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10 Things I like About Baylor Basketball: All the Rotation Guys, Dunks and Takes!

The Bears have been pretty, pretty, pretty good

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Baylor Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

While the Bears have some things to work on, they have at least been the country’s second best team. And I think they’re better than Gonzaga. Baylor’s overtaken Gonzaga on Torvik, and they’re close to taking the lead on KenPom—now down by fewer than .3 points.

There are a few things they need to improve to reach their lofty goals. But in the year of cancellations, death and suffering, we’re going to stay positive here.

1) Adam Flagler from way downtown:

Flagler has been an absolute monster. He’s the sixth man that Five Guys wanted.

The Presbyterian transfer ranks 8th in Bart Torvik’s player of the year rankings.

Flagler told me, “We’ve been working on our range and everything because it makes us more deadly as a team the farther out we can shoot.” He’s at 45% from deep, and he’s been a monster.

2) Jared Butler’s euro step pass for a triple:

I’ve had the pleasure of doing two long features on Jared Butler, and I’m eager to talk with him again about this play.

I watched a lot of basketball. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone use that move into a pass.

3) Mark Vital’s passing has gone up a level:

Vital does a nice job filling whatever role Baylor needs.

Some teams think they can play off Vital because he hasn’t shown he can knock down triples. But you can’t play off Vital because he’ll set ridiculous screens, which can’t be guarded by just relying on one defender to go over the screen.

And he’s too good of a passer:

In Evan Miya’s BPR stat, Vital has been the Big 12’s fourth best player.

4) Davion Mitchell’s closing:

Mitchell deserves plenty of praise for his offensive leap, especially his 3-point shot. The junior guard is 7-of-12 to open the season from three.

His offensive explosion shouldn’t mean ignoring his defensive acumen. He helped shut down Illinois’ preseason all-american, Ayo Dosunmu (6-of-18 from the field). And his ability to hard close—which makes shooting difficult—but then stay in position to defend, is unbelievable:

5) MaCio Teague’s layup and floaters:

Teague has hit 89% of his 2-point jump shoots, per hoop-math. I think they’re classifying some floaters as jumpers that I might classify as shots at the rim, but that’s been a ridiculous start for him.

He’s money on the floater, able to loft the ball high:

And this is just such a beautiful basketball play. He disavows his right hand and lifts the ball as high as the glass goes:

6) Johnathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua on the lob:

I think I can finally spell his name without making an error or having to look it up!

Baylor ran an empty side ball screen twice in the second half against Illinois. The play worked so well because of how well Mitchell threw the lob and because Tchatchoua can take off so early.

Mitchell told me after the Illinois game that Tchatchoua told him, “Throw is as high as you can,” for the pass. That worked. Watch this video with the sound on:

Tchatchoua told me in a later press conference that he talked to Mitchell earlier in the summer and told him that he’s great at making that pass, but he could keep throwing it as higher.

Check out how early Mitchell can throw that pass. Tchatchoua is barely inside the perimeter:

Few things beat Mitchell’s excitement in that video too. The bench has unbridled joy too.

We’re all trying to figure out how to navigate the pandemic, and good people can decide it’s a bad idea to play. But I’m confident Baylor is following the rules and regulations of their medical advisors, and you see/hear how much joy playing brings to the players and the fans on a play like that.

7) Flo Thamba’s weak side block:

The Bears didn’t have a good defensive effort to open the campaign against Louisiana. Jerome Tang, as acting head coach, noted after the game that they didn’t get any rim protection.

But the Bears have done a better job since then. After the Washington game, Tang told me that Thamba and Tchatchoua played better defensively. He was far happier with their effort and work defending pick-and-rolls, and he thought they’d be much better by January.

Drew and Tang have developed a cadre of big men. They understand the schedule and how timing and experience lift big men to meet the challenge of major college basketball.

If Thamba can help off big men and provide rim protection like this, best of luck to the Bears’ opponents:

8) Matthew Mayer Time:

Given I’d tweeted this in February, I was quite happy:

Mayer will not get the minutes Prince had as a junior, so he’s not going to have the breakout campaign that Prince had his third year in Waco.

But Mayer’s been fantastic in his minutes, and if Butler and Mitchell go pro, he has a good chance to be the best player on the 2021-2022 Bears (though Adam Flagler, Kendall Brown and LJ Cryer will be awfully good too).

Mayer’s defense has really improved, which shows he’s getting closer to his potential:

9) LJ Cryer in isolation:

Cryer isn’t going to play significant minutes because the Bears have the best four guards that I can remember from a college basketball team.

Seriously, who is Baylor’s fourth best guard? I don’t want to offend anyone. The fourth best guard is better than your pick for Baylor’s second best guard from 2011-2019. You’d rather have the fourth best guard this year than any second guard every season in that range. I’ll argue that and win.

Tang mentioned that Cryer might be the best freshman guard Baylor’s ever had. He said that Cryer may not get the opportunities to show that because Baylor’s so deep at guard, but it’s apparent why he couldn’t be stopped last year in his high school games in Houston:

10) Baylor having so many press conferences:

I live in Kansas City, so in normal times, I can’t attend the in-person press conferences.

This season all the press conferences are remote, so I make sure to find a way to make them. I’ve been lucky enough—because I don’t cover football to nearly the same degree as others—to attend more Baylor basketball press conferences than anyone.

Those press conferences help me learn things from people that know more about the game. One easy example, Tang told me the Bears were in a zone look but not a zone to start the second half against Washington.

The Bears don’t have to have nearly as many press conferences as they do. Scott Drew is always so positive and delves into whatever we ask for a long time, even when my internet connection is far worse than the money I fork over to ATT should warrant.

Tang did a great job fielding a host of questions in his two game stint at his head coach, which is a reminder that it’s ridiculous someone else hasn’t hired him to head a team. If I were Wichita State, my search would start and end with him. But until a program makes a great decision, the Bears are blessed to have him.

David Kaye, Baylor’s assistant athletic director for communications, has been wonderful in getting everything set up and providing unique stats and game notes. He also donated a kidney this summer.

And the players probably don’t need to hear a Midwestern man like me ask about a random play from two games ago (Mitchell rolled with it when I asked him about Butler’s euro step pass to him for three). But I do deeply appreciate the opportunity to try and learn more about the game and speak with people on such a great team. It’s also a good change from some of the less fun days being a lawyer (there are plenty of fun days doing that too).

I would certainly trade the virus disappearing for not being able to attend the press conferences. But some weeks are truly awful right now, and covering this team has been the highlight of my year.