Big 12 Season Preview: Baylor Bears

Posted by Nate Kotisso on October 30th, 2014

Throughout the preseason, the Big 12 microsite will preview each of the league’s 10 teams, from worst to first. Today: Baylor.

Baylor Bears

We’re seven months removed from the 2013-14 season ending and I still feel as if Baylor underachieved. The Bears had a lot of the qualities that normally consist of a Final Four-type team: NBA talent, experience, rebounding, good-enough defense. They were brilliant in non-league action, started 2-8 in conference play, went on a late run, and finished with a loss to Wisconsin during the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Most are unsure of what to expect from Baylor this time around — the Bears were picked sixth in the Big 12 preseason coaches poll, marking the second time in the last seven seasons that the Bears have been picked to finish outside of the Big 12’s top four. Scott Drew’s team was picked 10th in 2009-10 and eventually found itself in the Elite Eight. But now, three of the Bears’ top scorers are gone and a slew of young players will take over in an, gulp, odd-numbered NCAA Tournament year.

Scott Drew goes into the 2014-15 season with the task of replacing three starters. (USA Today Sports Images)

Scott Drew goes into the 2014-15 season with the task of replacing three starters. (USA Today Sports Images)

Strengths: The Bears lost Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson yet the bigs they’ll have available still appear worthy of opponents’ game-planning. Let’s start with junior Rico Gathers, who managed to average the same number of points as rebounds (6.4) off the bench. It’d be silly to expect anything other than the 6’8″, 280-pound Gathers be a bully down low by giving him starter’s minutes. Perhaps the biggest question mark lies with redshirt freshman forward Jonathan Motley. Motley has bulked up with 15 pounds of muscle and will be counted on as the defensive enforcer that Austin and Jefferson have been over the past two seasons. On the wing, having Royce O’Neale grab a guaranteed five rebounds at 6’6″ isn’t too shabby either. It also helps to have a senior point guard like Kenny Chery returning in a deep point guard league like the Big 12.

Weaknesses: As strong as the Baylor front line might be, there are some glaring weaknesses as well. Other than Gathers, there isn’t a power forward/center on the roster who has had a rotation spot at the Division I level. It will also be noticeable in the difference between having a player of Austin’s caliber and the other wide bodies. Motley is now the team’s tallest player and the bigs are more athletic than they are imposing physical presences. Chery said at the beginning of practice that playing without a guy like Austin inside will require his team to be “faster” on offense and play more “pressure defense.” On top of that, the loss of a sharpshooter like Brady Heslip hurts but Drew had high hopes that freshman Kobie Eubanks would be ready to assume that role this season. That was the plan, at least, until the NCAA ruled him ineligible for the entire season. That role may need to be taken over by O’Neale (46.8 percent from three) or redshirt freshman guard Al Freeman as a result. A reasonable argument can be made that if Heslip didn’t hit a game-tying three against Kansas State on February 15, the Bears probably wouldn’t have gone on their run into the NCAA Tournament.

Non-conference tests: If you take a look at Baylor’s non-conference schedule from last season, it was STACKED. The Bears played five Tournament teams — Colorado, Louisiana-Lafayette, Dayton, Syracuse and Kentucky — and went a cool 4-1 against that group. This year Drew’s scheduling is a little less ambitious. Their road tests will come against South Carolina (November 18) and Vanderbilt (December 4), teams that were picked in the lower half of the SEC preseason media poll. Baylor will also welcome in Stephen F. Austin and Texas Southern to the Ferrell Center, two NCAA teams which will not be easy (especially the SFA game). The Bears also host Texas A&M in a rekindling of the Battle on the Brazos. At this rate, however, Baylor-A&M in College Station in 2015 is going to be wackier than Baylor-A&M in 2014 (see both 2015 recruiting classes). The crown jewel of the Bears’ schedule comes in their participation in the 2014 Continental Tires Las Vegas Invitational — they are guaranteed a game against Memphis on November 27 and will face either Illinois or Indiana State one day later.

Toughest conference stretch: Luckily for the Bears, it isn’t the murderer’s row that Texas Tech will face in late January and most of February, but Baylor will start conference play with a rough patch. From January 3-24, Baylor will face Oklahoma twice, Kansas, Iowa State and Kansas State — which is pretty tough. But sandwiched in between those three weeks is a home non-conference game against Huston-Tillotson, an NAIA school, and a road trip to TCU. So yes, it’s difficult but definitely manageable.

If everything goes right… Baylor makes the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team. I only kid about Scott Drew and even-numbered years because it’s more of a “fun with numbers” thing. Rico Gathers will average 12/12; maybe Royce O’Neale can become the Bears’ sharpshooter; and some Baylor fan will spearhead a small pack of other Baylor fans and call themselves “Motley’s Crew” for Jonathan Motley or something like that. What they have coming back and coming in isn’t bad. It’s just the product of playing in an ultra-competitive basketball conference.

If everything goes wrong… Baylor misses the Tournament but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. An appearance in the NIT or CBI seems more fitting this season. Assuming everyone who is eligible to stay actually does so, the Bears will probably vault back into Big 12 contention next year.

Projected starting lineup:

  • PG Kenny Chery (Sr., 5’11”, 180 pounds, 11.5 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 4.7 APG)
  • SG Al Freeman (Redshirt Fr., 6’3″, 200 pounds)
  • SF Royce O’Neale (Sr., 6’6″, 215 pounds, 7.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 46.8 3 PT FG PCT)
  • PF Jonathan Motley (Redshirt Fr., 6’9″, 230 pounds)
  • C   Rico Gathers (Jr., 6’8″, 280 pounds, 6.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG

Key reserves: 

  • PG Lester Medford (Jr., 5’10”, 170 pounds, 15.2 PPG, 6.1 APG, 40.1 3 PT FG PCT — JuCo)
  • SF Taurean Prince (Jr., 6’7″, 215 pounds, 6.2 PPG, 2.8 RPG)
  • PF Deng Deng (Jr., 6’8″, 205 pounds, 19.8 PPG, 11 RPG, 3.5 APG — JuCo)

There is something to this Baylor team. My problem with this year’s squad is trusting all these new pieces to take the place of players who performed so well in their roles last year. I have the Bears finishing at 18-13 overall with a 7-11 record in the Big 12, which should be good enough for the NIT or CBI. It’s a transition year for sure but it won’t be as painful as it could be.

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