Flo Thamba, Baylor’s “anchor” and all-time winningest player, leads Bears’ title push

When Baylor begins its pursuit of a second national title in three years on Friday at Ball Arena, pay attention to Flo Thamba.

The fifth-year senior with a 7-foot-5 wingspan is Baylor’s heart-and-soul, and the program’s all-time winningest player (115 in games played). The 6-foot-10 Congo native is the lone starter left from Baylor’s 2021 title team and is one of three impact forwards who hail from Africa.

“Flo’s our anchor,” senior guard Adam Flagler said. “So anytime he’s locked in and he’s flying around out there, everybody is going to feel it. The fans are going to love it, and if he goes out there and gives his all, we have an opportunity to go far in this tournament.”

Thamba’s made 96 consecutive starts entering the tournament, and is averaging 5.1 points and 4.8 rebounds. While Flagler (15.5 points) and freshman guard Keytone George (16.0) are the leaders on offense, Thamba took the long road to becoming the team’s de facto leader.

The 24-year-old spent parts of his childhood in Congo, England, France and South Africa, moving around before emigrating to the United States at age 16. When he got to Baylor, he had to pay dues, playing his first 52 games off the bench before becoming a starter as a junior and helping lead the Bears to the program’s first national title.

Thamba said he “made many sacrifices along the way, but everything found its path and paid off…I definitely want to add to (my own legacy), but most importantly I want to help bring us another championship. We have the ability.”

Complementing Thamba is another talented forward, redshirt senior Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua. The 6-foot-8 Cameroon native sustained a serious knee injury last year. It required two surgeries and Tchamwa Tchatchoua didn’t debut this season until Feb. 4.He’s averaged 5.7 points and 4.7 rebounds while splitting time with Thamba at the five-spot, said he’s still not 100%, but that his knee is “responding better than expected” to the return to game action.

The injury derailed his momentum coming off being honored as the 2022 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. Tchamwa Tchatchoua was born and raised in Cameroon, but moved at age 16 to Canberra, Australia, to enroll at the then-brand-new NBA Global Academy. He didn’t speak English at the time, only French and his mother tongue.

“Playing (for the NBA Global Academy) allowed me to dream and see myself in these shoes,” Tchamwa Tchatchoua said. “I was one of the first guys to go to the Academy. It was literally three athletes when we first started, and I was one of them. It’s something I’m proud of and I cherish.”

From the NBA Global Academy, Tchamwa Tchatchoua played one season at UNLV before transferring to Baylor, where he redshirted as a sophomore and appeared off the bench in 29 games during the Bears’ title season. And even though Baylor didn’t have him for much of this season, Bears coach Scott Drew looked at the bright side.

“Because of his injury, Jon was able to spend a lot of time just working on his shot and his passing,” Drew said. “His skill level is really improved. Now you get a stretch big, someone who can shoot 40, 50 percent from three and that opens up the offense. At the same time, (his return from injury) allows Flo and Jon both to compete harder and leave more out there and not worry as much about foul trouble because they have each other.”

Rounding out Baylor’s trio of African big men is freshman Josh Ojianwuna, a 6-foot-10 forward from Nigeria. Ojianwuna previously played for NBA Academy Africa as well as the NBA Global Academy before landing at Baylor. He’s averaging 4.4 points and 3.5 rebounds.

Between Thamba, Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Ojianwuna, the Bears have versatile firepower in the paint. Factor in junior 7-footer Zach Loveday, and size isn’t an issue for the No. 3 Bears, who take on No. 14 UC-Santa Barbara in Friday’s first round, with tip at 11:30 a.m. MT.

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