, he’s the Big 12 preseason player of the year after averaging a team-high 16 points and shooting 38.1 percent from 3-point range while averaging 3.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists last season.
Unfinished business following last year’s cancellation of the NCAA Tournament was a big reason Butler returned after exploring his NBA draft options.
“It was so mind-boggling how the season ended,” Butler said. “Like ‘What, we didn’t play the NCAA Tournament?’ That was really heavy on me. I didn’t play a lot of what-ifs, but do I think we could have won the national championship? Yes, without a doubt.”
Teague also wanted to take another shot at playing for a potential national championship team. Now a fifth-year senior after playing two seasons at North Carolina-Asheville, Teague will be one of the best shooters in the Big 12 after averaging 13.9 points and shooting 35.5 percent from 3-point range with a team-high 84.8 percent from the free throw line.
At 6-3, Teague is an aggressive rebounder who averaged 4.6 boards last year.
“I reflected with Coach Drew and it was the best decision for me to come back for my senior year,” Teague said. “I worked on perfecting my game, all aspects of my game. I feel I’ve improved in certain areas that you guys will just have to wait and see when the team starts.”
Baylor’s defense was one of the best in the country last season, and two big reasons for that were Vital and Mitchell.
Vital was a finalist for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Award after averaging 6.2 rebounds and collecting a team-high 50 steals last year. His versatility to guard any position on the court is a major reason Baylor’s man-to-man defense is so effective.
As the only current player who has been in Baylor’s basketball program for five years, Vital takes his role as a team leader seriously after learning from former Baylor players like Ish Wainright.
“It’s kind of crazy because it felt like just yesterday I was redshirted (in 2016-17), and now I’m in Ish Wainright’s position,” Vital said. “We had some good guys, King (McClure), everybody. I studied them, and I’m one of those guys where I’ve got to step up and make sure I keep the team intact. I’ve got to push them every day. It’s not hard for me because I come every day ready to go, but I’m looking forward to leading this team. I’m the old guy now.”
Mitchell is one of the nation’s best perimeter defenders, and his example has made Butler and Teague better defenders. After averaging 9.9 points and a team-high 3.9 assists last season, Mitchell is looking to become a bigger offensive threat.
“I feel like my game has gotten better, like my footwork has gotten better for my shot,” Mitchell said. “So I’m getting more comfortable shooting the basketball. Being a vocal leader, not only just on the defensive end, I’ve got to be a leader on the offensive end too.”
Baylor’s biggest loss from last season was forward Freddie Gillespie, who recently agreed to a free agent deal with the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks. He averaged 9.6 points and a team-high 9.1 rebounds and 2.2 blocks, so replacing his impact in the paint won’t be easy.
With senior forward Tristan Clark announcing his retirement on Tuesday due to ongoing knee issues, 6-10 junior Thamba and 6-8 sophomore Tchamwa Tchatchoua will be counted on to patrol the middle for the Bears.
With so many guards returning, the two big men won’t be counted on to score heavily. But they’ll need to rebound, block shots and play energetic defense.
“As far as what we’re bringing to the spot is energy and effort because I want to help the team win,” Thamba said. “One thing we pride ourselves on is mental toughness and coming in and rebounding and playing defense and making the offense flow easier. It’s a testament to me and Jon (Tchamwa Tchatchoua) being in the gym, going at it with the freshmen this summer made us better.”
Off the bench
The 6-9 Mayer should be a top sixth man with his ability to score in a flurry while Flagler will likely play a role much like Devonte Bandoo served last year with his ability to score. Flagler averaged 15.9 points and shot 38.6 percent from 3-point range to earn Big South Conference freshman of the year honors at Presbyterian in 2018-19.
“Adam Flagler brings the same type of presence that Bandoo brought by making a lot of shots,” Teague said. “He shoots the midrange well just like Bandoo, and he plays pretty good defense.”
After redshirting last year, 6-7 forward Jordan Turner will add versatility to the team as an inside and outside presence.
With so many veterans in the lineup, it might be difficult for a trio of incoming freshmen — guard LJ Cryer, 6-9 forward Dain Dainja and 7-0 center Zach Loveday — to see much playing time. But they bring more talent and athleticism to a squad that’s already loaded.
“Adam Flagler is a guy who’s going to be tremendous, raise a lot of eyebrows,” Butler said. “Jon (Tchamwa Tchatchoua) is going to come in and you’re going to be surprised by his athleticism, his ability. Even LJ, I think can come in and do some things that people might not expect him to do. It’s not going to be a totally different team, but I do think there’s going to be different faces that bring different elements to the game and maybe our playing style might be a little different.”
This Baylor team won’t be satisfied unless it reaches the Final Four and gets a shot to play for the national championship. Due to COVID-19, the entire NCAA Tournament will be played in one place this year with Indianapolis being a likely choice.
“That’s why we’re going to Indy right now (to play Illinois and Gonzaga) and kind of get the lay of the land,” Drew laughed. “If we’re blessed enough to be there at the end of the year that will be an advantage for us hopefully.”
It will be tricky navigating COVID-19 and face canceling or postponing games, but the Bears believe they have the team that’s equipped to handle any adversity thrown their way.
“COVID has messed up a lot of things, but at the end of the day, you’ve always got to just be prepared, you’ve always got to be ready,” Vital said. “Next guy has got to step up. You’ve got to adapt to your surroundings, everything. So even though COVID is part of your life, it’s kind of hard, but you’ve got to adjust.”
“ I didn’t play a lot of
what-ifs, but do I think
we could have won the national championship? Yes, without a doubt.” Jared Butler
MaCio Teague “I worked on perfecting my game, all aspects of my game. I feel I’ve improved in certain areas that you guys will just have to wait and see when the team starts.” MaCio Teague
Chris Beard “They’ve got one of the best coaches in college basketball who probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves. It’s a great combination when you have that.” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard
Bill Self “l love their roster and their pieces seem to fit well. I really believe they deserve to be ranked where they are.” Kansas coach Bill Self
“It was so mind-boggling how the season ended. Like ‘What, we didn’t play the NCAA Tournament?’ That was really heavy on me. I didn’t play a lot of what-ifs, but do I think we could have won the national championship? Yes, without a doubt.”
“I worked on perfecting my game, all aspects of my game. I feel I’ve improved in certain areas that you guys will just have to wait and see when the team starts.”
“They’ve got one of the best coaches in college basketball who probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves. It’s a great combination when you have that.”
Texas Tech coach Chris Beard
“l love their roster and their pieces seem to fit well. I really believe they deserve to be ranked where they are.”
Kansas coach Bill Self