The Baylor Bears reload yet again under Scott Drew in a new-look Big 12.
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There might not be a more underrated basketball coach in America than Scott Drew. Taking over the head job at Baylor after disgraced Dave Bliss threw the university into arguably the worst scandal in college basketball history, (the murder of Patrick Dennehy and posthumous slandering by Bliss) it took years for Drew to build back the program from the ground up.
From 2007 onward, however, Baylor has achieved a winning record every season. The program’s consistency is unmatched in the Big 12, save for, of course, Kansas and Texas. From 2019-2022, Baylor was one of the preeminent programs in the nation, compiling a 81-13 record over three seasons, winning a national championship in the 2020-21 season. Last year, the Bears were seemingly no different, starting the season ranked 5th in the nation. The additions of freshman Keyonte George and West Virginia transfer Jalen Bridges combining with returnees Adam Flagler, LJ Cryer, and Flo Thamba meant reasons for high optimism around the program, even with the uncertainty surrounding Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua’s injury and the departures of James Akinjo and Jeremy Sochan.
However, early losses to Virginia and Marquette showed holes in the team’s defense, a weakness that was never truly solved through the course of the season. The Bears’ offense was elite, with Cryer, Flagler, and George leading the way, but often it just wasn’t enough to overcome defensive struggles, which have not been not typical of the team during the Drew era. Three straight losses in late December and early January dropped the Bears from the rankings briefly, though it was followed by a 6-game winning streak.
Entering the NCAA tournament as a 3-seed with a 2-game losing streak after losing in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament, (both losses, coincidentally, were to Iowa State) the Bears were pitted against UCSB, who they defeated after a strong second half performance. In the round of 32, however, they met a red-hot Creighton squad and the Baylor defense could simply not stop the Bluejays, who ended the Bears’ season with a 85-76 defeat.
The ensuing offseason was not supremely kind to Scott Drew’s program, who lost George to the draft, Flagler to eligibility, and Cryer up Highway 6 to Houston. Rotational pieces Dale Bonner and Flo Thamba also departed the program, leaving a handful of holes to fill. In both the freshman class and the transfer portal, however, Drew delivered.
Ending up with the no. 12 recruiting class in the nation, Baylor brings in 5-star Ja’Kobe Walter, 4-stars Miro Little and Yves Missi, along with JUCO recruit Yanis Ndjonga. Walter, a 6-5 guard, has the highest chance to replace the offensive production lost in the offseason, and is a good bet to average double-figures as a freshman. Little, a similar-sized guard at 6-4, is more suited to an on-ball, point role, while Missi could play significant minutes in the frontcourt as a 7-footer. Walk-on freshman Omar Adegbola is also a physical guard who had a solid senior year at Montverde Academy.
In the portal, Drew brought in Toledo transfer RayJ Dennis, a high-volume scorer who will do his absolute best to fill in Flagler’s role, and Jayden Nunn, one of the best defenders in the portal, over from VCU.
Returnees include forwards Jalen Bridges, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua (pronounced CHAM-wuh CHA-chew-wuh), Caleb Lohner, and Josh Ojianwuna, as well as guards Dantwan Grimes and Langston Love.
In the backcourt, Dennis and Nunn, the two transfers, will likely start at the 1 and 2, respectively. Dennis is the better option offensively, but that’s in no way an indictment of Nunn and rather a shoutout to Dennis’s talents. After spending 2 years at both Boise State and 2 at Toledo, he makes his way to Waco for a collegiate encore.
If there’s one player who wouldn’t be impacted severely from the jump-up in competition to the best conference in college basketball, it’s RayJ Dennis. The 2022-23 MAC player of the year placed 2nd in the conference last year in PPG with 19.5, and he can create too, leading the MAC with 5.8 APG. While his defense isn’t elite, (5th on Toledo last year in defensive box plus/minus) it’s certainly serviceable, and he was able to collect 1.5 SPG on the perimeter last year. He’s a huge pickup for a team that loses its 3 best guards, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him average 15+ PPG this year.
Nunn is another solid pickup but certainly plays a different type of role than Dennis. Coming over from VCU, a program known for tough-nosed defense year in and year-out, Nunn is an elite defender with an underrated offensive package. While he placed 8th in the A-10 in defensive rating and 2nd in defensive box plus/minus, he also shot 40.4% from deep last season on 2.8 attempts per game. At 6-4, he has the length to guard any backcourt competitor and undersized forwards as well. Especially after how poorly Baylor performed on the defensive end last season, Nunn will make an immediate impact on the court for the Bears. His underlying metrics on the offensive side point to a possible breakout on that side of the ball, too, and Nunn could very well blossom into a 2nd-team Big 12 selection this season.
On the wing, 5-star small forward Ja’Kobe Walter is legit. It’s easy to say that about every 5-star prospect, but Walter faces near-zero hurdles in terms of adjusting his game to the college level. He’s already very physical, and he can score in buckets. He might not be Keyonte George, but that’s ok because they don’t quite have the same game anyway. Walter won’t play the point at all this year, and he’s a polished defensive prospect. (Again, something Bayor was in need of.) The good news for Baylor is just how easy it looks for Walter to score sometimes because in all likelihood, he’s not going to be in Waco next year. The 6-5 forward will be pivotal in terms of replacing offensive production. If he can step up and fill in a Flagler/Cryer role right away, (which he’s more than capable of doing), Baylor will be just fine on offense, with a bit of a boost on defense too.
Getting into the starting big men, there’s no question that the Bears have improved on that front. Both Jalen Bridges and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua return, and Tchamwa Tchatchoua looks to finally be at full strength for his 6th year in college basketball after a devastating knee injury two years ago. Bridges is a candidate for a boost in production, even after averaging 10.3 PPG last season. Replacing George, Cryer, and Flagler in the backcourt will be hard to do for three newcomers, so having a veteran in the frontcourt like Bridges who is entering his 2nd season with the program will ease any growing pains the offense will go through.
He’s a great interior defender and was really efficient from inside the arc as a scorer on the offensive side as well. Tchamwa Tchatchoua has dealt with injuries stemming from a February 2022 knee injury, but he will be healthy and closer to full strength this season, which is great for Baylor, who, as mentioned, needs veteran presence and defense, both of which Tchamwa Tchatchoua provides. He was the 2021-2022 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, and for good reason. As he regains his form, he’ll again be a force near the rim.
Despite concern from some media about the team’s depth, Baylor actually has a sneaky deep rotation. First off the bench will be guard Langston Love, at least once the Big 12 season rolls around. He’s out for the non-conference portion of the schedule with a pectoral injury. Love averaged 6.3 PPG on 16.6 MPG last season, and was a capable shooter from deep at a 36.4% clip. It’s worth monitoring if he’ll be able to perform at the same rate once he returns from injury.
Returnees Josh Ojianwuna (pronounced oh-john-WOO-nuh) and Dantwan Grimes should also see 15+ MPG this season. Ojianwuna is a physical forward that could play either the 4 or 5. Though he found just 13.2 MPG last season, the offseason departure of Flo Thamba could spell a larger role for Ojianwuna, who flashed with an 11-point, 11-rebound performance against Nicholls State last year. Grimes didn’t play at all last year, as he redshirted after spending two years at Kilgore College, a JUCO in Kilgore, Texas, about three hours away from Waco. He’s a very solid on-ball presence whose main draw is finding open teammates and passing lanes, though he’s a more-than-capable scorer as well. At 6-2, he doesn’t have the length of Nunn or Walter but he is still an excellent perimeter defender, averaging 4.7 SPG in his last year of JUCO competition.
Little and Missi, the other recruits in this year’s cycle besides Walter, will play rotational minutes. Missi, the tallest player on the roster at 7-0 tall, likely has an easier path to playing time with Little, a 6’4 guard, having to play behind Nunn, Dennis, Love, and likely Grimes. Missi, from Yaounde, Cameroon, is a solid defensive unit. With time in Baylor’s system, he could become an absolute force but don’t expect it just yet. Little, another international, who hails from Finland, has length at 6-4, but is a bit raw heading into his freshman year. Still, with the injury to Love, he could see some playing time early in non-conference competitions.
Caleb Lohner, Yanis Ndjonga, and Omar Adegbola bring up the bench, and all three have relatively high ceilings for reserves, even though Adegbola isn’t on scholarship. Lohner,a 6-8 forward, averaged 3.2 PPG and 3.5 RPG in a limited role last year after transferring from BYU. Ndjonga, a 6-7 forward, comes over from New Mexico Military Institute and will likely need time to adjust to Big 12 basketball. Adegbola is a hometown Texan guard who averaged 24.6 PPG for Montverde last year.
Ultimately, this team will be more balanced than last year. They have the capability of being better than last year’s team, but if one thing is for certain, these Bears are going to be more balanced between the two sides of the ball. The non-conference slate is strong, with games against Auburn, Seton Hall, Michigan State, and Duke. Not only will those games provide a serious litmus test about how much the defense has improved, but it will also provide a showcase for 5-star Ja’Kobe Walter, who is a solid bet to take the Big 12 by storm.
Baylor has a very good chance to improve over last year’s record. Playing in a new look Big 12, they’ll get to feast on Cincinnati, UCF, and BYU this year, but they’ll also have to deal with Houston and former Bear LJ Cryer. It’s not out of the question for this team to make a strong tournament run, and the defense is likely miles ahead of last year. Nunn and Dennis will be a much better offensive duo than most expect, and though depth may be a concern early, once Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Love get healthy and the freshmen adjust to the college game, this team will start clicking at the right time.
They’ve got the look of a 4-6 seed that no high seed will want to meet in the Sweet Sixteen. A regular-season record of 22-8 with a 12-6 conference record is certainly not unlikely, and the Bears have the talent to make that happen, or even better. Keep an eye, or multiple eyes on this team, Jayden Nunn, RayJ Dennis, Jalen Bridges, and especially Ja’Kobe Walter, and remember never to bet against Scott Drew.
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Head coach: Scott Drew (21st season, 20th at Baylor)
2022-23 record: 23-11 (11-7)
2023 postseason finish: Lost to Creighton, 85-76, in second round of NCAA Tournament
Notable departures: Keyonte George (NBA), Adam Flagler (NBA), LJ Cryer (Transferred to Houston) Flo Thamba (Graduated), Dale Bonner (Transferred to Ohio State)
Notable non-conference games: vs. Auburn (Nov. 7, in South Dakota), vs. Seton Hall (Dec. 5), vs. Michigan State (Dec. 16, in Detroit), vs. Duke (Dec. 20, at Madison Square Garden)
*Note– Baylor has not listed weights for players, which means our rotation will only label each player’s height.*
PG: RayJ Dennis (6-2, Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 19.5 PPG, 5.8 APG, 4.3 RPG, 1.5 SPG (Toledo)
SG: Jayden Nunn (6-4, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 9.3 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.5 SPG (VCU)
SF: Ja’Kobe Walter (6-5, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 8 rated recruit
PF: Jalen Bridges (6-9, Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 10.3 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 1.0 APG
C: Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua (6-8, Gr.-Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 5.1 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 0.5 APG, 12 games played
6: Langston Love (6-5, R-So.)
2022-23 stats: 6.3 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 0.8 APG, 36.4 3P%
7: Josh Ojianwuna (6-10, So.)
2022-23 stats: 4.2 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 0.2 APG
8: Dantwan Grimes (6-2, Rs.-Jr.)
Redshirted 2022-23 season (Kilgore College, JUCO)
9: Yves Missi (7-0, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 42 rated recruit
10: Miro Little (6-4, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 41 rated recruit
11: Caleb Lohner (6-8, Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 3.2 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 0.3 APG
12: Yanis Ndjonga (6-7, Jr.)
247Sports Composite 2-star rated recruit (New Mexico Military Institute, JUCO)
13: Omar Adegbola (6-4, Fr.)
Walk-on true freshman – averaged 24.6 PPG at Montverde
Baylor Bears MVP: RayJ Dennis
Dennis might have been the best mid-major player in the country last season, and that’s not hyperbole. Coming over from Toledo to Baylor will mean growing pains, but Dennis has the type of talent to get those out of the way by the time pre-season practices and “secret” scrimmages wrap up. Standing at 6’2 and capable of creating passing lanes through the perimeter or driving, Dennis is a true point guard.
He’s improved markedly every season he’s been in college, and while it’ll be near impossible to replicate his mark of 19.5 PPG and 5.8 APG in the Big 12, Dennis will try his best. He was an analytic dream last season, placing 1st in the MAC in points produced per game, shots made, points, and assists, as well as ranking top 5 in the conference in offensive win shares, win shares per 40 minutes, win shares, assist percentage, usage percentage, offensive box plus/minus, and PER.
Dennis was a huge pickup for Baylor, who would’ve been left with shaky backcourt depth without him. The Bears moved from a middle-of-the-pack team in the conference without Dennis to a top-four team in the Big 12 and a legitimate chance to advance deep in the tournament with him.
His distribution talents will be vital to the development of Ja’Kobe Walter, and Walter’s draft stock will ultimately be improved from getting to share the court with Dennis this year. In his 5th year in college basketball, RayJ Dennis will finally get a chance to showcase his talents as the starting point guard for a contender in the best conference in college basketball. He’s more than earned it.
Baylor Bears make-or-break player: Jalen Bridges
Bridges is the returning leading scorer for the Bears, who, as mentioned, suffered several roster departures from key positions. The 6-9 senior forward, however, is running it back in Waco. After spending 3 seasons at West Virginia, Bridges transferred to Baylor the previous season and immediately found a niche, starting all 34 games, averaging in double-figures, and slightly improving his shooting efficiency. Now entering his second season in Scott Drew’s system in his 5th year in college, it will be crucial for the Bears to see if Bridges takes another step or if he’s reached his ceiling. (Which is, for all intents and purposes, quite high already.)
He’s not a high-volume threat from outside with a 34.4% career mark from behind the arc, but he doesn’t need to be with Dennis and Nunn in the backcourt and Walter at the wing. Plus, if Bridges does find himself open for three, he’s enough of a shooter that Drew doesn’t mind if he pulls the trigger. Statistically, he was about as good of a 4th option as a team could get. Against Iowa State in the conference tournament, Bridges scored 28 points on 10-11 shooting and 7-8 from behind the arc. He’s just as good on the defensive end as well, averaging a block per game and putting up 8 rebounds and 4 blocks last year in a win against Texas. Bridges is truly one of the most underrated players in the conference.
Analytically, he’s got the numbers, too. Bridges was 4th in the Big 12 in block percentage, 5th in win shares per 40 minutes, 3rd in offensive rebounding percentage, 4th in offensive box plus/minus, 5th in PER, 4th in overall box plus/minus, 2nd in 2PT%, 3rd in TS%, 2nd in offensive rebounds, and 8th in turnover percentage. Keep in mind, this was all as the 4th option on the offense last year. Not only will he have an increased offensive role, but he’ll in all likelihood be just as good or improved on the defensive end.
Speaking of the defensive end, having someone of his skillset is important not only for a Power 6 school but especially a Big 12 program. The toughest conference in the league makes need for a tough defensive presence like Bridges, and with players like Hunter Dickinson and J’Wan Roberts on the opposition, he’s a vital piece to this team’s success defensively after a down year on that end this past season.
Having Bridges back to anchor this frontcourt is huge for Scott Drew. Losing all 5 starters is a near-impossible situation to come back from in one season, even for the best coaches. Not just a veteran presence, Jalen Bridges makes an impact on offense, defense, and the locker room.
Key analytic: 3PM per game
Baylor’s three-point shooting, like most offensive stat categories for the Bears last season, was above average at 36.8%. It wasn’t elite like the Baylor teams of the early 2020s, (I feel old typing out that sentence) but it was a more-than-capable way of leading the Bears to victory in some of their biggest games. For example, they hit 9+ threes in wins against Kansas, Texas, West Virginia, (where they made 14 threes to just 12 shots inside the arc), TCU, UCLA, and twice against Texas Tech.
A lot of that prolific outside shooting, however, was from the trio of LJ Cryer, Keyonte George, and Adam Flagler, all of whom are no longer with the program. The three guards combined for 7.4 3PM per game, a per-game rate from just three players that was higher than 177 whole DI teams. How does one even start to replace that type of production? The next two leaders in 3PM last year were Jalen Bridges with 1.1 and Langston Love (who, as mentioned above, will miss the non-conference season) with 0.8.
Bridges can make a three on occasion, but his main value is inside, where he is extremely efficient. Love, once he returns, will be a solid outside contributor, but there’s still a big void to fill, especially against a tough non-conference slate. Jayden Nunn, who averaged 9.3 PPG on 40.4% shooting from deep last year, has a real chance to break out this season for Baylor. Shooting 40%+ from deep in the Atlantic-10 is still a pretty sure bet to translate to elite shooting in any other conference. Now with the 2 spot pretty much nailed down, Nunn will be given many more chances from deep this year compared to the 2.8 attempts per game last season. He’s probably not going to turn into LJ Cryer from behind the arc, but he could, and that’s saying a lot.
RayJ Dennis, coming over from Toledo, is another quality shooter, albeit with not quite the same efficiency as Nunn. On 4.1 attempts per game last season, he made 1.5 threes per game for a 36.6% clip. What’s intriguing, however, is that he’s improved from behind the arc every season in college, starting with a 26.0% rate his freshman year at Boise State and working up to 29.1%, 32.1%, and finally 36.6% this past year. His ceiling on the perimeter might not be unlocked yet, which should certainly give the Baylor faithful some good vibes heading into the season. Freshman Ja’Kobe Walter will also make his share of threes this year, but he wasn’t extremely efficient this past season. If there’s one thing Big 12 defenses shouldn’t do this season, however, it’s bet against Walter. He’ll score plenty.
On the rest of the roster, there’s plenty of question marks surrounding the possibility of perimeter offense. Dantwan Grimes might be able to shoot well from behind the arc, but of course, the transition from JUCO to Big 12 is always going to be a big jump. Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua is sneakily a very efficient three-ball shooter. Over the past two seasons, both of which were impacted by injury, he’s shot the ball from outside the arc at above a 40% clip, albeit in a small sample size.
A very high portion of the team’s threes, however, will come from the starters, namely Dennis, Nunn, and Walter. While it’s not likely that the team makes 9.5 3PM/game, especially as a more balanced squad, 8-9 threes is a reasonable goal, especially with the additions of the aforementioned trio. That would place them in the top 100-35 of college teams, most likely, and the Baylor Bears can live with that. The most important of the offseason, after all, was searching for defensive additions, something that Scott Drew and company achieved.
Baylor Bears 2023-24 projections
Projected conference finish: 4th in the Big 12
Projected postseason ceiling: NCAA Tournament – Elite 8