Perhaps the best way to understand how the number-one-ranked and undefeated Baylor men’s basketball team is following up its national championship season is to examine a line at the bottom of the stat sheet from the Bears’ 84–74 victory over Oklahoma on Tuesday night.
In a game in which Baylor uncharacteristically committed twenty turnovers and got sloppy a time or two on the defensive end, the Bears still managed to extend their record to 14–0 because they relied on the quality their players and coaches see as one of the program’s core values: tenacity.
Sounds trite, doesn’t it? Every coach in America says pretty much the same thing. But Baylor walks the walk. The Bears won the NCAA championship last spring, in large part, because of a withering defense that contested almost every pass, shot, and screen. At some point, the consistency of that defensive effort and execution would get to opponents and make them wonder: Is it even worth the trouble?
Is that side of a team’s performance even quantifiable? Absolutely. Right there in Tuesday’s box score, under the category “second chance points,” you can spot it: Baylor 19, Oklahoma 0.
When a shot was missed, when there was a scramble for a loose ball, Baylor did what champions do. The Bears’ success isn’t just about talent, although Baylor again has gobs of it.
“We’re a tough team, a tough group of guys,” guard James Akinjo said Tuesday. “Matthew Mayer broke his tooth, but he was still out there battling. Jeremy (Sochan) found the tooth in his arm and wrapped it up and battled. We just fought.”
Winning last season’s national championship was a sweet moment for Baylor, and in the weeks that followed, it was nearly impossible not to be touched by the tearful alums and by how head coach Scott Drew shared the moment with the entire Baylor family and the city of Waco.
Not long after that, though, Drew was back crisscrossing the country to meet recruits. Before winning it all, he sold prospects on how much players loved their time at Baylor and how they kept coming back and contributing even after they’d played their final games. Now that six former Bears are playing in the NBA, Drew has another selling point to attract blue-chip talent.Now Drew, 51, has a trophy that will turn some heads too.
When Drew arrived on campus in 2003, the program was mired in scandal. Some of his peers warned him that taking the Baylor job was career suicide. But Drew, the happy warrior, marched ahead, bringing boyish good looks and an effusive, everyman charm to a situation that seemed unsalvageable.
Drew’s mantra of JOY—Jesus, others, yourself—became the backstory of last spring’s television coverage. When you meet him, Drew is very much that person. He’s also a tenacious, workaholic salesman.
Barring some kind of unthinkable collapse, this spring will mark Baylor’s tenth NCAA tournament appearance in fifteen seasons. Included in this run: five Sweet 16 berths and three trips to the Elite Eight. Baylor has reached the number 1 spot in the Associated Press Top 25 poll in three of the past five seasons. That puts the Bears in league with Duke, Kentucky, Gonzaga—the most celebrated college basketball programs in the nation.
Drew’s challenge this year was replacing four starters, including his top three scorers, Jared Butler, MaCio Teague, and Davion Mitchell. (Butler and Mitchell are currently playing in the NBA, while Teague is working his way up from the G-League.) Those departures left Drew with a steep hill to climb headed into this season, but the coach appears to have zipped right to the top, escalator-style. The Bears are deep, talented, and tenacious. That depth is reflected in four players averaging double-figure scoring and three more who average eight points per game or better.
Talent? The Bears have seven returning lettermen from last year’s championship team in addition to Drew’s best recruiting class ever. (There’s more talent on the way. Baylor’s 2023 freshman class will include guard Keyonte George, who is third on the ESPN100 list and Drew’s highest-rated recruit ever.) In addition, Akinjo, an all-Pac-12 guard last season at Arizona, joined Baylor via the transfer portal and is leading the Bears with fourteen points and six assists per game.
Drew gushed about his team’s immediate reboot to the Dallas Morning News recently. “It’s really exciting for us as a staff, because normally when you win a championship, you lose too much talent and experience to graduation and the pros to really even have a chance that following year,” he said. “And the fact that we have another opportunity this year is really exciting.”
Tenacious? Statistically, Baylor is in the top twenty in points allowed (59.1), turnovers forced (18.4), and steals (10.3). Sustaining this level of success—or something close to it—is the kind of challenge that could put Baylor hoops in the rarefied air of traditional powerhouses like North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky, and a handful of others. This season may also establish Scott Drew as one of the best coaches of his generation—and perhaps of any generation.
But Drew’s personal legacy will sort itself out as long as he keeps the Bears solidly positioned to compete for another national championship. The seven returning lettermen on this year’s Baylor squad—including longtime contributors Matthew Mayer, Flo Thamba, Adam Flagler, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, and LJ Cryer—began the season with 344 games of college experience.
Into this mix comes a recruiting class that includes top-40 prospects forward Kendall Brown, guard Langston Love, as well as forward Jeremy Sochan, ranked among the top twenty at his position. All are making an impact in a Baylor rotation that includes nine players who average double-digit minutes. Brown has made an immediate impact, while Mayer may be the country’s best sixth man.
Akinjo is the player who best reflects Drew’s ability to adapt. Last season, the national narrative around Baylor centered on how the program rode three transfers—Butler, Teague, and Mitchell—to the national championship. But those three had transferred before NCAA rule changes began allowing players to hit the court immediately after changing schools. This development has created a wild-west scenario throughout the college basketball landscape.
Teague and Mitchell sat out a full season before their first games with Baylor. So did Flagler and forward Tchamwa Tchatchoua, when they transferred. (Butler was granted permission to play immediately because even though he had transferred from Alabama, he had not played a game for the Crimson Tide.)
Prior to the change in NCAA transfer rules, Drew believed that year of indoctrination to the program was invaluable for players’ development as well as for maintaining continuity within Baylor’s program. (His seven assistant coaches have all been at Baylor for at least five years.)
“We’ve had some program-changing level players,” Drew told the Waco Tribune-Herald. “At the same time, they had to sit out a year, which allowed them to develop and become the players they wanted to become when they were eligible. Sometimes with a player redshirting and not having the pressure to perform or think about the minutes they’re playing, they can develop their game for a year without added pressure.”
But when the new transfer policy arrived, Drew adapted like he’s done at almost every step along the way of his Baylor journey. The transfer portal is here to stay, and Drew is committed to finding every possible way to navigate the changing college hoops landscape in ways that will benefit Bears basketball.
“I think it all comes back to one thing, and that is knowing your team and knowing your culture: who’s going to fit in and represent your program the way you want it represented, if you bring in people that add to that,” Drew told the Athletic last summer. “No matter which avenue you look to bring in someone, do they meet what you are really looking for?”
Akinjo left Arizona at the end of last season, after the departure of head coach Sean Miller. The veteran guard gives Baylor a floor leader and experienced, lights-out offensive player who could end up being the difference between winning and losing at the highest level once March Madness rolls around. But Baylor has so many other weapons—and a defense that held number six Villanova to 36 points over an entire game last month—that the Bears appear poised to earn another top seed in this year’s NCAA tournament.
But first things first. Baylor still has an entire season to get through in what college basketball experts have called the strongest conference in the country. Baylor will face plenty of challenges getting through the Big 12. The Bears passed their first big test on New Year’s Day with a five-point win on the road against number eight Iowa State. Sixth-ranked Kansas entered the season expecting to compete for a national championship, and the Bears’ February 5 trip to face the Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse could turn out to be one of the biggest matchups in college hoops this season. Texas, with an array of celebrated transfers and first-year coach Chris Beard, could grow into a formidable challenge in time for the Big 12 tournament.
But right now, no team is more impressive than Baylor.