Virginia men’s basketball will be looking for its first win over Baylor in program history when the two sides meet in the semifinals of the Continental Tire Challenge — now in its ninth year — Friday with the winner advancing to the finals to play either No. 8 UCLA or No. 19 Illinois. The No. 16 Cavaliers (2-0, 0-0 ACC) and the No. 5 Bears (3-0, 0-0 Big 12) each enter with undefeated seasons on the line, but one of the two will leave with a blemish in Las Vegas, Nev.
Virginia’s foe has kicked off its 2022 campaign on a tear, outscoring its opponents 299-185 on the way to an average margin of victory of 38 points through its first three contests. Baylor also ranks seventh in the country in scoring offense, entering Friday averaging 99.7 points per game.
Leading the Bears’ potent attack has been a four-headed monster. Senior guard Adam Flagler stands out, having jumped out to a team-leading 17.3 points per game and 7.7 assists while shooting a blistering 57.9 percent from three-point territory. Flagler’s assist tally leads the Big 12 and ranks sixth in the nation to this point. Cavaliers’ Coach Tony Bennett will most likely deploy junior guard Reece Beekman to try and take care of Flagler on defense.
Junior forward Jalen Bridges, a West Virginia transfer, and freshman guard Keyonte George continue a high-paced Baylor offense, each averaging 16 points per game through three contests. George also ranks fourth in the Big 12 in assists, turning many heads at the beginning of his collegiate career.
Junior guard LJ Cryer rounds out the dangerous quartet for the Bears, coming into this matchup averaging a career-high 14.3 points per game. Cryer isn’t shy about letting loose from long range, having hoisted a team-high 9.7 three-point attempts per game to start the year. He’s only connected on 31 percent of those, but that number is sure to rise for a player who shot 46.8 percent from three last season. Virginia graduate student guard Kihei Clark can expect to find himself matched up with Cryer on most defensive possessions.
Graduate student forward Flo Thamba rounds out the starting five for Baylor. Thamba is the most seasoned of the Bears bunch, as the game Friday will mark the 120th of his career. He’s done it all for Baylor this campaign, chipping in on offense when needed while posing a major threat on the defensive side of things. To that point, Thamba is averaging 1.3 blocks and one steal in 2022, each career-high marks.
The Cavaliers will not be shy to foul Thamba when he receives the ball on offense, as the graduate student is a career 56.7 percent free-throw shooter and has connected on just nine of his 22 attempts from the charity stripe in 2022.
A flurry of players contribute from the Bears bench, but they are led by senior guard Dale Bonner. No player in the Big 12 has forced more turnovers than Bonner this season, who leads the conference with 3.7 steals per game.
On Virginia’s side of things, they look to be the most dangerous unit Bennett has coached in years. The Cavaliers are shooting an absurd 48 percent from three-point range through two games, and it’s been a well-balanced effort to get there. Senior guard Armaan Franklin leads the team with six treys, carrying over his fine shooting form from the end of last season. Clark, Beekman, freshman guard Isaac McKneely and graduate student forward Ben Vander Plas are right behind Franklin, having all contributed at least four three-point field goals. All five aforementioned players are shooting greater than 40 percent from deep.
The emergence of freshman guard Ryan Dunn against Monmouth — to the tune of 13 points, two steals and three blocks — is the icing on the cake for Virginia, who will now feel even more confident about its backcourt depth heading into a game where it could be of severe need. Dunn’s 6-foot-8 frame may come in handy if the first group finds trouble handling the likes of Flagler and George.
Despite a slow start to 2022, graduate student forward Jayden Gardner is still the main man for the Cavaliers. Gardner struggled to get going in the team’s season-opener against North Carolina Central and then found himself playing limited minutes in the Monmouth contest due to foul trouble throughout. Virginia will need all hands on deck for this one, so it’s pivotal Gardner finds his groove Friday.
Junior forward Kadin Shedrick and senior center Francisco Caffaro remain Bennett’s pivot in the paint. Shedrick, who will certainly see a matchup against Thamba, has been all over the place on defense for the Cavaliers, averaging 2.5 steals and 1.5 blocks per game coming into Friday. If the junior gets himself into foul trouble — which could happen early due to Thamba’s weaknesses at the line — Caffaro will step right in and play a similar role with which he’s well-versed.
Overall, the guard play is where Virginia’s chances will start and finish. Clark, Beekman and Franklin will encounter some of the toughest tests they’ll see on defense all year. If the Cavaliers’ trio can control the pace of the contest and force Baylor’s high-flyers out of their comfort zone, Virginia will be in this game near the end and feel confident about its chances to win it.
These two teams boast national championship pedigree, having each hoisted the trophy within the last three seasons. Don’t expect either side to give much in a contest where so much is for the taking.
The game will tip off Friday at 7 p.m. in the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nev. and is set to be broadcast on ESPN2.