No. 2 Baylor returns the bulk of a team that was poised for a Final Four run last season before the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
No. 18 Arizona State has what appears to be its best group in its sixth season under coach Bobby Hurley — one good enough to win a Pac-12 title for the first time since joining the league for the 1978-79 season.
Two teams with soaring expectations — and terrific backcourts — will clash Wednesday night in Uncasville, Conn., to help tip off the opening of the college basketball season.
“We have a lot of people coming back, and we get another swing at this,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “We return enough that I know they’re all excited to get a chance to finish what we started last year.”
Drew, however, will not be on the sidelines following a positive COVID-19 test announced Sunday. Associate head coach Jerome Tang will lead Baylor in his absence.
No players tested positive and the Bears return four starters from a team that went 26-4, was No. 1 in the polls and won at Kansas for the first time in school history.
The talent starts with preseason Big 12 Player of the Year Jared Butler, a junior who averaged 16.0 points and shot 38.1 percent from 3-point range last season. He returned after considering the NBA draft, as did backcourt mate MaCio Teague (13.9 points, 4.6 rebounds per game).
Davion Mitchell led Baylor with 114 assists and is known as “Off Night” for his ability to harass opposing scorers into, well, off nights. Presbyterian transfer Adam Flagler is also expected to help at guard. He was the Big South Freshman of the Year in 2018-19 before sitting out last season.
Burly wing Mark Vital is a rugged force who further exemplifies the Bears’ commitment to what was an elite man-to-man defense last season.
The Sun Devils had to sweat out draft declarations, too, but guards Remy Martin and Alonzo Verge came back to lead a go-go attack that adds five-star recruit Josh Christopher and four-star Marcus Bagley — the brother of Sacramento Kings forward Marvin Bagley III — to the perimeter.
Martin and Verge are scorers more than shooters, but they really fill it up: Martin poured in 19.1 points per game, and Verge is one of the nation’s top heat-check players. He is masterful at getting into the lane, putting up 43 last season against St. Mary’s, and 26 each vs. Pac-12 powers Oregon and UCLA.
ASU lacks proven bigs. Jalen Graham has to make a big leap as a sophomore and Taeshon Cherry must be consistent. Meanwhile, the Sun Devils will kick the tires on junior college transfer Chris Osten and Ukranian freshman Pavlo Dziuba.
“We’re going to need that interior presence, that rebounding, that shot-blocking at the basket and all the things that you talk about in trying to become a complete team,” Hurley said. “That’s our goal.”
Baylor lost starting big man Freddie Gillespie, a rebounding and defensive presence. A potential replacement, Tristan Clark, retired from basketball last week. Clark, a budding star in 2018-19 before a season-ending knee injury, averaged 4.0 points last season.
Top options in the post likely are UNLV transfer Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, junior Flo Thamba and freshman Dain Dainja.
–Field Level Media