Baylor Basketball: New Faces
The Bears are 3-0 as returners embrace new roles and new players have adopted the program culture
The Baylor Bears have hung their national title banners and have started the 2021-22 season with wins over Incarnate Word, Nicholls State and Central Arkansas. They have won by an average score of 89.3-55.6 (33.7 points).
The most encouraging sign with this team—in case you had concerns about Baylor losing roughly 60 percent of their championship production—is that the returning players have seamlessly into new roles and new players to the squad seem to have fully embraced the program culture.
We evaluate five early takeaways from the play so far.
Baylor Basketball Culture Adoption
There is a reason why Baylor has won at least 18 games every year since 2008; is only one of 10 teams to appear in every postseason since 2012; and are one of only four programs to be ranked No. 1 three of the last five years (Duke, Gonzaga, and Kansas).
Coaches Scott Drew, Jerome Tang and their staff have built one of the most remarkable cultures in college basketball. There is no other place where players have either redshirted or transferred into so easily and it has aided Baylor’s successful long term player development.
Every single player buys into doing whatever it takes to win. In valuing the team over the individual. For playing basketball for the love and joy of the game.
The results—and last season’s national title—speak for themselves.
In 2021, Jared Butler, MaCio Teague, and Davion Mitchell all shared the ball and the shots. They kept feeding whoever had the hot hand. Mark Vital embraced his role of a villain and simply did whatever it took to keep his teammates motivated in order to win.
Often, it was bench players who had the hot hand: Matt Mayer, Adam Flagler or LJ Cryer. Those four de facto captains—of whom three sat out a year via transferring or redshirting—let them shine.
Mayer, Flagler and Cryer are expected to do much more of the heavy lifting this season. And they already have. Cryer averages 17.7 points per game and 3.7 assists per game while Mayer averages 12.7 points, 4.3 boards and two assists per game. Flagler (7.7 points) has been limited in minutes due to a non shooting hand injury.
Add in Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Flo Thamba returning from a championship team and one thing is almost certain: the culture will stay the same.
We have already seen direct evidence of this. With two new transfers and two new freshmen starting or playing large minutes already, they are checking their egos at the door and doing what it takes to help the team win.
With about 11 minutes left to play in the season opener, Division II Fairmont State transfer Dale Bonner provided the truest example of how newcomers at Baylor embrace the culture. The video is in the embedded Tweet at the start of this newsletter.
Mayer stripped the ball loose, and Bonner immediately gave up his body to dive for the loose ball. He got it, threw an outlet to Jeremy Sochan at midcourt to start the fast break. Thamba was at the foul line when this ply began, but sprinted his 6-foot-10 butt to the other end for an easy layup.
It was easily the best play of the evening and one that nobody noticed or paid attention to. Just an hour or so before, Baylor hoisted their national title banner. That entire play involved guys doing the little things to win a basketball game highlighted by the DII Bonner proving his worthiness by doing the dirty work.
Arizona transfer James Akinjo—who averages 10 points and seven assists per game— as well as five-star freshman Kendall Brown have made it a point to pass before looking for their shot. Mayer has given up his body to dive on the floor, Thamba has buckled down on being the defensive leader and Tchatchoua and Cryer have shown no problem in coming off the bench.
And when you mix talent with culture, it’s a deadly combination.
Baylor fans were hoping to have this read ‘Freshmen trio’ this season, but unfortunately Langston Love is lost for the year with a torn ACL.
Still, the production by both Brown and Sochan have been off the charts. Both are athletic monsters who are the best freshmen to walk on campus since Perry Jones III (‘10), Quincy Miller (‘11) and Isaiah Austin (‘12).
Brown is already the best player to lace them up for the Bears since all-time leading point scorer LaceDarius Dunn. He averages 15 points, five rebounds and four assists per game thus far.
Brown has mesmerized with his brilliance, levitating to thrown down highlight dunk after highlight dunk. What has been most impressive perhaps is his basketball IQ and on-court presence that has given him an uncanny ability to slow the game down. He has avoided charges or double teams on fast breaks to find open three-point shooters; he has distributed the ball elegantly and unselfishly in the half court; and he has played defense with the mentality of a grizzled veteran.
Sochan, on the other hand, is the yin to Brown’s yang. His European upbringing has him playing a slightly different game of basketball than many in the states are used to. He has a set of skills that is silky smooth and operates more like a Cory Jefferson or Anthony Jones. A lengthy, unselfish kid who is not in the spotlight but knows how to pick his moments to knock down big shots or make critical plays.
The freshmen duo look as if Coach Drew just threw a jersey on Baylor’s on-campus bears Lady and Joy. Unselfish, lovable and seemingly harmless from afar, but the perfect combination of violent and powerful when you get up close.
The two probably had their biggest lethal impact in the second game of the season against Nicholls State when Brown nearly had a triple double with 13 points, 10 assists and eight boards while Sochan shot 50 percent from the field (5/10) and from beyond the arc (3/6) to finish with 14 points.
Matthew Mayer Time
In three years, Mayer had played in 93 total games for Baylor, but never started. On opening night this year, he not only started his first game but led the team in scoring with 14 points.
Mayer will need to be a key piece and an instrumental leader moving forward. He has already illustrated the intangibles that Baylor’s culture has helped engrain in him since he arrived on campus as a rash decision making four-star freshman from Austin.
LJ Cryer is a walking bucket.
Already this season, Cryer has scored 20 points and led the team in scoring twice. The first night he finished with 13 points.
Coach Tang sung Cryer’s praises all year last season and just said unfortunately he would not see many minutes due to who was in front of him (a trio of All-Americans and the Defensive POY). Cryer scored 17 points in Baylor’s opener in Las Vegas, but then played sparingly the remainder of the year.
Cryer is the No. 1 point scorer in Houston high school basketball history and No. 5 all time score in Texas HS basketball history with 3,488 career points. He has yet to start for Baylor, but is a key in helping the Bears avoid regressing on their overall three-point shooting. Cryer is 9-of-17 (52.9 percent) on the year.
Shooting or Defensive Regression?
Baylor has looked mighty good already. However, they have not played an opponent who matches their talent level. That changes this weekend as the Bears host Stanford from the Pac-12.
The theory from many was the Baylor would regress both in three-point shooting as well as overall defense because they lost their top three-point shooters and two defensive All-Americans.
Baylor shot 41.3 percent from three-point range last season, which led the nation. Already, it looks like they have lost some of their sure-fire automatic shooting this season. The Bears are shooting 34.2 percent from deep and average making about two fewer threes already this season. If you remove Cryer’s stats, the Bears are shooting 28.5 percent from deep.
Baylor allowed just over 65 points per game last season, and forced about 17 turnovers per game (about nine steals per game). The Bears have held their first three opponents to 55.7 points per game and are forcing just over 22 turnovers (12.3 steals) per game. This is boosted as Baylor tied a program record with 21 steals against Central Arkansas—part of 28 total turnovers that Baylor forced.
It is still a bit too early to determine how, if any, great of a drop there will be in these two categories. The defense looks good thus far, but the shooting has been dependent on Cryer and fluctuated game to game. For example, Baylor shot over 43 percent from three against Nicholls State, but then dropped 20 percent verses Central Arkansas.
As competition ramps up we will learn more, but by all accounts it seems that this team is being overlooked nationally.
But that is nothing new for Coach Drew and the culture he has worked to established at Baylor. They will just look to prove it on the court.