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Baylor’s Bench: Another Reason the Bears Could Win a Title

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Flagler and Mayer are a problem

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Baylor Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

No. 2 Baylor (16-0, 8-0) knocked off Auburn 84-72. And they did that despite their three best offensive players having a rough start.

After three incredible offensive games, Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell started 2-of-10 from the field. Macio Teague had just four points in the first half. Butler—he had some great moments otherwise—went 1-of-8 from three after going 10-of-13 in the last two contests. This is the kind of game where a really good team can lose to Auburn. The Tigers are ranked No. 14 in adjusted efficiency in the last five games. Those coincide with Sharife Cooper, a potential lottery pick, getting eligible.

As they always seem to do though, the Bears went on a giant run. One difference from the good Baylor teams of the past—and this one—is that the six minute stretch overwhelms Baylor’s opponents now. In past seasons, the Bears might have a five or six minute scoring drought. The thought was simple, “Man, if Baylor can just avoid those five minute droughts, they could win a title.” Now, the opponents think the same. “Man, if we could just avoid that five minute run from Baylor....”

The Bears had their run today thanks to their bench. Adam Flagler had a superb game. He finished with 19 points on just 12 shots. His defense was just as important. The Bears were down 17-16 at the under eight timeout. That’s when Auburn needed to make a run and pull ahead because Baylor was inevitably going to have their own run. But Auburn couldn’t because of Flagler’s defense. He stayed back and read a lob chance; he bumped Auburn’s big to prevent the dunk. Flagler’s always had that kind of intelligence; he plans to be a pediatrician (somehow I can spell Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua but not that). But now he has his legs back after missing time because of the COVID-19 protocols and is back to where he was early in the campaign.

Then there’s Matthew Mayer. He had an unbelievable slam dunk off an offensive board. He said after the game, “They didn’t box me out, and I just saw the lane. It was just one of those perfect misses; shoutout Jared.”

Earlier in the week, Butler mentioned that he wanted to have more dunks than Mayer this season. The duo live together and are good friends. Mayer said after this game, “Some reason (Jared) thinks he’s going to have more than me; yeah, he plays more minutes but come on.”

Drew credited that play with helping Baylor make a run. He said, “The momentum, the energy, the excitement just permeates throughout the team, and allows you to build on a run or go on a run...(and) he’s done a great job rebounding.”

Mayer has amazing potential, and has put that together with playmaking this year. He drives and teams assume he’s going to shoot. That’s not surprising that teams assume Mayer’s going to be active looking for his shot. He’ll admit he’s very aggressive, and said after the contest, “That’s my version of timid when I’m doing too much.” But his aggressiveness and reputation has led to easy bucket opportunities under the rim for Tchamwa Tchatchoua because teams turn all their attention to Mayer’s scoring potential and ignore that he can make spectacular passes too.

As teams look to take away Tchamwa Tchatchoua’s lobs, the Bears are also looking for creative ways to get him the ball. Drew mentioned, “Your stuff gets scouted and that just happens” when I asked about them looking for new ways to get him the ball. They ran a floppy set that usually ends with Butler either taking a three or getting a floater near the rim. Today they got a lob opportunity out of one, but they just missed converting. That’s another example that although Baylor and Gonzaga are 1A and 1B, the Bears have some clear ways to improve by fixing those small mistakes.

Baylor has so many strengths that saying, “The strength of Baylor” is pretty goofy. The Bears are No. 1 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 3 on offense. They might have the country’s best player, and there’s a better argument that Teague should have been one of the 15 finalists for national defensive player of the year instead of dropping one of their three finalists. They also just had Mark Vital, often their center, shut down a first round point guard. And Mitchell made Cooper’s life miserable in the first half.

But if you had to boil it down to a singular strength, the Bears’ best strength is how deep they are. Most teams could be very good with Butler, or Mitchell or Teague as their best guy surrounded by okay. But the Bears’ best players play next to fantastic players, which is probably going to be the clearest explanation for how Baylor wins the title if they do something that’s looking likelier each game.