By Gio Gennero | Sports Writer
On April 5, 2021, sketball cemented their legacy as they captured their first national championship in program history, beating the University of Gonzaga 86-70. Going into the current season, the defending champions were immediately focused on climbing the NCAA mountain once again.
“We’ve talked with our team; we have a unique opportunity,” Drew said. “So few schools have been able to go back-to-back, and we have an opportunity to do something that only [University of] Florida and Duke have done since the John Wooden days.”
Baylor began the season on a tear, winning its first 15 games and picking up exactly where the team left off. The effort was enough to earn the top rank in the nation before multiple key players suffered injuries to key players, causing them to drop some games as well as spots in the rankings. The Bears haven’t been able to get back to full health since, but they were able to get back on track and rally to end the regular season with five straight wins, helping them earn their second straight regular season Big 12 Championship and No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“Anytime you lose, it’s a chance to hit the reset button,” Drew said. “It refocuses everyone, nobody likes the feeling of losing. From that, players practice harder, coaches are more dialed in. We’ll be ready to put our best foot forward come tournament time.”
Baylor’s season has been plagued with injuries, with many rotation players missing multiple games at a time. Junior forward Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua — Co-Defensive Big 12 Player of the Year — suffered a season-ending knee injury, highly-recruited freshman guard Langston Love (ACL) didn’t make it to the regular season and sophomore guard LJ Cryer (foot) also missed a significant amount of games.
During the injury-riddled season, players have had to step up from their previous roles to help the team continue to win. Players such senior forward Flo Thamba and junior guard Dale Bonner have done their best to fill that void.
With Cryer, Baylor’s leading scorer (13.5 ppg), missing 11 of the last 12 games, other guards have had to elevate their game to make up for the missing piece. Senior and junior guards James Akinjo and Adam Flagler have alternated playing the hero in different games when needed. The backcourt duo is averaging 13.4 points per game each, and Akinjo is averaging 5.7 assists, leading the Big 12.
“Even with a lot of injuries, we’re still one of the best teams in the country,” Akinjo said. “To have this No. 1 seed is a testament to how hard our guys have worked, and how well our coaches have kind of executed game plans throughout the year.”
The Bears officially begin their quest for a second national title against Norfolk State University at 1 p.m. Thursday in the Dickies Arena in Fort Worth. Norfolk (24-6, 12-2 Mid-Eastern Athletic) has won nine of its last 10 games and enters the tournament on an automatic bid after winning the MEAC Tournament. Ten years ago, they were able to pull off a big upset against the second-seeded University of Missouri.
“Norfolk State is a team that’s had tournament success before,” Drew said. “They’ve had a history of winning and doing well, especially the last nine years.”