Gearing up for basketball season: No.2 Bears face early season challenges due to COVID-19

Baylor players Davion Mitchell, MaCio Teague, and Mark Vital sit on the sidelines and laugh with each other during Baylor's win over Kansas State. Brittney Matthews | Photo Editor

By Will Chamblee | Sports Writer

With Baylor’s withdrawal from the 2k Empire Classic and the cancellation of Baylor’s matchup against Seton Hall in the Big East/Big 12 Challenge, the Bears will now open their season on Dec. 2 against Illinois in the Jimmy V Classic in Indianapolis.

Despite the early COVID-19-related troubles, this season is one of high expectations for the Bears who were picked to win the Big 12 in the preseason poll and are ranked No. 2 in the AP Preseason Poll and No. 1 in the Coaches’ Poll.

The Bears return four starters from last year’s team that spent five weeks at number one in the nation and set a Big 12 record for most consecutive wins by winning 23 in a row.

First-team All-American and Preseason Big 12 Player of the Year Jared Butler will lead way for Baylor this season. The junior guard decided to withdraw from the NBA Draft in August, providing a huge boost for the Baylor team. Butler averaged 16 points per game and 3.1 assists last season en-route to a unanimous third-team All-American selection.

Senior guard MaCio Teague also decided to withdraw from the NBA Draft and return for his senior season in Waco. Teague, alongside Butler, was named to the 2021 Naismith Trophy Watch List, the most prestigious individual award in college basketball.

Baylor head coach Scott Drew said that he was excited to have Butler and Teague return, but not solely for their on the court impact.

“It brought a lot of excitement, and not just for what they bring to the Baylor Bears on the basketball court,” Drew said. “But just what they bring to our team as far as high-character, great individuals, great energy guys and people you just love to be around each and every day.”

Junior guard Davion Mitchell and senior forward Mark Vital round out the returning starters for the Bears this season. Vital was one of the best defensive players in the country last season and was one of the four finalists for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year. Mitchell, the former transfer from Auburn, was named Newcomer of the Year in the Big 12 last year and averaged 9.9 points per game.

Drew emphasized the importance of having a veteran roster this season, especially considering the ongoing pandemic.

“It starts with the experience,” Drew said. “Whenever you return a lot of players that were successful, definitely in a season that’s gotten moved back and a short summer, you are benefited by having guys that have had college experience.”

Former-center Freddie Gillespie is the only starter the Bear’s will have to replace from last year’s team. Junior forward Flo Thamba, who averaged 2.3 points and 2.2 rebounds in back-up minutes last year, looks poised to take over the position that Gillespie played so well last year. Thamba said he hopes to continue the Baylor tradition of successful and efficient post players.

“Ultimately that’s always the goal,” Thamba said. “It’s always come in with a winning mindset and to be the best player you can be. The one thing we pride ourselves on is mental toughness.”

Baylor will also feature several newcomers this season, including three players who redshirted last season. Sophomore forward Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, the transfer from UNLV, and sophomore guard Adam Flagler, the transfer from Presbyterian, both look to contribute early and often for the Bears this season.

Teague has been impressed by what he has seen from both Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Flagler during the fall practices in the lead-up to the season, praising Tchamwa Tchatchoua’s work-ethic and comparing Flagler to Baylor’s sixth-man last year Devonte Bandoo.

“John [Tchamwa Tchatchoua], he’s going to bring a high motor to our team. He’s really active on the defensive end and offensive end,” Teague said. “Adam Flagler brings the same type of presence that Bandoo brought, making a lot of shots. He’s a very good shot maker.”

The Bears bring in a top-30 recruiting class that features two top-100 recruits as well. Four-star recruits LJ Cryer and Dain Dainja lead the way in a talented recruiting class that will look to contribute to the future for Baylor basketball.

Rounding out the roster are several important role pieces that should play a substantial role. Redshirt sophomore Jackson Moffatt and walk-on grad transfer Mark Paterson will also look to make an impact for the Bears. Moffat played six game off the bench as a redshirt freshman last year, sitting out his true freshman year, while Paterson played logged in two seasons with Division II St. Edward’s in Austin from 2016-2018.

Junior forward Matthew Mayer finished eighth in minutes per game last season, averaging 11.6 minutes per game. Redshirt freshman forward Jordan Turner has been a star during fall practice according Drew. Drew said Turner greatly benefited from his redshirt year.

“It was a great year for him to adjust to college and it was also really beneficial being able to spend that time with our strength coach,” Drew said.