In previous seasons, the main discussion about the defense would be if they would focus on a man-to-man defense or play their hybrid 2-3 zone. Last year though, the Bears were primarily a man defense team, though they did play zone a bit as well. Looking at the roster though, this just looks and feels like a man defense type of team. The Bears should be able to be a better defensive team, despite losing their two best on the ball defenders in A.J. Walton and Deuce Bello.
The big part of the Bears defense coming back is just that; big. Starting post players Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin are back to anchor the defense. They combined to block 3.6 blocks per game, and as a team, the Bears blocked a respectable 8% of all shot attempts (68th in the country). However, that is only part of the story. The Bears were one of the best defensive teams in the country against shots in the paint or close to the rim. Only 56% of team's shots were made at the rim, with 14% of those blocked. That is a staggering total. As a comparison, the Bears completed 66% of their shots at the rim, a good but not great mark. The inside of the defense was the back-bone for the Bears, and it is coming back.
What will change about the Baylor defense though is on the perimeter. AJ Walton is gone, and with him leaves one of the best perimeter defenders in the Big 12 over the past few years. He was the guy the Bears could put on the other team's best guard or wing and ask him to shut that player down. He did it quite well for several years, despite being called for a myriad of weak hand check fouls. Also gone is the Bears other above average on the ball defender; Deuce Bello who transferred to Missouri. Bello was much longer and more athletic than Walton and struggled at times with the fundamentals of defense, but he was also very capable of stopping the opposition.
In those two players places will be several more well-rounded options that won't leave the Bears smaller on the wings (like with Walton playing the small forward position) or with a player with no offensive game to speak of (like with Bello playing well, anywhere). Royce O'Neale and Ish Wainright are both good to great defensive players for their positions and both bring something to the offensive side of the floor that Baylor will need. O'Neale is a very well-rounded defense player, but he is coming from a scheme that is vastly different than what Baylor plays. Denver is much more aggressive on the perimeter, asking their guards to trap and get more steals. Their steal percentage was 15% compared to Baylor's 9.4%, so that is a huge difference. The now eligible O'Neale was one of the better defenders for the Pioneers.
Simply put, the Bears new wing player was the glue that held together the Pioneers on offense and defense. A very high efficiency player that is a very solid defender as well, O'Neale will bring much needed size to the wing position for the Bears. Last year, there were too many times where two large wings were on the floor that the Bears simply could not cover. Brady Heslip and Pierre Jackson were either too small or just not good enough defensively to stop teams like Oklahoma State with LeBryan Nash and Markel Brown. This year though, the Bears will be able to throw a guy like O'Neale into the shooting guard or small forward position and be able to handle those types of players better.
Alongside Neale is another newcomer that could have the biggest impact defensively on the team. Ish Wainright is being touted as a special defensive player. Check this out from Brian Snow's in-depth scouting report on the new Baylor Bear:
"This is the end of the court where Wainright becomes such a weapon. While he can still stand to lose some weight, which should make him quicker laterally, his long arms, strength, and athleticism really play well on defense.
While Wainright would struggle with a quicker, smaller point guard, he can definitely guard any shooting guard, small forward, or even power forward on the floor. He just has so much versatility on the defensive end that he allows teams to switch ball screens and feel comfortable at almost any position when he is involved."
Wainright could be a special defensive talent for the Bears. He can cover any player from a shooting guard to a power forward if needed. He has incredibly long arms, and has the ability to help the Bears out tremendously in their pick and roll defense. Having a weapon like him in front of the Bears dominant post players could make this a special defensive unit.
On the Glass
The Bears were a below average rebounding team on the offensive end of the court, and a terrible defensive rebounding team. They ranked 94th in offensive rebounding percentage (3rd in the Big 12 at 34.3%) and 191st in defensive rebounding percentage (5th in the Big 12 at 67.8%). Most of the Bears struggles are traced back to their lack of height at the small forward position. With AJ Walton at 6-foot-1, he just did not have the size to help the Bears out on the glass. In particular this hurt them on the defensive glass, giving the opposition second chance points and keeping the Bears on the wrong side of the court. Add his lack of height to a small point guard, and a smaller shooting guard, even the Bears excellent height in the paint could not overcome that.
The two new players that should help the defense could help the rebounding even more though. O'Neale is a tremendous rebounder for his size, and someone that could be counted on for 4-6 rebounds per game from a guard position. He got 18.2% of all defensive rebound opportunities for his team (compared to 9.9% for AJ Walton or 7.4% for Deuce Bello). He is not a strong offensive rebounder, but will more than carry his weight on the defensive glass.
But Baylor probably won't need much help on the offensive glass, where they were pretty good. Baylor was ranked 110th in offensive rebounding percentage. They were carried by the three post players, Cory Jefferson, Isaiah Austin and Rico Gathers who was a Top 10 offensive rebounder in the country last year.
Another key contributor in rebounding will be Ish Wainright who with his tremendous length, strength and quickness should make him a very good rebounder at the college level. While he probably won't have the same overall impact as Ricardo Gathers did last year, his per minute contributions and the fact that it is coming from a wing spot could make him one of the most valuable rebounders on the team.
The simple fact is, Austin and Jefferson were two very good rebounders last year who simply needed a lot more help from the wings. Rico Gathers was a great offensive rebounder for the second unit and very good on the defensive end. The biggest improvement for the Bears year to year should be on the glass, as newcomers and the improvement of two freshmen should make this a possibly dominant team on the glass.