Davis’ Deep Dives: No. 9 Baylor basketball season preview 2021

Scott Drew, Baylor

Fresh off its first national championship, Scott Drew and Baylor basketball are back with title aspirations once again.

Riley’s Ranking: 8th

About three years ago, Scott Drew made a philosophical shift. Up until that point, his career had been characterized by big-man-reliant offenses and “morphing blob matchup zone” defenses. But the head coach decided to zag.

You might wonder, what pushed him away from his tried and true ways? Aren’t college basketball coaches notoriously stubborn? Well, something tells me that the arrival of three guards in the fall of 2018 caused a change of heart.

Initially, only Jared Butler saw the floor that first year; both Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague sat out due to the old transfer rules. But perhaps Drew saw something special in practice. Because when Mitchell and Teague became eligible the next season, the guards became the focal point of the offense. Then, on the other side of the ball, Drew eschewed his zone in favor of a splintering “no-middle” scheme.

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The gamble yielded the sport’s ultimate achievement — adornments of cut nets and a trophy raised high. Now, the reigning champs set out to prove last season as the marker of a new standard in Waco.

Though Baylor returns just 41.2 percent of the minutes from its championship squad, don’t be the nincompoop that discounts them. Sure, Butler, Mitchell and Teague have all moved on to the professional ranks. But Drew reloaded with the chips to execute his vaunted three-guard lineup.

For example, the Bears welcome James Akinjo as their Mitchell replacement. After leaving both Georgetown and Arizona amid program combustion, the 6-1 floor general finally enters a stable situation. On the hardwood, Akinjo gives Baylor the shot creation it lacks without its departed stars. He skitters all over the court, generating space to fire off stepback 3s and mid-rangers.

In addition to his scoring, Akinjo showcases terrific court vision. Whether he’s passing out of double-teams or making PnR reads, he always seems to find the open man. Plus, his proficiency at running the break will help Baylor continue its dominance in transition. (The Bears ranked 38th nationally in transition effective field-goal percentage last season, per Hoop-Math.)

However, Akinjo doesn’t come without concerns. He has never shot above 38 percent from the field, and his numbers at the rim look especially grim: 43.3 percent in 2021; for comparison, Mitchell shot 64.5 percent at the rim. While he displays soft touch on floaters and runners, he must improve his finishing to reach his ceiling.

However, he should benefit from playing next to junior guard Adam Flagler. A sit-out transfer from Presbyterian, Flagler shined as a tertiary piece in his first on-court season with the Bears. His lethal spot-up shooting boosted Baylor in its title run — most memorably, he ignited Baylor’s comeback versus Villanova and dealt the rare first-half dagger to Gonzaga’s championship hopes:

Now in a feature role, look for him to play on-ball more frequently. That may lead to a dip in efficiency, but he still teems with All-Big 12 potential.

Unfortunately, my final projected starter on the perimeter, top-35 freshman Langston Love, tore his ACL. This was a huge bummer, as the Montverde product had a great chance to outplay his ranking. Love’s abilities to handle, attack the basket and shoot on the move perfectly align with Drew’s offensive values. As I detailed in a piece from this summer, the frosh bears numerous similarities to the aforementioned Butler. Whenever he returns from injury, he could follow a similar career trajectory.

In his stead, Drew could turn to sophomore LJ Cryer, a shifty ballhandler with nice shooting range. Or he could opt for a larger lineup. Because even with all the ammo in the backcourt, Baylor’s best player may reside up front.

Then again, let’s be real: Matthew Mayer plays like a big guard. Throughout his career, the senior posted a high-usage rate whenever he saw the court. However, it wasn’t until last season that his gaudy per-40 numbers translated to winning basketball.

Notably, the 6-9 nominal forward flashed a more complete offensive game, creating off the bounce and getting to the cup.

His statistics reflect these improvements. Consider his percentage at the rim last season — 67.5 percent, up from 51.4 percent as a sophomore (Hoop-Math). Additionally, Mayer grew by leaps and bounds on defense, especially down the stretch. This proved particularly helpful for lineup flexibility, as Drew started giving Mayer minutes at the 5, creating an offensive blitzkrieg.

That strategy should continue, especially as the Bears integrate five-star freshman Kendall Brown. Because of Baylor’s immaculate spacing, the hyper-charged forward will absolutely feast on baseline cuts to the hoop. But he’s not some highly touted kid over-dependent on his athleticism; Brown boasts an incredible IQ, routinely making smart and unselfish plays. In addition, his disruptive defense will help maintain Baylor’s high defensive turnover rate (4th nationally in 2021). Brown can play effectively next to Mayer or next to big men Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Flo Thamba.

Speaking of the bigs, both retain their importance as rim protectors and offensive rebounders (a staple of Scott Drew’s teams in the past and present). “JTT,” in particular, emerged as a vital glue guy for last year’s squad. On defense, he capably switches and secures the interior. And on the other side of the ball, he bends defenses with his bone-shattering screens. No one in the country relishes the dirty work like Thchamwa Tchatchoua.

Lastly, Baylor possesses some high-upside bench players. Redshirt freshman Dain Dainja and sophomore Zach Loveday strengthen the frontline, projecting as high-caliber offensive players. Former D-2 guard Dale Bonner and German freshman forward Jeremy Sochan are two wildcards but could push for minutes as well.

With its combination of high-end talent and depth, Baylor should again be in the mix for title contention. Sure, it faces plenty of questions as it seeks to defend its crown. Will replacing four starters go smoothly? Will the defense sputter without Davion Mitchell’s on-ball pressure? Will Matthew Mayer’s facial hair ever fill out? The odds are stacked against them — no reigning champ has made it to the second weekend since 2014. But after observing Scott Drew’s coaching the last two seasons, I’m not betting against him.

TL/DR:

Projected starters: G – James Akinjo (Sr.); G – LJ Cryer (So.); G – Adam Flagler (R-Jr.); G/F – Matthew Mayer (Sr.); F/C – Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua (R-Jr.)

Projected bench: F – Kendall Brown (Fr.); F/C – Flo Thomba (Sr.); G – Dale Bonner (R-Jr.); F – Dain Dainja (R-Fr.); G – Langston Love (Fr.)**

Strengths: Spacing; shooting; defense/forcing turnovers; offensive rebounding

Weaknesses: Replacing four starters

Best player: Mayer

Breakout player: Flagler

**expected to miss the season with injury