After hoisting up the men’s basketball national championship trophy last April in Indianapolis, Baylor said good-bye to its top three scorers and its leading rebounder, suggesting that maybe the Bears would suffer maybe a little bit of slippage defending their crown in the new season.
Baylor is 8-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation in the latest Associated Press poll. If the Bears defeat sixth-ranked Villanova on Sunday at Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas, they will most likely ascend to the top of the rankings replacing Purdue, which lost Thursday night at Rutgers.
While acknowledging the loss of guards Jared Butler, MaCio Teague, and Davion Mitchell, Wildcats coach Jay Wright said he feels the return of Baylor’s two big men, 6-foot-8 Jonathan Tchomwa Tchatchoua and 6-10 Flo Thamba, have been the key to the team’s success.
“It’s happened a lot on our teams,” Wright said after Saturday’s practice at Davis Center. “When Daniel Ochefu and Omari Spellman were really good, we won big. We always had the guards. I always felt like Thamba and Chatchoua do so much for them that impacts winning. That’s part of the way that they’ve been able to replicate what they did last year.
“It’s pretty amazing and I don’t want to overlook that. I think it’s very impressive and very commendable. I think [coach] Scott [Drew] does an outstanding job bringing their guys up through the program.”
Currently, three of Baylor’s top five scorers – guards Adam Flagler and L.J. Cryer and forward Matthew Mayer – came off the bench last year. The other two are freshman forward Kendall Brown and senior guard James Akinjo, whose career had stops at Georgetown and Arizona before this season.
“Cryer and Flagler were playing behind great guards and they were just learning all the time,” Wright said. “Flagler actually was the leading scorer in our [NCAA Sweet 16] game last year and he really hurt us, so you can see those guys were ready to do this and I think that’s what makes them an outstanding team.”
The Wildcats lost the Sweet 16 matchup, 62-51. Other than Flagler’s 16 points, the other three returning Bears who competed – Mayer, Tchatchoua, and Thamba – accounted for 12.
Cryer, a 6-foot-1 sophomore, is Baylor’s leading scorer at 15.4 points per game. The 6-8 Brown, who has won national acclaim as one of the game’s top freshmen, averages 13.4 points and shoots nearly 72% from the field. Akinjo’s 6.1-assist mark leads the team and he keys a defense that forces 20 turnovers per game.
Entering this matchup of three of the last five national champions, Villanova has won four straight games and has outrebounded its opponents by an average of 16 per game. The Wildcats defeated Syracuse, 67-53, on Tuesday night with the help of a 57-36 advantage on the boards.
Baylor, however, is on another plateau. The Bears’ average rebounding margin of 11.6 per game ranks 11th in the nation and their 15.5 offensive-rebound average is seventh. Tchatchoua and Thamba combine for an average of 5.4 caroms per game on the offensive boards. Plus, five of Baylor’s nine rotation players are 6-8 or taller.
“Definitely it’s a great challenge,” said junior guard Justin Moore, the Cats’ No. 3 rebounder at 5.4 per game. “They’re physical and tough down there. All their guys go strong to the glass, so just like every other game, we’ve got to come in and play tough, be strong and physical down there and help each other out.”
Oh, and one other thing to worry Villanova: A packed house of more than 10,000 is expected and the fan base knows that a win will boost the Bears to No. 1. The Wildcats have had one extremely noisy road game, their 86-77 overtime loss at then-No. 2 UCLA, and could have a hard time keeping their focus on Sunday.
“They’re going to be extra hyped to play this game,” Wright said of Baylor fans. “Obviously they’ve got even more at stake than originally. So I think we just have to be prepared for what that atmosphere is going to be like, what their energy is going to be like, and understand that going in, and we will talk about that.”