The Baylor Bears have been two different teams this year, marked by the transition from the non-conference portion of the schedule to Big 12 play. One is a 13-1 team, ranked in the Top 10 with wins over 2 other Top 25 teams and their lone loss at a neutral court to an undefeated Top 5 team. The other is now 1-6 in Big 12 play, with 3 losses on their home court to teams that they were favored to beat. So, with two different teams, I wanted to answer 2 different questions; why you should worry about the Baylor Bears basketball team, and why you shouldn't worry about the Baylor Bears basketball team. Let's dig in:
Why you SHOULD worry:
The Bears are 1-6 in conference play, with 3 losses at home already, and 6 games left against top 25 ranked teams. There only home games left are Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Iowa State. Those are pretty much the top half of the Big 12 and Texas Tech. The last two games were must wins, in terms of getting this team back into the NCAA tournament talk, and they lost both. So, why are they losing? Well, that is an impossible question to answer, because it is different every night.
The offense has fallen off of a cliff in Big 12 play. They are 8th in the league in scoring at 69.7 points per game, 9th in field goal percentage at 40.5%, last in free throw % at 64%, and 6th in three point field goal % at 35.5%. Those are bad numbers all around for an offense that came into Big 12 play looking strong against a tough non-conference slate. This is not a situation of the Bears beefing up their stats against a long line of cream-puffs. They did this against one of the 25 hardest schedules before conference play.
The defense has not been much better, allowing 73.6 points per game (6th in conference), and allowing the 2nd highest field goal % in Big 12 play at 47.4%. The Bears defense has been prone to stretches of just abysmal play, especially against a team with a point guard that can get into the lane.
The upperclassmen for the Bears have been some of the more "MIA" players the team has. Even Coach Drew has noticed that saying "We really like these guys and want them to win and be successful, but a lot of guys haven't been in these close situations either. I'm disappointed that we haven't had some of the vets step up and play better because I know they're capable of it and want to play better. But that hasn't happened."
But, can it get worse? Cory Jefferson, Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin are graduating and will be off of next year's team. Isaiah Austin could also leave to start his NBA career. That will have at least 2 and maybe 3 starting spots open for grabs next year. If Austin leaves too, the Bears may be without a single NBA caliber prospect on their roster for the first time in a long time.
Normally, Bear fans could point to a future recruit that could save the day and provide hope. The 2014 recruiting class was a loaded one of the Bears, with each of the Top 5 recruits in the nation being seriously recruited by the Bears and 7 McDonald's All-Americans at one time thinking hard about the Bears. Baylor was involved in nine 5-star players, with none now seriously considering the Bears. What was once hoped as a game-changing recruiting class for the Bears has simply turned into a dud, at least on paper.
Baylor has three commitments, all 3-star players none of which are ranked near the top of their position. They are also not seriously involved with any other marquee players right now, and have no commitments for the 2015 class, one that looks to be solid, but not nearly the caliber of players the Bears were involved in this year. This is a team that could get much less talented the next few years, and what happens then?
Why you SHOULD NOT worry:
Two words. Scott. Drew. The man turned the Bears program from a disgrace into a respected program that is disappointed when they don't make the NCAA tournament. This program was a disgrace, not just for the scandal that hit before Drew's arrival, but for the performance of the last 40 years. Since 1950, the Bears went to a single NCAA tournament in 1987, which they lost in the first round.
They went a ridiculous 58 years between NCAA tournament wins. They had several scandals, numerous probations, and pretty much were just a laughing stock. What has Drew done? How about five 20-wins seasons in the last 6 years, something the Bears had done 1 time in the 50 years before Drew. How about two Elite Eight trips in 3 seasons, and three bids to the NCAA tournament. This is a program that was as bad as any school from a power conference could be. And yet, Scott Drew turned it around.
So, he has hit a speed bump. This year, and last, have not gone according to plan. No doubt about it. But Scott Drew would be the first to admit that. He will make the adjustments and changes, to his style, his staff and his program that need to be made. I have no doubt about it. Did you know that from the 2009, 2010, and 2011 recruiting classes, only a single player remains from the 12 that were signed? Cory Jefferson. Those are supposed to be your upperclassmen and leaders. Yes, two transfers fill those upper-classmen roles now in Gary Franklin and Brady Heslip, but 11 of 12 players gone? That is not good.
A lot of that comes from swinging for the fences on recruits, and hitting on a few guys that were here for a very short period of time. Perry Jones and Quincy Miller are both NBA players right now, contributing to their teams and starting some games. Right now, this team is full of guys that have only been here a short period of time. Austin, Rico Gathers, and Taurean Prince are just second year players. Kenny Chery, Ish Wainright and Royce O'Neale are in their first years on campus. Those are 6 of the Bears 9 regular rotation players. This is a team that has lost its way, and does not have the experience and chemistry together yet to pull out from the tail-spin. With Gathers and Prince and Chery back next year as probable starters, and Wainright and O'Neale hopefully able to contribute more, that is a large bulk of the team that will be back for another round together. That can only make this team better.
Add in the very underrated Damiyne Durham, the 3-star shooting guard that has signed with the Bears who is an exceptional scorer and athlete, and the Bears could have a big issue solved going into next season. Baylor right now only has 1 or 2 guys that can create their own shots off the dribble. Taurean Prince can do it, and sometimes so can Kenny Chery who is battling a toe injury that has sapped him of most of that ability. Add Durham to those two (along with the redshirted Allerik Freeman), and the Bears offense should be much better offensively and have better size on the perimeter with two 6-foot-3 guards and above.
You could sell me on either theory. Heck, you could sell me on the Bears going on a winning streak at the end of the year to get close to .500 in Big 12 play and making a run for the NCAA tournament. This team has that type of talent, but has just not been able to pull out of this tailspin. With the losses this team will sustain going into next year, and the lower regarded recruiting class that is on the way, I can see the anxiety of Baylor fans rising and rising. But basketball is a game about chemistry and fit.
Look at Texas, they have played great basketball as a team, but their recruiting has dropped off the past few years. They are young, athletic and playing great basketball. On paper, the Bears are a significantly more talented team. There is no doubt in my mind about that. But Texas has their 2005 Toyota Camry engine running at full speed, while the Bears brand new Lexus GS is on the side of the road with an engine piston sticking out of the hood. You know which one you would want to drive off of the lot.