Baylor head coach Scott Drew helped deliver the program's first national championship in 2020-21. And the good news for 2021-22? He and his staff have reloaded to the point where this should be anything but a rebuild, with this team boasting top-10 potential and Final Four aspirations.
Drew's task of replacing four starters would be difficult in any circumstances. Add in the fact, though, that the Bears lost the heartbeat from their best backcourt in school history — AP Big 12 Player of the Year Jared Butler, NABC Defensive Player of the Year Davion Mitchell and All-Big 12 third-teamer MaCio Teague — and that challenge is even more daunting.
Drew appears to have viable solutions for most of his departures because of his team's depth and newcomers. Not only does Baylor have a strong nucleus of returning players primed for bigger roles, but it also has impact additions who could vie for all-league honors during their first season in Waco.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Scott Drew
2020-21 RECORD (BIG 12): 28-2 (13-1)
2020-21 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Beat Gonzaga 86-70 in the championship game
G Jared Butler (16.7 ppg, 4.8 apg)
G Davion Mitchell (14.0 ppg, 5.5 apg)
G MaCio Teague (15.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg)
G/F Mark Vital (5.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg)
After testing the NBA Draft waters, Matthew Mayer provided Baylor a huge boost with his announcement in late June that he'd return. The versatile 6'9" guard/forward was a high-volume, ever-efficient player off the bench last season who scored in bunches, and Drew is expecting his never-wavering confidence to play out as he takes on a larger role.
Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua — nicknamed "Everyday Jon" by Drew because of his work ethic — should bring his typical energy, toughness and rebounding with potential to take the team's biggest leap. He also drilled in the summer to extend his shooting range, with the hope that repetitions at 15 feet and the 3-point line would force defenses to respect him more.
Flo Thamba is back as the team's only returning starter, with Drew believing he'll build off the experience he gained a season ago while serving as one of the team's top rebounders on a per-minute basis.
Baylor received clarity on its final piece in late June, as the NCAA approved an immediate eligibility waiver for transfer James Akinjo. The 6'1" senior point guard was Big East Rookie of the Year at Georgetown before transferring and earning All-Pac 12 first-team honors at Arizona a season ago while averaging 15.6 points and 5.4 assists. While Akinjo's shooting strength is both from the perimeter (41 percent on 3s last season) and free-throw line (82 percent on 4.9 attempts per game), he'll need to improve his 36 percent two-point accuracy if he hopes to take the next step offensively.
Like Mayer, Adam Flagler should see his minutes increase after serving an important reserve role a season ago. Flagler, who made 43.4 percent of his 3s in 2020-21, was actually Baylor's top scorer through four games before taking a short absence because of COVID-19 protocols.
Kendall Brown, a 6'8" small forward ranked 11th in the 247Sports Composite, should give the team elite athleticism, with Drew expecting him to provide rebounding, slashing and finishing skills around the rim. Sophomore LJ Cryer also should get additional opportunities following the backcourt departures of Butler, Mitchell and Teague.
Drew is quick to point out that, though he likes his roster on paper, there are some unknowns. It's difficult to predict how players will adjust to new roles. Injuries always can impact a roster, and player leadership can be tough to predict.
"We go in each season expecting the best and have confidence in the returning guys to help with that," Drew says, "but we'll see how they progress."
Through the summer, Drew still saw reasons to be encouraged. He said the team's newcomers arrived with a coachable attitude and humility, and both of those attributes typically translate to future success.
Add it all up, and Baylor appears poised to challenge for a title in a competitive Big 12 while also positioning itself for another strong NCAA seed.
Postseason Prediction: NCAA Tournament Elite Eight
Big 12 Prediction: 3