‘The closest group in college’: Baylor men’s basketball creates lifelong bonds

The Bears will have to wait until 2024-25 for an opportunity to reach the Sweet 16 or beyond for the first time since the 2020-21 season. Lilly Yablon | Photographer

By Foster Nicholas | Sports Writer

There may not have been a team ranked in the preseason AP Top-25 that underwent more overhaul than 2023-24 Baylor men’s basketball. As the only Big 12 team with four brand-new starters that also welcomed seven total newcomers, head coach Scott Drew found a way to bring his “Culture of Joy” to new levels.

While everyone on the roster agreed that the group didn’t reach its maximum potential, a heartbreaking conclusion on Sunday doesn’t prevent a lifetime of memories.

“Behind the scenes, I think we’re the closest group in college. I don’t doubt that at all,” freshman guard Ja’Kobe Walter said. “Everybody on the team is just like family for real. It’s just really tough to know that it’s all over, but I know that our relationships are always going to last.”

The Bears saw their March Madness run come to end with their 72-64 loss to Clemson on Sunday in the FedExForum in Memphis, Tenn.

Flashback to August 2023 when, just weeks after their first practice as a team, the Bears hopped on a flight for destination France. Outside the confines of Waco, the squad was forced to zone in on each other, and the friendships sparked not only on-court syndication but also a true understanding of others.

“It all started when we took our foreign trip [to France],” redshirt sophomore guard Langston Love said. “We just became so close. Everybody hung out off the court. There were really no outsiders on this team.

“Everybody got along with each other. Especially for my seniors, the seniors that are on the team, it just hurts a lot just to see the type of pain they’re in also with this game being their last game.”

Graduate student forward Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua said that foreign tour helped the team create a “real family atmosphere.”

“A lot of teams just talk about it and use [it as] propaganda, but we actually believe in it,” Tchamwa Tchatchoua said. “Like, we’re really going to miss each other and really value that.”

For senior forward Jalen Bridges, at the conclusion of his junior season, he received NBA Draft buzz and participated in the pre-draft process only to return to campus for his senior season. Bridges was the lone returning starter from the 2022-23 season, and after he decided to return, the 6-foot-7-inch forward felt like he left year two in the green and gold better than the first.

“This is probably my favorite team I’ve ever played on at any level,” Bridges said. “I’d say my No. 1 best decision was coming back to school [this year]. My second best decision in my life was probably transferring to Baylor. So it was definitely special.”

Although senior guard RayJ Dennis found his role at Baylor early, Drew credited him for never stepping out of his lane but instead being shoved into a new one as a captain both on the court and off it. After settling into his third school in five years, Dennis is grateful for his one season in the green and gold.

“I mean, everybody always has expectations and the way they want something to end, but I couldn’t have asked for my fifth year to go any better and play for a better coach and have better teammates,” Dennis said. “I have brothers for the rest of my life, so I’m super excited that I came to Baylor, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

Bridges and Dennis were two examples of veteran leadership, and senior forward Caleb Lohner can be thrown in that mix too. In his second year as a Bear, Lohner understood his role off the bench.

“This is my family,” Lohner said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of anything with a bond like this. It’s been special to be a part of. These guys, I’ll take care of for the rest of my life.

“That’s what made this season for us so special. We didn’t get to accomplish all the goals we wanted to, but I think sometimes life is bigger than basketball. That showed in this team.”

With seven new players, Drew said those lasting impacts tie to Baylor’s goal of “preparing champions for life.”

“It’s a spiritual-academic character formation in basketball,” Drew said. “And our first goal is each and every year that we spend eternity together. It’s hard because when you coach 30-plus years, there’s certain teams that are just more special than others because of the bond you have.”

After losing for a third straight year in the round of 32, Drew sat down in front of the media for the final time in 2023-24 and wiped away tears that were uncontrollably trickling down his cheek as players he grew to love broke down on Sunday.

Walter fought back tears at the podium as he called Baylor “home.” The expected one-and-done guard said he just wanted to give his all for this family-oriented group.

“The group of guys, the staff, it’s just really hard,” Walter said. “Every game, I just went and put my body on the line because I loved my teammates so much and loved the coaches so much.

“I never looked ahead. I always just wanted to be in the moment, because this is really hard. We had big plans, and I know we could have made them [happen].”