Preseason MVP: Jared Butler heads into 2020-21 as the state’s top player. He turned down NBA interest to return for his junior season and will be an early contender for National Player of the Year.
The Ceiling: When the NCAA season was cancelled, Baylor was a virtual lock for its first 1-seed in program history. Six of the Bears’ top eight rotation players are back and two instant-impact transfers join the fray. We put this team on the cover for a reason – Baylor can win a national championship.
The Floor: With so much strong returning production, it’s hard to see the Bears being much worse than an NCAA Tournament lock. The one trouble spot could be if Tristan Clark struggles to stay healthy; would the Bears still have a title-caliber frontcourt?
Game of the Year: Gonzaga
Projected Starting Five
G | 6-3 | Jr. | Reserve, La.
G | 6-2 | Jr. | Hinesville, Ga.
G | 6-3 | Sr. | Cincinnati, Ohio
F | 6-5 | Sr. | Lake Charles, La.
F | 6-10 | Sr. | San Antonio, Texas
Impact First Year Player: Adam Flager
The hype is real in Waco, Texas. Before the season was cancelled, Baylor was set to enter the NCAA Tournament as a one-seed for the first time program history. That moment was stolen.
Luckily, the Bears will get a prime opportunity to run it back in 2021. Four out of five starters are back, six out of eight rotation players overall return, and Baylor made some big additions to the roster that could lead to an even more dangerous team.
Baylor’s backcourt – national player of the year contender Jared Butler, national defensive player of the year semifinalist Davion Mitchell and All-Big 12 honoree MaCio Teague – ranks among the nation’s best, if not right at the top. Few teams in America have the brutal combination of scoring, defense and versatility that this threesome provides.
Making this unit even more dangerous is transfer Adam Flager, who averaged 15.9 points and 38.6 percent from three as a freshman at Presbyterian. Flagler sat out the 2020 season due to transfer rules, so he should step right in and immediately have chemistry with the deep group of guards.
“They all enjoy each and like one another,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “That enables us as coaches to be able to better use their skills and talents. Like it says in the Bible, iron sharpens iron, so they make each other better each and every day.”
Up front, the Bears must replace defensive anchor Freddie Gillespie, one of the best stories in recent memory. Mark Vital steps into the middle of Baylor’s elite defense after a phenomenal junior campaign. He’s an early favorite for national defensive player of the year. With Gillespie gone, a healthy Tristan Clark should provide a post scoring presence that the Bears didn’t have last season. Joining the bigs is UNLV transfer Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, a strong, athletic frontcourt player.
Matthew Meyer and redshirt freshman Jordan Turner rank among the long, versatile wings who could see time either in the backcourt or frontcourt for the Bears.
“The great thing is Jonathan, Adam and Jordan helped our team achieve what it achieved last season [while redshirting] because you practice a lot more than you play,” Drew said. “All that experience puts them ahead of someone who’s just joining your program.”
Three freshmen will also join the fray: bigs Dain Dainja and Zach Loveday, and Katy Morton Ranch guard LJ Cryer. None are guaranteed much playing time on a title contender, but having a full roster to pull from will be critical in the Covid age.
Baylor rose to the top of college basketball last season behind elite guard play and tremendous defense. The roster construction is in place for the Bears to be even better in 2021. If Butler and the returning guards can take another step forward, Baylor is one of a handful of teams that could raise the trophy in 2021.