clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

2021-2022 Baylor Basketball Mega Preview: Why Baylor Can Return to the Final Four

New, 22 comments

Hoops!

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Arkansas at Baylor Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Seven months removed from winning the national championship, Baylor could be good enough to reach the final game again this season. But with the loss of Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and Mark Vital, the range of outcomes is far wider this season.

Last season was fairly obvious: Baylor was going to be fantastic. The Bears had two of the country’s three best point guards. Even if Mitchell didn’t spend last season as an offensive monster, Baylor was going to be incredible. The Bears stayed focused and talked early about the difficulty replacing Freddie Gillespie, but with such a deep roster, the Bears were unbelievable. If not for the COVID pause, the Bears would get more love as one of the best teams ever. I still maintain that iteration was the best Big 12 team ever.

The Bears open the season highly ranked by most voters and systems: No. 6 (KenPom), No. 5 (Sagarin), No. 8 (AP and Evan Miya) and No. 9 (Torvik). Drew has mentioned in multiple interviews, including with me, that he feels like they have a chance to go back-to-back.

As we have annually, we’ll take a look at Baylor’s roster and some questions about the players. Then we’ll look at some major questions about this year’s squad. Finally we’ll do game-by-game predictions. I predicted Baylor would win the national title last season, then the year ended with me writing a book about it!

Players:

I’ll highlight their best attribute but also something each player needs to improve upon. That’s not meant as a dig. The expectations are high at Baylor, and these guys want to play in the NBA. So if this reads as slightly more negative than some of last year’s content, know that it’s not meant to be.

Adam Flagler: Last year he formed one of the best guard quartets in college basketball history. He should start at shooting guard and play 30+ minutes a night.

The Bears will need him to be more of a playmaker this season. He earned the moniker mid-range assassin and will need to navigate pick-and-rolls well this year:

I have a longform article on Flagler from an interview with him last month. He should have a big season and contend for All-Big 12.

Matthew Mayer: After playing 15 minutes a night for the last two years, Mayer will need to score and be a playmaker this season. He earned Preseason All-Big 12 from the league’s coaches.

The Bears will need him to play well on both sides of the court this season. He’s flashed that kind of potential:

If Mayer’s Baylor’s best player, then the Bears can win the Big 12. That means Mayer has been a consistent 30 minute a night guy who can lead the team in scoring while making plays for other. At his size, he’s capable of making plays for others. His work against Wisconsin was incredible.

If Mayer is Baylor’s fourth or fifth best player, then the Bears are unlikely to live up to the top 10 ranking. Mayer doesn’t need to be Baylor’s leading scorer, but he has to be instant offense if the game bogs down. He also needs to have a 3-point shooting season like he did last year (40%).

Mayer should be one of Baylor’s top two players. He’s been in the system for four years and he’s not blocked from getting more playing time by NBA guys. This squad will rely more on wings. And he’s more physically gifted than anyone in a league that features some of the sport’s best players. This truly should be Matthew Mayer Time.

James Akinjo: A former Big East Freshman of the Year at Georgetown, and a First Team All-PAC 12 selection last year at Arizona. He’ll be Baylor’s starting point guard.

Akinjo’s strengths are play-making and 3-point shooting. He hit 41% of his 130 triples last year. He also made 82% of his free throws, which indicates he’s going to be good from deep.

With his quick shot and dribble, he reminds me of Kenny Chery.

He’ll need to improve his efficiency near the hoop. Here’s Akinjo’s shot chart from CBB-Analytics:

Hoop-math also had Akinjo at 43.3% on shots near the hoop. Butler, Teague and Mitchell were all at least 63% from that area.

Jim Boeheim ripped Akinjo a few years back as too selfish. The Baylor staff and players disagree with that assessment. They say he’s been great in practice, and they’re excited by him, so I wouldn’t expect him to just look for his own shot.

If he can improve his play near the hoop, he has a good chance to be All-Big 12.

Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua: Slated for a larger role after playing 46% of Baylor’s minutes last season. His role as a rim runner made Big 10 teams that believed dropping was possible realize that dreams can collapse quickly.

His biggest challenge this season will be switching more. He did a nice job late in the season, and he’s exceptional at loudly calling out the screen coverages. During the Hartford game, I could hear him from the other side of Lucas Oil Stadium.

Mayer and Thamba told me at Big 12 Media Days that EJ is hitting some threes. He’s not going to be Akinjo or Flagler from deep, but if he can drill one or two a game, it will help him stay on the court in bigger lineups.

He will have to watch his foul rate. Baylor needs him to be ready to go 30+ some nights.

Flo Thamba: A super intelligent big man who played much better late in the season. He sets hard screens, and he’s a maven sealing defenders down low for layups:

He needs to take the ball up stronger on put back opportunities. He scored a big bucket when Baylor ran its classic T-action coming out of halftime against Villanova. But he struggled, at times, to score over smaller defenders when he had deep post positioning.

LJ Cryer: He missed a lot of the summer with an injury, but should be one of Baylor’s top scorers this season. He expected Teague and Butler to go pro before last season, so he was not planning to be the fifth guard on last year’s squad.

Tang said before Baylor’s opening games (how long ago does Drew getting COVID and Villanova canceling the opening game feel?) last year that Cryer might have been the most talented freshman guard Baylor ever had. He just didn’t play a ton sitting behind that quartet.

HIs range is exceptional, and he’s not afraid to let people know what’s going on. He won me over at the Kansas State game last year when he shouted at teammates about who to hit for open shots. Jakus told me that Baylor won’t limit his range, and his quick release makes him difficult to play off of:

He’ll have to create for others this year. He’s capable and will primarily be a scorer, but he’ll need to run some screens and hit teammates against varying defenses.

Kendall Brown: Shouts on the first name. A next level athlete who both has an insane vertical leap and can get off the floor quickly for a second jump. He’s an adept cutter with good defensive instincts. Also been praised as unselfish by Drew.

Brown’s biggest challenge will be 3-point shooting. That’s probably the biggest question for his NBA ceiling too. He went 7-of-21 from three in 20 games for Sunrise Christian last year.

Jeremy Sochan: Shouts to Travis Roeder from the site for pumping this guy up from the beginning. 247 rated him 112th in the class, which is an acknowledgement that like me, they didn’t quite know how to rank the leagues Sochan played in.

He played in Europe last season and moved to England when he was three. His skill level is very high. He can dribble, pass, defend and has range. He’s a three-level scorer that Mayer and Thamba raved about at Big 12 Media Days.

His biggest issue could be 3-point shooting. Playing heavy minutes while battling Big 12 talent is going to make scoring tougher than it was in some of his games overseas.

Dale Bonner: A division II transfer that, with the injury to Langston Love (he would have been in the rotation), might play some this season. He’s shot well and multiple folks say that he’s improved the most since his arrival.

Moving up a level is tough to play immediately. Freddie Gillespie dropped out of the rotation during the 2018-2019 season before an injury to Tristan Clark brought him back. By the time he returned to the rotation, Gillespie was good. Then he was a great defensive player and acerbic scorer as a senior.

Bonner could follow that trajectory. He has a lot of the tools to be successful at this level, but expecting anyone to be ready and not make a bevy of mistakes in his first foray at this level is tough.

Jordan Turner: Teague told me that Turner improved the most of anyone last season. He played at Sunrise Christian and can shoot well from three, and he’s a good leaper on drives.

He may be a year away. With Love’s injury he might get a chance to play this season, but his strength and shot creation may be one season away. Or he could be like Ish Wainright was and suddenly have a season where we’re like, “Wow, where did this come from?”

Zach Loveday: A good 3-point shooting big man and teammate. He’s worked hard to defend the perimeter better and often stayed around after games and got shots up along with Cryer.

My guess is that he’s also a year away and will play the following year—I expect Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Thamba will be off to make money professionally.

His biggest challenge will be defending in space.

Dain Dainja: The ceiling is truly the roof for Dainja. He redshirted last season and has battled some injuries the last two years. He can score and drive like a guard, but he’s a bigger guy as well.

Like all of us over the last 18 months, he’s battled to get himself into playing shape. He lost a good deal of weight early, and he’s worked to improve his strength.

Dainja is probably the biggest wildcard over the next two seasons. He needs to stay healthy and then get consistent time in the gym and some minutes on the court to develop.

Langston Love: Will miss the season with a torn ACL. His absence will be pretty tough, given it changes some of Baylor’s lineup possibilities. He will be a major piece next season.

Key Questions:

Are there some areas Baylor might improve from last year?

This seems a bit ridiculous since we just watched one of the best teams of the century, and what I’ve consistently said is the best Big 12 team ever. How can you lose your core four from that group and expect to be better anywhere?

Two areas stick out. First, Baylor has more size this season. Instead of playing three or four guards so often, the Bears will play Mayer, Sochan and Brown quite a bit at the three and four. That will make it tougher to make shots over the outstretched arms of those players, and Baylor’s defensive rebounding rate could improve with bigger players available to box out and secure boards. The Bears ranked 274th last year in defensive rebounding.

Second, Baylor should get to the line more. Baylor ranked 295th in free throw rate. The Bears also had the nation’s No. 2 offense, so I’m not saying the tradeoff is going to favor this squad’s offense over last year’s. But the Bears will probably put more opponents in foul trouble and get easier chances at the stripe. Mayer was one of the best Bear’s at drawing fouls, and Akinjo’s rate of drawing fouls (4.6 per 40 minutes) would have led last year’s team by a sizable margin.

Only highlighting two areas of improvement should not be a sign this team will be sweating Selection Sunday. When you win the title, you’re usually fantastic on both sides of the ball, so it’s hard to get better in most areas. Instead, you’re left looking to get close to your level of play in the areas that brought your prior team a championship.

Will Baylor offensive rebound without Mark Vital?

There is no greater certainty in college basketball than Scott Drew teams collecting offensive rebounds. Despite playing four guards and Mark Vital, the Bears finished fifth in offensive rebounding.

Baylor’s been through this concern before. Rico Gathers ranked No. 1 in offensive rebounding rate, and Baylor went from No. 4 nationally to No. 3 (the Bears did decline by one percent as more teams have focused on limiting transition opportunities instead of hitting the glass, but that’s not much of a drop).

Tchamwa Tchatchoua, Thamba, Mayer, Brown and Sochan will corral offensive boards. If Baylor’s not in the top 25—and that even feels low to make this bet—on January 1, I will eat at a Zaxby’s.

How does Baylor handle losing so many great shooters?

Last year Baylor shot 41.3% from deep, which led the nation. Iowa ranked 10th and was the only other power conference school in the top 10.

The chart shows Baylor ranked No. 1 in the country but ranked 159th in percent of shots taken from beyond the arc.

Some read that and think, “Why not shoot more 3-point shots if you’re so dominant from three?” But defenders of Baylor’s 2021 shot profile—again, champs, so this is a good side to take—would point out that Baylor managed to be No. 1 in 3-point shooting and have the No. 2 offense by figuring out the right distribution of shots. Baylor could have taken a three every trip, but the accuracy would have dipped as teams would have sold out defending the perimeter.

With Mitchell, Butler and Teague gone—all over 40% shooters from deep—should Baylor attempt fewer threes this season? The case: Baylor doesn’t have as many good shooters, and with a bit more size, work the ball inside to get layup opportunities.

I actually think Baylor should consider having a higher 3-point shooting profile this season, even knowing it will be less accurate from distance. There is an upper bound where threes are less effective than taking twos. Above the radical example is taking every shot from three. We understand that’s a terrible move because defenses sell-out, and you’re giving up chances at quality layups. Plus you’re likely to get fouled less on a 3-point attempt.

My inclination is to support threes, probably too much relative to even the analytics—in the same vain that I prefer teams go for it over punting. But I think Cryer, Akinjo, Flagler and Mayer will all be great from three. The Bears can reduce the risk of turnovers by taking earlier shot clock threes. Baylor also ranked in the 99th percentile last season at shots at the rim, taking 37% of its shots there. Baylor’s probably not getting to the rim quite as well this year, so it needs a place to make up for that.

How can you possibly play such great defense without Mitchell and Vital?

At Big 12 Media Days, I asked Mark Adams about what it’s been like to see so many people copy his defense, and how that impacts Texas Tech. He said, “I’m a bit jealous that Baylor copied it and won a national title.” With Tang and Alvin Brooks spearheading the change, Baylor finished No. 4 in 2021 and No. 22 in 2022. But that No. 22 ranking is largely explained by Baylor’s catastrophic defensive performance in gamed immediately after returning from COVID and before the NCAA Tournament. Jordan Sperber or Hoop-visision and LaPhonso Ellis of ESPN think Baylor had the country’s best defense a year ago. I agree.

Baylor is set to once again play its version of Texas Tech’s no middle defense. The Bears don’t always force everything away from the middle, and Baylor plays more ball screen defenses than Tech does.

So without Mitchell and Vital, and Butler and Teague, how can Baylor hope to play defense at a championship level?

First, the Bears returning guys have more potential than people acknowledge. Mayer’s length and speed make it possible for him to handle duties on one side of the floor. Against OU, he was ready to defend a back-cut, then quickly came over to contest a triple:

Baylor can also trap more in certain spots. The 2020-2021 team could fly around and easily cover any missed rotation. This year’s team will have an easier time—thanks to the length at the three and four—of making passing over them more difficult. So Baylor may not have to scramble as much to make up for situations. It will be harder to make cross-court passes on time and on target against the longer Bears.

Flagler also suffered horrendous luck last season defensively. He was exceptional at contesting, and guys just seemed to make shots against him. Among guards and wings, Evan Miya’s incredible site ranked him as Baylor’s worst defender. I think he’s due for a huge regression bump as opponents won’t go nuclear with Flagler’s hand in their faces this year.

Baylor’s defense won’t be as good as last season’s. Again, that’s okay. But it will flummox people in new areas and can be a top 20 unit.

Will Baylor commit too many turnovers?

No longer running a two traditional point guard attack, and not able to have so many guards at once, the Bears might commit too many turnovers. Baylor went from sub 250 in 2017, 2018 and 2019, to 97th and 54th over the last two seasons. Those improvements coincided with Baylor ranking 17th and second in adjusted offensive efficiency.

Even if Baylor commits more turnovers this season, Baylor’s built incredible offenses while turning it over a bunch. Basketball is a game of tradeoffs. When Baylor gave the ball to Johnathan Motley and Taurean Prince, it turned it over more than it would without those two initiating so much. But the tradeoff worked out as the Bears built top 25 offenses with the pair initiating the action. A regression of the last five seasons—small sample size alert!—shows that 37% of the variability in Baylor’s offense is explained by turnovers. That’s a significant fraction, but even assuming the worst, it’s not fatal.

This is the facet of Baylor’s team that I am the most unsure about. Maybe not having so many guards means Baylor regresses and turns it over a ton. But maybe the new crew doesn’t look to make as many highlight plays, coupled with rule changes that make it easier to get away with traveling, and Baylor actually improves. It’s not like Baylor’s incredible 2021 offense avoided turnovers. The Bears still turned it over quite a bit.

Who are the leaders, and how does Baylor handle setbacks?

Before winning 23 straight games—the longest streak in Big 12 history—the 2019-2020 blew an eight point lead against a mediocre Washington team. Teams with new pieces tend to drop an early game.

The first question I asked Drew at Big 12 Media Days was about who would replace the leadership void from the departing quartet. Drew highlighted the returning guys.

Although I like numbers quite a bit—find yourself another preview that runs a regression about a team’s offensive rebounding!—there’s a giant nonmathematical element to the game. Until Baylor has to rally from losing, it won’t know exactly what it has.

Still, the team has enough guys that should step up. I asked Flagler about not having a guy like Vital around, and he mentioned that nobody can replace Vital individually. But collectively there are enough respected voices to point out if things go awry. Tchamwa Tchatchoua, Flagler and company aren’t going to handle prolonged losing.

Can this team survive a major injury?

Last year’s Bears were a bit like the Kevin Durant era Warriors in the sense that if one of the top players went down, you still had a fantastic lineup ready to go. That’s why Baylor survived bad games from Mitchell, Butler, Teague, Flagler and Vital. Had one of them suffered a season ending injury, Baylor still projected as a top four team. Fully healthy they won every NCAA Tournament game by at least nine points.

There are some spots Baylor’s in a tougher place injury wise this year. Although Flagler and Cryer can play point guard, Akinjo is much more of a natural point guard than the other two guards.

Baylor’s had a rash of injuries before the season. The Bears, outside of Love’s season ending injury, should have everyone available to start the year. But that lost time matters more with so many new faces.

Still, I’m a little less concerned about this impacting Baylor’s finish in March/April. In 2019, Baylor lost Tristan Clark, by far Baylor’s best player to start the season. Makai Mason missed significant time too. Kansas crushed the Bears in their first game after Clark’s injury. The staff switched offenses, and Baylor got better. I trust the group of players and coaches to work through this.

What’s Baylor’s best lineup?

Over the last two seasons, America’s best lineup was Mark Vital at the five surrounded by four guards or with Matt Mayer at the four instead of a guard. With Davion Mitchell’s ability to front, and Mark Vital’s work on the perimeter, the Bears could just switch screens and stop people:

You can make a fine case that a host of lineups will be Baylor’s best. Might the Bears experiment with Tchamwa Tchatchoua at the four and make it difficult to score inside? Tchamwa Tchatchoua flashed some playmaking ability last year:

College basketball has down shifted though as teams that can space destroy big men in screens in the later rounds. Some would counter that Villanova 2018 blasting Kansas in the Final Four, or Baylor beating everyone doesn’t prove that style fails. It just proves that historically great teams beat really good teams.

My guess is that Baylor’s best five at the end of the season will be: Akinjo, Cryer, Flagler, Mayer and Tchamwa Tchatchoua. Sochan and Brown could play the four and Mayer could shift down to the three. Or Baylor could get super funky and elect to play a non-traditional five. I would doubt the latter happens, but it was crazy to think Vital was a center before it happened in 2019.

The Bears may also be more matchup dependent for the best lineup. Against bigger frontlines, Sochan or Brown might close a game. Thamba will likely play more minutes than he did last year and provide more rim protection too. There is something fun about the uncertainty of how a good team will end up in the process of being great.

What’s a premortem for if this season ends up catastrophically?

For those unfamiliar, Harvard Business Review has a primer:

A premortem is the hypothetical opposite of a postmortem. A postmortem in a medical setting allows health professionals and the family to learn what caused a patient’s death. Everyone benefits except, of course, the patient. A premortem in a business setting comes at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied. Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the premortem operates on the assumption that the “patient” has died, and so asks what did go wrong. The team members’ task is to generate plausible reasons for the project’s failure.

What’s a catastrophic ending? After winning a national title, most folks can accept a mulligan season. But the collection of talent and the staff are too good to project that this team will miss the NCAA Tournament, barring disaster. Maybe that’s, to borrow the 9/11 Commission’s framing, “A failure of the imagination.” But Robert Draper reminds us in “To Start a War” that an imagination run amok can lead to catastrophe too, i.e. the Iraq War. So I don’t think a failed season for Baylor ends in missing the NCAA Tournament unless multiple guys miss the season.

But is there a path where Baylor finishes fifth or sixth in the league and gets bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament? I think it’s very unlikely, but here’s my best guess. Mayer struggles to handle more minutes, and can’t quite get over the hump. Akinjo doesn’t improve as an interior scorer, and the Bear’s big men find themselves in foul trouble a lot. The freshmen struggle from three, and Baylor turns into a below average 3-point shooting team. As Baylor takes a couple of early losses to less talented teams, the Bears never quite find their footing and finish sixth in the Big 12 and lose the 8-9 game in the NCAA Tournament.

While I don’t think that outcome is likely—and hitting on all those unlikely outcomes is even less likely to happen—a few of them could happen. Had we done one of these before last season we might have said: Davion Mitchell fails to improve offensively. Worried about his NBA Draft stock, Butler takes too many shots, and Teague has a cold spell from three when dealing with his belief that he’s as good as Butler and Mitchell and has deferred too much to the pair. Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Thamba can’t replace Gillespie, and Baylor’s interior defense falters. The Bears drop a couple of Big 12 games they shouldn’t, and find themselves on the No. 3 line. Baylor faces a hot shooting team in the round of 32 and gets eliminated.

We know the above didn’t happen. but those were the situations the Bears worked through. Last year Baylor avoided all of the dire possibilities; this year a few of the problem areas will probably occur. That’s what happens with a new squad. But the goal is to be the best team in April. This is not Texas A&M football where winning one game in the sixth week of the season satisfies your goals.

Season Prediction:

This is kind of a stupid exercise, but we’re over 4,000 words in, so let’s keep it moving!

Baylor will not have any games canceled because of COVID. I think a combination of vaccinations and natural immunity will save the Bears. I would guess zero Big 12 teams miss a game because of it.

The Bears play six teams that are ranked No. 226 or worse on KenPom. Even with new lineups, I can’t see Baylor dropping one of those games. Mayer and Thamba were around for the Texas Southern debacle. The Bears win all six.

There are three marquee non-conference games outside of the Battle 4 Atlantis and Big 12-SEC Challenge. On November 20, Baylor host Stanford. This feels like a trap game (and maybe that’s not generous enough to Stanford), but Baylor’s a 12 point favorite on KenPom, and the Cardinals didn’t have a great campaign last year (though COVID impacted them a lot). I’ll take Baylor in that one.

Villanova and Oregon are two tough opponents. The Wildcats are difficult to peg. With Collin Gillespie back, and the non-Jeremiah Robinson-Earl crew returning, it’s easy to say that Villanova gave Baylor its toughest test in the NCAA Tournament, so the returning crew—especially with more experience—will knock off Baylor. But I think the Bears can exploit this lineup without JRE. And I’ll take Baylor.

Taking on Oregon in Eugene is daunting. Dana Altman landed De’Vion Harmon from Oklahoma, which is an underrated addition. I think the Bears have a rough shooting day—though maybe I’m just haunted from the prior loss at Oregon. I’ll say the Ducks knock off the Bears.

In the Battle 4 Atlantis, I have Baylor over Arizona State. The Sun Devils were bad last year—possibly the nation’s most disappointing team—and Remy Martin is a Jayhawk. Give me the Bears big. But playing Syracuse early in the season isn’t fun. Once again, I may be haunted by an old game (the 2013 Maui final), but I think Baylor will have a tougher time with a new squad against the 2-3 zone. I’ll take Syracuse to knock off Baylor. But I’ll say Baylor wins the Davion Mitchell Bowl and beats Auburn again.

In the Big 12-SEC Challenge, I’ll take Baylor over Alabama. The Crimson Tide have it going under Nate Oats, and Jahvon Quinerly will be a tough defensive task. But the Bears seem to get up for Big 12-SEC Challenge games, and I think Alabama will be overwhelmed by Baylor’s passing.

That puts Baylor at 11-2 in non-conference. The Villanova win would be extremely valuable for the NCAA Tournament, and at least one win at the Battle 4 Atlantis should be quadrant one. Alabama will also be a quad one win.

I guess I have a few hot takes about the Big 12, though I’m not sure they’re that hot. Texas is good. I’m not sold that 11 guys that expect to play 30 minutes will handle it well when some of them are getting zero minutes. I also think Kansas State could make the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats were much better late, and Bruce Weber landed a few guys. Plus nobody finds a way to save his job and go on a run right before his job seems lost than Weber.

Baylor should beat Iowa State twice. The Cyclones are No. 113 on KenPom. Even teams that poorly ranked win a few games against teams as good as Baylor most seasons. But T.J. Otzelberger needs some time to land his guys. Baylor wins both.

Let’s also give Baylor a pair of wins over TCU and Oklahoma. Mike Miles is underrated, and Jamie Dixon’s seat might get a little warm after his flirtation with UCLA. But after firing Gary Patterson, I think Dixon is safe and gets another year to turn it around. The Bears win both. Oklahoma has the Groves’ brothers from Eastern Washington and Jordan Goldwire from Duke. Nice pieces, but I liked their departing guys more. Porter Moser is a fantastic coach, but like Otzelberger, I think he needs time. Give me Baylor going 4-0 in those games.

I have Baylor splitting the series against West Virginia, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. Huggins told me at Big 12 Media Days that the Mountaineers will take more threes this season, and I’ll say they have a strong shooting day and win in Morgantown. Kansas State’s improvement—plus a team usually loses one, “huh” game a year—knocks off Baylor in Manhattan. Oklahoma State and Texas Tech are underrated, and the anger factor for Oklahoma State not getting to make the NCAA Tournament because of a ridiculous NCAA ruling, and the remnant at Texas Tech worked up about Chris Beard’s departure, gives each program strong seasons.

What about Kansas? I’m tempted to say Kansas runs through the season and pulls off a sweep. The Jayhawks are deep, and Martin is explosive. I think the Jayhawks will stay in the top five all season, but I think the Jayhawks will be a little streaky from beyond the arc. After KU handles Michigan State on Tuesday, the KU chorus will grow. But I think KU has a bad day in Waco, while Baylor shoots well and knocks off the Jayhawks.

Okay so surely I have Texas winning at least once against Baylor? Even if Texas is mediocre at football, it doesn’t change the transfers are insanely talented. Beard is one of the country’s best coaches, and he stacked his staff with two former head coaches and one of KU’s assistants. Even the biggest Texas hater has to acknowledge that team has a great chance to win the national title?

I don’t have to do any of that. Andrew Jones and Courtney Ramey are very good players. Brock Cunningham is a good glue guy. Jase Febres shoots well. Are we sure all of those guys are playing even 20 minutes a night? How’s Marcus Carr going to do if he’s shooting eight times a game? Are we sure the rest of the lineup is ready to gel immediately? There is certainly an existence—probably one more rational than the last decade has been on our own world—where Texas proves excellent and the pieces mesh and this team wins the Big 12. But I need to see it. Transfers don’t usually slide in without an off year and prove dominant. As another college basketball writer mentioned to me (not sure if he’d want to be named here), we’ve heard a lot about Reid Travis and a mess of transfers each season. The one year guys don’t usually carry teams to prominence. Texas is planning on running that formula to a national title? Maybe it happens, but it’s a lot easier for me to doubt the Longhorns than it is to doubt the Bears or Jayhawks. Give me Baylor twice over Texas.

That puts Baylor at 13-5 in the Big 12, which should be good for second in the league. In the Big 12 Tournament, I have Baylor beating Kansas State in the quarterfinals, then knocking off Texas in the semifinals before falling to Kansas in the title game. I think that would put Baylor in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 2 seed.

It’s fairly insane to predict an NCAA Tournament without a bracket, but let’s go ahead and do it. That doesn’t feel any wilder than predicting the full season. I’ll take Gonzaga, UCLA, Michigan and Kansas as No. 1 seeds. I have those four, Baylor, Houston, Memphis and Purdue in the Elite Eight.

I’ll take Gonzaga-Kansas as one Final Four and UCLA-Baylor as the other. Then I have UCLA knocking off Gonzaga to win the title. Even with the hate that, “UCLA was an overtime away from losing in the round of 64 and not being ranked highly,” the Bruins managed to win that game and four more! They also return their best players and add two 5-stars. That’s a good recipe to win a title.

The truth is that the 2021-2022 Bears have a wide range of outcomes. After covering last year’s team, a Final Four ending might be wildly optimistic. Maybe Baylor gets bounced in the first game. And maybe enough nostalgia for the departing foursome will be popped by a few inauspicious moments early. I’m betting (non-monetarily!) on the Bears to rectify some “Why did we ever think this team had Final Four potential?” vibes that we’ll feel when the November and December Bears look like a team that lost four of its five best players. But enough talent returns, and the newcomers are good enough that the Bears can do it again.