Virginia will face the Baylor Bears on Friday night in the opening game of the Continental Tire Main Event in Las Vegas. Tipoff is scheduled for 7:00 PM Eastern, televised on ESPN2.
Both teams are undefeated and ranked in the Top 25. Baylor is 5th in the latest AP poll, while Virginia comes in at 16th.
Baylor enters with a perfect 3-0 mark on the young season. All of their wins came at home by comfortable margins over mid-major opponents. Like Virginia, this will be their first real test and their first game away from home.
They return three key contributors from last year’s team that won a share of the Big 12 regular season title. With the new pieces they’ve added, this year’s group is probably even better. They’re more skilled, and shoot the ball far better.
The Bears feature possibly the best starting guard trio in the country. Senior Adam Flagler (17.3 PPG) was their leading scorer a year ago. Junior LJ Cryer (14.3 PPG) has come back strong from an injury that cost him part of last season. Both of them are career 40%+ three-point shooters. The two veterans are joined by freshman Keyonte George (16.0 PPG), a projected lottery pick. They’re utilized almost interchangeably. All three are terrific creators as well as capable shooters.
Junior forward Jalen Bridges (16.0 PPG), a transfer from West Virginia, has been a key addition. A stretch-four man who likes to spot up from beyond the arc, his matchup with Virginia’s Jayden Gardner will be intriguing. And starting center Flo Thamba (5.7 PPG) is in his fifth season. He’s a blue-collar big man in there to rebound and defend.
It looks like mostly a nine-man rotation for Baylor. Senior guard Dale Bonner (8.7 PPG) is off to a great start in a sixth-man role. Redshirt-freshman guard Langston Love (7.0 PPG) is a former Top 50 recruit who missed last season with injury. Junior forward Caleb Lohner (5.3 PPG), a transfer from BYU, gives them a nice veteran presence off the bench. And freshman big man Josh Ojianwuna (6.7 PPG) has been a force on the offensive glass.
Key Categories to Watch
Baylor plays a very aggressive style. That especially shows up in two statistical categories. They’re really good at getting extra opportunities with offensive rebounds, and they’re one of the best teams in the country at forcing turnovers. Those easy baskets off putbacks and in transition are a big part of their offense.
It’s sort of strength on strength, as those are areas that Tony Bennett emphasizes. His Wahoo teams typically commit very few turnovers and have excelled at limiting opponents to one shot. Although last year, they weren’t nearly as good of a defensive rebounding team. They’ll need a vintage effort in both categories to have a shot at the upset.
Can The Hot Shooting Last
Both of these teams are off to scorching starts from three-point land. after it being a weak spot for them last season. Virginia has made more threes in each of their first two games than they did in any game last season. And it’s nearly the same story for Baylor. They’ve hit 14+ triples twice already, something they never did last year.
Baylor is attempting a lot more threes than before, connecting at a 38% clip. While Virginia has hit a ridiculous 48% from behind the arc. Obviously, the stats for both teams are inflated by facing subpar competition so far. But they do seem to be much improved, in part due to new faces sprinkled in.
This is the first true test for them both, and also the first game away from home for each team. It’ll be interesting to see if the hot shooting continues in Vegas.
Stars Need to Shine
There was a lot of speculation in the offseason about Virginia guard Reece Beekman making the jump to stardom this year. Ask anyone around the program, they’ll tell you that he’s their best player unequivocally. Baylor’s style forces players to make individual plays, on both ends of the floor. Particularly guards. The Wahoos will need a big performance from Reece to have a chance.
And this is the first big college game for Baylor guard Keyonte George. He carries a heavy load for a freshman. The ball is in his hands a lot. He’s not only one of their leading scores, but is also averaging nearly seven assists. It’ll be interesting how he handles the step up in stage and competition. Armaan Franklin figures to draw the defensive assignment, with Beekman mixed in at times.
No matter Friday’s result, Virginia will play a second game. in Las Vegas against either Illinois or UCLA. The championship game of the four-team tournament is scheduled for 3:00 PM Eastern on Sunday, followed by the consolation game at 5:30.
All four teams in the event are ranked in the Top 25. Both games will almost certainly fall into Quad-1 territory come NCAA Tournament selection time. That means there’s very little downside to it. Just two opportunities for the Hoos to pick up resume building wins.
(Featured Image Credit: Matt Riley/UVA Athletics)