Baylor was poised to have the tournament run that Scott Drew has set them up so nicely for last year. In the 14-15 season Georgia State had knocked them out in the first round, but last year the Bears were in position to genuinely make some noise with a deep run. At least, it seemed that way. Instead, they bowed out to Yale after somehow managing to shoot only 46.2% inside the arc only one game after the very nearly beat top ranked Kansas.
That means that Xavier’s schedule around Thanksgiving is, with UNI also figuring prominently, loaded with teams that crashed out of the NCAA tournament last year in improbable circumstances. Unlike the Panthers, however, the Bears are once again set to be one of the best teams in the Big 12 and be a dark horse Final Four candidate.
Scott Drew returns again and brings with him the longest string of success in Baylor basketball history. Since 2008 Drew’s teams have finished outside the top 20 in offensive efficiency exactly once. The Bears keep that efficiency high by hammering the offensive glass and shooting passingly well from outside. Mediocrity from the line and inside the arc tends to be the order of the day, but Baylor is confident the will get enough bites at the apple to score.
Defensively Baylor is, generally speaking, not as good under Drew. The Bears try to turn teams over and block shots and often allow shots on the weak side as a result. No team in college basketball allowed as many assisted buckets as Baylor did last year. Teams that can make shots under pressure tend to beat Baylor, whose defensive strategy leaves them out of position for rebounds.
Three of Baylor’s four minutes leaders from last year are gone. Double-double machine Rico Gathers is chief among those. Last year Gathers averaged 11.2/9.0/.5 from the forward position. The big man shot over 50% from the floor, largely because the offensive efforts of Taurean Prince took some attention away from him. Prince averaged over 15 points per game, and shot 43.2% from the floor and 36.2% from deep. Those were two of the top four scorers on the team.
The man that kept the offense running smoothly and kept those two getting shots is also gone. Lester Medford averaged 6.5 assists and 1.6 steals from his point guard position last season. Medford’s assist rate was 37th in the nation and he shot 37.8% from deep to top it off. In short, the Bears lost a huge chunk of the team whose worst loss last year was to 54th ranked Texas Tech.
Not all the talent has left Waco, though. The team’s most efficient scorer, guard Al Freeman (38.1% 3P, 11.3 ppg) returns, as does 6-9 post man Jonathan Motley. Last year Motley was Baylor’s second most efficient scorer and averaged 11.1 points and 5.1 rebounds almost without leaving the paint. If Gathers has a spiritual successor, it’s Motley.
Ishmail Wainwright, a monster of a 6-5, 235 pound guard, also returns for Drew. Last year Wainwright was the only Bear to shoot over 40% from behind the arc and averaged the second most minutes of any returning player. Terry Maston (6.1 ppg), a 6-8 forward, King McClure (4.4 ppg), and Jake Lindsey (2.4 ppg) all also return after averaging double figure minutes for Baylor last year.
Mark Vital headlines the incoming class. A 6-6 swingman, Vital is the prototypical athletic wing who will need to grow into his shot. He can run and jump with anyone already, but his jumper isn’t enough to make him an outside threat. Still, you don’t end up a four star recruit and in ESPN’s Top 100 without good cause. Joining Vital is Tyson Jolly, a streaky shooting guard who also possess elite bounce and athleticism. Jolly was a three star recruit who also attracted attention from Cal. Juco forward Nuni Omot also will join the team after growing somewhere close to eight inches in the last three years. Omot now stands 6-9, 183 but has a polished shot that will play if he can add to his frame.
There’s still a ton of talent here. Maybe there isn’t as much as last year, but it’s still a deep squad. The question will be how quickly Drew can take Freeman, Motley, and Wainwright from support players into stars. If that happens fast, and Vital is everything his supposed to be, the Bears will be a stern early December test.