No. 5 Baylor MBB battles tough conference with key injuries

Senior guard Matthew Mayer pushes through a hard fall against Texas Tech on Jan. 11 at the Ferrell Center. Photo courtesy of Baylor Photo Database

By Gio Gennero | Sports Writer

No. 5 Baylor men’s basketball is looking to right the ship following a much-needed 77-68 win over West Virginia University Tuesday afternoon after dropping back-to-back games at home against Texas Tech University and Oklahoma State University. The defending national champions kicked off the season red hot, racking up 15 straight wins and recapturing the No. 1 spot for five straight weeks before their two losses.

Junior forward Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua said he believes it’s a matter of getting back to playing their game with the “same anger.”

“Just get back to being us,” Tchamwa Tchatchoua said. “Just play with the same anger we’ve been playing with since the beginning of the season, and sharpen up our offense. Just make sure everything is really sharp when we run sets, and just play defense like we really want to kill the other team.”

In both losses, the Bears had two key players battling injuries. Freshman forward Jeremy Sochan is currently out with an ankle injury that he suffered in their victory over Texas Christian University. Sochan is one of seven players averaging over 20 minutes per game, and is putting up 7.9 points and 5.9 rebounds per contest. Sochan’s absence has been felt most on defense, where the 6-foot-9-inch forward showcased his versatility, switching onto any position and playing elite defense.

Senior guard James Akinjo iis fighting through a lower back injury he acquired from a hard fall against Tech. He played with limited minutes in both of Baylor’s losses and struggled to play at his normal level, leading to him being held out of the WVU matchup. Akinjo has been a vital part of Baylor’s offense, averaging 13.9 points and 5.7 assists. After their loss to OSU, head coach Scott Drew said Akinjo looked noticeably different and that they have to push through while waiting for the return of the two.

“That obviously affected [Akinjo],” Drew said on the injury. “We didn’t think he was going to play today, and he gutted it out. But that obviously wasn’t the same James. In this league, everyone’s banged up, and you only have so much margin for error. We’ve got to get him and Jeremy back and in the meantime, figure out a better way to put guys in positions to be successful.”

Baylor is playing in one of the strongest conferences in college basketball. Five Big 12 schools are currently nationally ranked, including three in the top 15. While the Bears are 16-2 overall, they are just 4-2 in conference play. Without their point guard in top shape and Sochan being sidelined, they’ve had problems taking care of the ball. In their past three outings the team is 1-2, while averaging 12.3 turnovers per game. In their first half of playing without the transfer guard and the freshman forward, the Bears gave the ball up nine times.

Drew said the team has to focus on controlling what they can control, and not turning the ball over is key.

“At the end of the day, the health of your team affects it,” Drew said. “Jeremy was three to one assists to turnovers. If he’s healthy, that helps with it. Then that adds to your rotation. Guys aren’t as fatigued out there, so we know fatigue makes cowards of us all. That leads to more turnovers. We were very ineffective shooting the ball for a vast majority of the game; You look at the analytics and the shot charts, and our shots were pretty good shots and we missed them … Control what we can control to begin with, find out who we got healthy and come up with a plan that can work.”

After snapping their two-game losing streak, Drew said losing makes you appreciate winning more, especially as a team battling injuries.

“No one likes to lose,” Drew said. “You’re that much more appreciative and blessed when you do win. You got to thank God for every opportunity you get when you win because you sleep a lot better, I can promise you that, but it’s tough when you’re a banged-up team.”

Baylor will look to continue to improve while they await the return of Sochan and Akinjo when they face the University of Oklahoma (12-6, 2-4 Big 12) at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Lloyd Noble Center in Norman, Okla.