By Will Chamblee | Sports Writer
For a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, it’s easy to focus on the stars. For Baylor, junior guard duo Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell get most of the attention, along with senior guard MaCio Teague. But behind every great team is a bevy of invaluable role players who come off the bench, and Baylor is no different.
On Baylor’s bench, one can find three-point sharpshooters, high-flying dunkers and tenacious defenders. Key contributors sophomore guard Adam Flagler, junior forward Matthew Mayer and sophomore forward Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua have single-handedly won games for Baylor at times during this season.
Whether they see the court often or not, the Baylor bench has been instrumental in the Bears’ record-breaking season, where they won the first Big 12 regular-season title in 71 years, earned the program’s first No. 1 seed and finished with an overall record of 22-2.
“In the Big 12, you need more than two or three guys getting hot,” Butler said. “You need somebody off the bench that’s going to help and give you that energy off the bench.”
Flagler is one of those players who has made a name for himself off the bench, averaging 8.7 points per game and shooting 44.4% from the field on the season. Flagler, who was labeled an “unsung hero” by Butler, has been integral in several wins, including Baylor’s close win over Iowa State in February 77-72, the team’s first game back from a three-week COVID pause.
The presence of COVID-19 has rendered the bench even more important for the Bears this season, as unexpected quarantines and positive test results can take anybody out of the game at a moment’s notice. Head coach Scott Drew said the incredible depth that Baylor possesses has allowed him to be more flexible, especially when COVID-19 has hit the team.
“With injuries and COVID nowadays, everybody’s got to be able to play multiple positions,” Drew said. “You want to have different lineups and different possibilities that you can go to if you need to.”
Drew has been forced to try some unorthodox lineups this season, including playing Mayer at the five position as opposed to his usual three or four position, against the Cyclones, because Tchamwa Tchatchoua was out due to COVID-19 protocols.
Mayer has been one of those players who has taken leaps and bounds this season under Drew’s careful guidance. The Austin native came up huge against then-No. 6 West Virginia, hitting two clutch threes late to help send the game into overtime. The Bears would go on to win in overtime and clinch the Big 12 regular-season title.
“Matt is one of those guys, very talented when he came in and really improved a lot of areas that maybe you don’t see but then translates in the game,” Drew said.
While Flagler, Mayer and Tchamwa Tchatchoua get the most minutes off the bench, that doesn’t mean that players like freshman forwards Zach Loveday and Jordan Turner, who don’t play often, aren’t important. Turner said their responsibility is to encourage and support their teammates from the sidelines while staying ready.
“Just staying locked in on the bench and if I get an opportunity or I don’t get an opportunity, still be the best teammate I can be,” Turner said. “That’s helping the team, me just being a good teammate.”
Loveday also said he stays committed to being sharp and ready, and when he does get his opportunity, he makes sure to get the most out of it.
“Even though it might seem like it’s kind of pointless, the coaches hold us to that kind of expectation to come in and perform,” Loveday said, “regardless of who we’re playing, how much we’re up by, how much time is left, and I take that personally to make sure I see it through.”
As Baylor makes its charge towards a national title in the NCAA tournament, the bench will be just as vital as the stars Butler, Mitchell and Teague. Baylor has a chance to make history again this season with its first national championship, and the Bears on the bench are a big reason why.