It’s technically correct to call Friday’s Gonzaga-Baylor game a rematch of the 2021 national championship final, but things will look drastically different on both sides when the 14th-ranked Bulldogs and sixth-ranked Bears meet in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Gonzaga’s Drew Timme and Baylor’s Flo Thamba are the only returning players who started two years ago at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Just two current starters, the Bulldogs’ Anton Watson and the Bears’ Adam Flagler, played significant minutes off the bench in Baylor’s 86-70 victory.
Another Baylor reserve, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, got 16 minutes in the title game – guarding Timme for stretches – but hasn’t played for the Bears this season while recovering from an injury. Gonzaga’s Julian Strawther, Ben Gregg and Dominick Harris, along with Baylor’s LJ Cryer, all checked into the game with 1 minute left.
The Bulldogs (5-2) are coming off an 88-84 win over Xavier at the Phil Knight Legacy in Portland, but they have two double-digit losses on their early resume. The Bears (5-2) aren’t all that different, posting an impressive win over UCLA but also dropping two games they were favored to win – an 86-79 loss to No. 16 Virginia and Tuesday’s 96-70 loss to Marquette.
John Werner of the Waco (Texas) Tribune-Herald is pulling double duty this month, covering the Bears’ bowl-bound football team while simultaneously following Baylor’s sixth-ranked basketball team. We posed five questions to the newspaper’s beat writer ahead of Friday’s Gonzaga-Baylor matchup at the Sanford Pentagon (5 p.m., Peacock).
Q: LJ Cryer leads Baylor in scoring (17.9 ppg). Adam Flagler leads the Bears in assists (6.9). Keyonte George has been the top scorer in three of seven games and averages 4.3 assists. How would you rate those three in terms of value to Baylor’s offense?
Werner: Baylor is a guard-led team, much like the 2021 national championship team. Adam Flagler has always been a great outside shooter, but this year he’s taken on the lead point guard role and has done a tremendous job spotting his teammates. LJ Cryer is healthy again after struggling with stress fractures in his feet last season. He’s their best pure shooter. Keyonte George is a unique all-around talent. He can create his own shots and is a gifted passer, and has a lot of poise for a freshman.
Q: Baylor lost three starters from last year’s 27-win team, including two NBA draft picks. Where do the Bears feel the absence of Jeremy Sochan, Kendall Brown and Matthew Mayer?
Werner: Definitely defensively. All three of those guys could guard a variety of positions. The Bears are still very much a work in progress defensively.
Q: In four games against mid-major opponents, Baylor’s defense has allowed 61.2 ppg, but the Bears gave up 96 to Marquette, 86 to Virginia and 75 to UCLA. What are Baylor’s strengths on that end and where have they been vulnerable, especially against stronger opposition?
Werner: The Bears’ defense is pretty bad right now as the 96-70 loss to Marquette showed. They really miss Jeremy Sochan, Kendall Brown and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, who is still rehabbing from a major knee injury.
Q: Where is Baylor seeing the biggest payoff from the national championship two years ago, whether that’s in recruiting, fan engagement/attendance, national exposure or something else?
Werner: Baylor’s recruiting has really taken off and season ticket sales have risen. Scott Drew is often listed among the nation’s elite coaches and one of the best program builders in NCAA history. They’ve got five-star recruits in four straight classes with Kendall Brown (2021), Keyonte George (2022), guard Ja’Kobe Walter (2023) and forward Jason Asemota (2024).
Q: What are the keys to success against Gonzaga on Friday?
Werner: Baylor’s got to lock down on defense and cut down on turnovers after committing 20 against Marquette, including 16 in the first half. They should play a lot better against Gonzaga. It’s rare to see Drew’s teams play two bad games in a row.