Baylor Bears Basketball Preview Part 1

With basketball season fast-approaching (NEXT FRIDAY!), we take a look at the Baylor Bears with a bunch of new faces and some old hands that came back for one more ride.

The Baylor Bears won their last game of the 2012 season. That is about the best thing that can be said of last year's team. Sure, it was the NIT, but they won it didn't they? More importantly than that though, was how they won it. The Baylor Bears took forever to arrive but they did, albeit too late to make any noise in the real tournament. THAT was the team Baylor fans wanted to see all year, but they just could not put it together.

So with last year ending on a high mark for the program (1st championship…wooh) and then getting the summer starter with even better news (Cory AND Isaiah coming back? Yes please!!!), it is time to take a long look at the 2012-2013 Baylor Bears. First, let's take a look at the schedule this year:

2013-2014 SCHEDULE
Date Opponent / Event Location Time
11/08/13 vs. Colorado TV Dallas, Texas 9:00 p.m. CT
11/12/13 vs. South Carolina TV Waco, Texas 2:00 p.m. CT
11/17/13 vs. Louisiana-Lafayette TV Waco, Texas 4:00 p.m. CT
11/20/13 vs. Charleston Southern TV Waco, Texas 6:00 p.m. CT
EA Sports Maui Invitational
11/25/13 vs. Chaminade TV Maui, Hawaii 8:30 p.m. CT
11/26/13 Dayton/Gonzaga TV Maui, Hawaii TBA
11/27/13 TBD TV Maui, Hawaii TBA
12/01/13 vs. Hardin-Simmons TV Waco, Texas 2:00 p.m. CT
12/06/13 vs. Kentucky TV Arlington, Texas 9:00 p.m. CT
12/18/13 vs. Northwestern State TV Waco, Texas 8:30 p.m. CT
12/22/13 vs. Southern TV Waco, Texas 4:00 p.m. CT
12/30/13 vs. Oral Roberts TV Waco, Texas 7:00 p.m. CT
01/03/14 vs. Savannah State TV Waco, Texas 7:00 p.m. CT
01/07/14 at Iowa State * TV Ames, Iowa 6:00 p.m. CT
01/11/14 vs. TCU * TV Waco, Texas 12:30 p.m. CT
01/15/14 at Texas Tech * TV Lubbock, Texas 8:00 p.m. CT
01/18/14 vs. Oklahoma * TV Waco, Texas 1:00 p.m. CT
01/20/14 at Kansas * TV Lawrence, Kan. 8:00 p.m. CT
01/25/14 vs. Texas * TV Waco, Texas 12:30 p.m. CT
01/28/14 vs. West Virginia * TV Waco, Texas 6:00 p.m. CT
02/01/14 at Oklahoma State * TV Stillwater, Okla. 1:00 p.m. CT
02/04/14 vs. Kansas * TV Waco, Texas 6:00 p.m. CT
02/08/14 at Oklahoma * TV Norman, Okla. 6:00 p.m. CT
02/12/14 at TCU * TV Fort Worth, Texas 6:00 p.m. CT
02/15/14 vs. Kansas State * TV Waco, Texas 6:00 p.m. CT
02/17/14 vs. Oklahoma State * TV Waco, Texas 8:00 p.m. CT
02/22/14 at West Virginia * TV Morgantown, W.Va. 12:30 p.m. CT
02/26/14 at Texas * TV Austin, Texas 8:00 p.m. CT
03/01/14 vs. Texas Tech * TV Waco, Texas 12:30 p.m. CT
03/04/14 vs. Iowa State * TV Waco, Texas 6:00 p.m. CT
03/08/14 at Kansas State * TV Manhattan, Kan. 12:30 p.m. CT
Phillips 66 Big 12 Championship
03/12/14 Opening Round TV Kansas City, Mo. TBA
03/13/14 Quarterfinals TV Kansas City, Mo. TBA
03/14/14 Semifinals TV Kansas City, Mo. TBA
03/15/14 Championship TV Kansas City, Mo. TBA

The Bears face a tough road, especially in the first two games, but after that the schedule gets significantly lighter until they hit the Maui Invitational which could see the Bears play Dayton or Gonzaga in the first round and then Arkansas, Minnesota, California, or even Syracuse later in the tournament. Quite honestly, this is the best tournament field the Bears have ever been a part of at a preseason event.

The big game though is December 6th, when probably Top 5 team and national title favorite Kentucky meets the Bears in Arlington at Cowboy (AT&T) Stadium. Outside of the first two games against Colorado and South Carolina and whatever opponents the Bears get to face in Maui will be the only big name non-conference opponents on the books this year. It is the strongest top-end of the schedule the Bears have ever mustered in the first half of the year, yet there is still quite a large soft underbelly to this conference schedule. It won't really hurt the Bears much if they win the games they should and manage to get a victory in some of their tougher matchups.

At the Polls

Currently, the Bears are in the receiving votes category for the Coaches poll. Baylor is ranked 26th in the Coaches poll right now, just 1 single point away from 25th place Virginia. In fact, the team right behind them is Colorado, their season opening opponent. You would imagine that the winner of that game will make a great case of being ranked in the next poll. The AP poll has not been released yet.

On some of the other analytical prediction sites, the Bears ranking is right around in that nearly 25 range. has the Bears ranked 28th in the nation. In 2013, he had them ranked 29th at the end of the year, which was higher than most had them ranked. Massey Ratings has the Bears in 24th place.

The Newcomers

Scott Drew and his staff are bringing in the 25th ranked class in the nation, with five newcomers set to join the Bears for the season. The headliner of this group is Allerik Freeman, a 4-star shooting guard from Findlay Prep in Nevada. He was a late signee for the Bears after he was released from his letter of intent with UCLA after they decided that Ben Howland was not a great fit for head coach anymore. The 15th ranked shooting guard has good size for the position at 6-foot-4 inches tall and is capable of playing both the point guard and shooting guard position.

Joining Freeman as a fellow 4-star recruit is Ishmail Wainright, a 6-foot-5 forward that is built more like a mac-truck than anything resembling the past small forwards under Scott Drew. This is now Anthony Jones or Quincy Miller, players who were athletic and lithe, but struggled with size and strength. Wainright is the definition of a physical player at the small forward position, able to throw his 235 pounds around on the wing or in the post. His addition to the squad fills a glaring need at the small forward position.

Joining Wainright in the starting lineup will be the Bears new starting point guard, Kenny Chery. The Junior College All-American comes to Baylor by way of State Fair (Mo.) Community College. He is the favorite to replace Pierre Jackson at the point guard position, and will bring a slightly different skill set than his predecessor. Chery is much more of a pure shooter and is a steadier ball-handler and passer. He does not have the athleticism that Jackson has, but he is not a terrible athlete either.

The Bears also got some more muscle in the post as well; with the addition of 3-star power forward Jonathan Motley. The Houston-North Shore High School alum is a 6-foot-9 jumping jack with great athleticism and speed down the court. At this point of his game, he is a high-risk/high-reward player. He is a long-athletic player who can get to the rim with great force, and is tremendous in the open-court. He still has to develop as a post player and needs to get strong with the ball in traffic, but he is a high potential prospect who looks quite a bit like a young Cory Jefferson.

The final piece to the Bears recruiting class is a transfer from Denver, Royce O'Neale. The 6-foot-6 wing player is still awaiting word on his waiver to be immediately eligible for the Bears. If it is approved, the Bears will have another option for the wing spots with much better size than they had last year. A 32-game starter last year for Denver, O'Neale was a 3rd team All-WAC member averaging 11.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. The junior is an all-around player who could help solidify the Bears shooting guard and small forward positions going forward.

The Backcourt

The loss of All-Conference point guard Pierre Jackson to graduation leaves the Bears with a rather large hole to work around in the 2013-2014 campaign. With a player of his magnitude leaving, there is always going to be a hole though. Around the point guard position though, Baylor has all of the pieces you would need to have a very successful guard rotation. Brady Heslip will anchor the shooting guard spot, looking to rebound off of a disappointing junior campaign (or was it? According to Ken Pomeroy, Brady Heslip was fine and dandy).

The now senior guard had a sensational summer with the Canadian men's basketball team, as he was their best player for stretches and seemed to regain his confidence in his stroke, as well as improve his off the dribble game. His advancement in areas outside of his three-point shooting will do wonders for a Bears attack that sometimes struggled to score points, especially with them losing their leading point producer in Jackson.

Backing Heslip up at the guard spot is still a bit of a question mark, with Royce O'Neale still awaiting the NCAA's ruling on his transfer waiver. If O'Neale is not allowed to play this year, Gary Franklin and Allerik Freeman will be the primary backups at both shooting guard and point guard. Franklin is an experienced player for the Bears, and became a dependable high minute player during the NIT tournament. Freeman, however is out with a hand injury and is expected to miss at least 6-weeks. He is expected to be back for the Maui Invitational, but that would probably be the soonest Baylor could see the freshman on the court.

If O'Neale is eligible, that will ease a lot of concerns for the Bears. With him, they have their starter at the small forward or possibly their primary backup at the either wing position. He has the all-around game to contribute easily at either position and not hurt the Bears on either side of the floor, something that they desperately needed last year. Competing with O'Neale for the small forward position will be freshman Ish Wainright, who is also a 2-way player albeit in a very different way than O'Neale.

Wainright is much more of an interior player on offense, which would fit well with the Bears post players both being comfortable out on the perimeter Wainright has the size and strength to win most battles inside against small forwards and could possibly play as a power forward as well in small lineups. He is also an exceptional rebounder and defender and someone who can take advantage of mismatches on either side of the court.

The main focal point of the backcourt though will be the new starting point guard, Kenny Chery. He is the guy for the Bears, especially with Freeman out for several more weeks. The reins are in his hands, and this team will go where he takes them. Backing Chery up will be Gary Franklin, who has been much more of a shooting guard his previous seasons in Waco, but with the lack of depth at the lead guard spot, he will be asked to do more until Freeman comes back.

The Frontcourt

With all three of the bears top post players returning, the Bears are loaded in the frontcourt. Possible lottery pick Isaiah Austin was a big surprise to return, but made the choice to come back for his sophomore year after a shoulder injury was found to require surgery and would keep him from working out for teams. But Austin was not the Bears best post player last year, especially during the season ending run to the NIT championship. That would be one Cory Jefferson, who averaged 21.6 points per game during that NIT tournament and became a truly dominating post player in those games.

The senior from Killeen, TX raised his game to a completely different level the last month of the season, and was the Bears best player. The long-time project emerged as a stat in his first season in a lead role for Baylor. He averaged 13.3 points and a team leading 8 rebounds per game to go along with 1.92 blocks per game. Jefferson would be a terrific candidate for preseason conference player of the year, if he didn't play in the same conference as two of the best players in the nation in Marcus Smart and Andrew Wiggins.

Alongside him is Isaiah Austin, one of the few players in the country that could turn into the best player in the nation. He truly has that level of ability, if only he and the Baylor coaching staff can unlock that potential and drive. But to look at him through the "not best player" lens is unfair. Austin was very good as a freshman, averaging 13 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game. He was at times dominant on the glass and on defense with his ability to change shots, but he seemed to tire and the season wore on him (as it does with most freshmen). His ability to stretch the floor with his 3-point shot (33% on 90 attempts) works tremendously in this offense. Can Austin become more consistent down-low, where the Bears really need him? That is the question that could take the talented sophomore from very good to great.

Backing up both Austin and Jefferson for the second year in a row is man-child Rico Gathers. Coming to Baylor as a sculpted 270 pound defensive end that decided to play football, we were reminded every game that he had never lifted a single weight in his life. Simply put, this is just one of those guys that are born huge. Rico still needs to learn how to use that strength to his advantage at times, but there is no doubting his ability to get the ball. His 5.7 rebounds in 16.7 minutes is a tremendous rate, and he stays within himself offensively, taking shots he is comfortable with. If only his free throw rate would get to simply average, we could be talking about an exceptional third big for any team in the country.

After the top three in the paint, depth will be provided by redshirt freshmen Chad Rykhoek and newcomer Jonathan Motley who provide completely different styles and strengths. Rykhoek is an average athlete who plays within himself and makes the smart play most of the time, while still developing his skill level. Motley is a tremendous athlete who needs some help smoothing out the edges of his game and getting more experience in a team concept. Both will be looked upon for spot minutes, but neither should be expected as heavy rotation guys, unless injuries or fouls become a major issue for the Bears.

Projected Starting Lineup

Right now, the Bears lineup seems to be pretty easy to guess, especially with O'Neale's status still up in the air. When he gets back, there would be some question at the small forward position, but right now, it looks like this:

Starting Lineup
Kenny Chery
Brady Heslip
Ish Wainright
Cory Jefferson
Isaiah Austin

This lineup will provide the best balance of offense and defense, with good shooters in Chery and Heslip in the backcourt to go along with Isaiah Austin in the frontcourt and more interior players Cory Jefferson and Ish Wainright.

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