Big 12 Preview: Baylor Bears

Posted by Nate Kotisso on November 6th, 2013

This week, the Big 12 microsite will finish previewing each of the league’s 10 teams. Today: Baylor. 

Where We Left Off: They were playing for their NCAA Tournament lives late last season. Baylor faced a tough test in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament against Oklahoma State — not to mention an 18-point halftime deficit. They managed to trim the Cowboys’ lead to two with seconds remaining but Pierre Jackson’s running three-pointer careened off the mark as the buzzer sounded. The Bears, who had struggled to find consistency all season, hoped their 9-9 record in Big 12 play was enough to prove to the committee they were worthy of an at-large bid. But they were left on the bubble and had to settle for an invitation from the NIT. It was there when we saw the Baylor team most had expected in the preseason, ripping through five games to bring home the first NIT Championship for a Big 12 school. Jackson has since graduated, but a combination of players returning and the addition of several touted incoming recruits could result in a more promising finish this season.

Scott Drew loses his best player from a year ago and could possibly have a better team in 2013-14. (John Sleezer/The Kansas City Star)

Scott Drew loses his best player from a year ago and could possibly have a better team in 2013-14. (John Sleezer/The Kansas City Star)

Positives: Almost everybody’s back! Isaiah Austin put his NBA future on hold by returning to campus after averaging 13 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game as a freshman. If there was one thing the 7’1″ Austin could improve on this year, it’s his outside shooting. It’s weird saying that about a center but the outside shot is a potentially lethal weapon of his offensive arsenal (33 percent from three-point range in 2012-13). The most important player returning is Cory Jefferson because his play usually indicated how competitive Baylor was in big games. I attended Texas-Baylor back in January and saw firsthand the kind of monster Jefferson can be when he’s playing his best. His 25 points and 10 rebounds were a big reason why the Bears won that day and went 13-3 in games where Jefferson scored at least 15 points. The best trait of these Bears is their frontcourt. In addition to Austin and Jefferson, Rico Gathers at 6’8″ and 270 pounds was a space-eater on the floor who scored the same amount of points as he did rebounds per game (5.7) off the bench. Their recruiting class also brought in four-star guard/forward Ish Wainwright (6’6″, 245 pounds) of Missouri who turned down offers from Ohio State, St. John’s and Texas to come to Waco; three-star big Johnathan Motley (6’9″, 210 pounds) of Houston decided to come to Baylor despite offers from Marquette, Oregon, Wichita State and his hometown school, Houston. News also came down within the last week that Denver transfer forward Royce O’Neale (11.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG in 2012-13) has been granted a waiver and will play immediately. This might be the best frontcourt in America. Everybody’s favorite Canadian sharpshooter Brady Heslip is also back for his senior season and fellow countryman Kenny Chery is expected to step in as the starting point guard.

Negatives: Pierre Jackson is gone. He was the heart and soul of the team, leading the Bears in minutes played, points, assists and spectacular plays, although I’m sure that last one isn’t a real stat. Another big loss is A.J. Walton, who wasn’t a big offensive presence but did serve in better roles as a second distributor and designated defensive stopper. Who will emerge this year to guard guys like Marcus Smart or quick guards like Naadir Tharpe or Buddy Hield? It might have to be Gary Franklin. With all their depth at the forward and center positions, there are five pure guards on the team and freshman Allerik Freeman‘s hand injury stretches those guards even thinner until his likely return in late November or early December.

Best-Case Scenario: The Big 12 is top-heavy as it is with Kansas and Oklahoma State jockeying for pole position, so Baylor somehow overtaking the Cowboys in second place would be seen as a massive success. If Jefferson’s looking to score and grab every rebound known to man; Austin’s using his body to alter shots; Heslip’s “wearing” multiple pairs of three-point goggles; and Chery plays like the junior college All-American he was at State Fair (MO) Community College; it’s not hard to see them be good enough to make it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament and perhaps further. Having to win a tournament like the NIT last year can do wonders for team psyche come March. Knowing that they’ve done it before makes the next task more attainable.

Worst-Case Scenario: Another season without an NCAA Tournament bid would be seen as a substantial disappointment. To prevent that, the Bears would have to do one thing they didn’t do well last year: Win all of their non-conference home games. They can’t show up to the Ferrell Center and expect the game to be decided at tip-off like they did against College of Charleston and Northwestern last season. Those losses killed their RPI (#67) despite the Bears having a solid strength of schedule (#23).

Baylor went 13-3 when Cory Jefferson scored 15 or more points. 2012-13. Could a similar trend develop this season? (Kevin Jairaj/USA Today Sports)

Baylor went 13-3 when Cory Jefferson scored 15 or more points in the 2012-13 season. Could a similar trend develop this season? (Kevin Jairaj/USA Today Sports)

Projected Starting Lineup: 

  • C – Isaiah Austin (So., 7’1″, 225 pounds; 13 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 1.7 BPG)
  • F – Cory Jefferson (Sr., 6’9″, 220 pounds; 13.3 PPG, 8 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 61% FG)
  • F – Royce O’Neale (Jr., 6’6″, 220 pounds; 11.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 3.5 APG at Denver in 2012-13)
  • G – Brady Heslip (Sr., 6’2″, 180 pounds; 8.6 PPG, 38.6% 3-PT FG)
  • G – Kenny Chery (Jr., 5’11″, 180 pounds; 16.4 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 3.7 APG, 44.6% 3-PT FG at State Farm (MO) Community College in 2012-13)

Reserves: Whenever Jefferson or Austin needs to take a breather, it’s a luxury to have Rico Gathers there to maintain an intimidating presence for opposing offenses. Gary Franklin is a player who will have to be called on for valuable minutes to defend against the opposition’s best guard. Ish Wainwright can help stretch defenses with his ability to play the two and three positions. Allerik Freeman’s role could be the scoring guard off the bench but we won’t know for sure until he gets healthy.

Set Your DVR: You might need to create a special area on your DVR for Baylor games only. And while you’re ahead, have it ready by this Friday night when the Bears face off with former Big 12 member Colorado. The irony in this match-up is that it will mark the third year in a row Baylor and CU have played each other since conference realignment split the schools apart. Other highlights include…

  • 11/25-27 for the EA Sports Maui Invitational: Even if Baylor weren’t in this tournament, the Maui Invitational seems to always deliver great games or at least the opportunity for them. If the Bears were to win the title, there’s a chance they’d have to go two behemoths in #15 Gonzaga and #8 Syracuse to get there.
  • 12/6 vs. Kentucky at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas: To be able to win this game would do wonders for Baylor’s resume. They’re the #1 team in America with the #1 recruiting class and the highest-paid coach in college basketball. Truth is, this is a game you should watch live instead of on DVR.
  • 2/4 vs. Kansas: For the record, watch this one live too. Whether you want to believe it or not, there will be a lot names from this game that you’ll hear again when they’re in the NBA. Hopefully by this point in the season for Baylor, a win versus Kansas would be another good win on its NCAA Tournament-worthy resume instead of scrambling to build a resume.

Outlook: It’s conceivable to see this team finish third in the Big 12 with 24+ wins and a six or seven-seed in the NCAA Tournament. As far as the NCAA Tournament is concerned, Baylor is good enough to make it to the Sweet Sixteen or even the Elite Eight if things click. The personnel is in place to pull this off and if everyone stays relatively healthy, there shouldn’t be an excuse for the Bears to miss the Dance for the second season in a row.

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