I was admittedly a big fan of the roster construction of the 2013-14 Baylor men's basketball team that just saw their season end with a run to the Sweet 16, after a very big slide in January and February. It was a team with more 2-way players, and guys that could fit roles that the previous team simply didn't have. Even with the loss of Pierre Jackson, if the Bears could get solid point guard play from Kenny Chery, they would have better players all around (especially at the small forward position) to be a better team.
The 2013-14 Bears story has been written. We went with the ups and the severe downs all the way to another Big 12 Championship game appearance and subsequent loss, to another deep run in the NCAA tournament. We have seen this before as Baylor fans. Every other year, Scott Drew and his squad turn into a really good or even great team. It is those "other" years that have gotten in the way of building more respect for Drew and his program.
Baylor followed up its first Elite Eight run in 2009-10 with an 18 win season. The Bears then bounced back with a 2nd Elite Eight run, only to follow that up with a 23 win season and an NIT championship. Scott Drew has done many things in his time at Baylor, but he has never put his Bears into the NCAA tournament in back-to-back years.
So, how could the 2015-16 Bears look? As of right now, they look like a possible Top 20 team, but that is with Isaiah Austin coming back. Without their 7-foot-1 center, the season has much more uncertainty. So, let's take a look at what we KNOW is going to be in Waco next year, and then put Austin in and out of that setup.
Point Guard – If there was one weakness Baylor had last year, it was not having a true second point guard or ball-handler to run the offense when Kenny Chery was out of the game, or out with injury. To begin the season, small forward Ish Wainright was getting the bulk of the minutes at the backup point guard spot, but despite his excellent passing ability, it never seemed to click. As a true freshman, he was playing a position that he wasn't very experienced in and wasn't a natural fit for his game.
Later in the year, Gary Franklin took over the backup minutes, and stabilized it a bit, especially in the Bears win over Oklahoma State without Chery. Franklin though is much more of a shooter than a guy that can run an offense. The Bears offensive attack would quickly stagnate every time that Chery went off of the floor.
It is quite evident that Coach Drew knew this, thus the signing of another junior college point guard in Lester Medford, who led his team to the NJCAA Finals and was named a first team All-American at the JUCO level. The 5'11" guard averaged 15.9 points per game to go along with 6.1 assists. Medford also shot the ball well making 46% of his field goals, 40% from 3-point range, and 73.5% from the free throw line. Medford is an attacking guard who scored 53 points in the first three games of the NJCAA tournament.
Shooting Guard – With the only two players to log any minutes at shooting guard all year (outside of walk-ons in garbage time), the Bears will be rebuilding the 2-guard spot. Gone are Brady Heslip and the aforementioned Gary Franklin. An entirely new cast of scorers will have to emerge. Leading the way will be a group of freshmen, redshirt and true. Former 4-star recruit Allerik Freeman will look to make his debut with the Bears after injuries held him out to begin last year. Instead of coming back for half of the season, Freeman used his redshirt year to develop his game. The North Carolina native could see time at point guard as well.
Another freshman that should get playing time is the most recent commitment to the Bears, Kobie Eubanks. I have already discussed his game in detail, but he is a talented shooter with great size for either wing spot. The Baylor staff could also use Lester Medford off the ball to put two ball-handling guards out there at the same time.
Small Forward – While the shooting guard position loses everyone, the small forward position will have all hands on deck, with Royce O'Neale and Ish Wainright both back. Also, Taurean Prince could get minutes again at the wing, depending on the Bears needs in the post. This spot is loaded with talent and potential with O'Neale being the main minute's guy. Wainright was the original starter last year, but slowly lost minutes to the junior transfer from Denver.
Power Forward – This might be the most for sure spot on the entire roster, with Rico Gathers being promoted from 3rd big man off the bench to starter and big minute guy. He could play some at center, though I have concerns about his lack of production from a rim protection stand-point to be a true center, especially if the Bears are going to stick with their zone defense.
Backing Rico up will probably be a combination of Jonathan Motley, Taurean Prince and maybe even signee Terry Maston. Motley is going to get playing time, either as the 3rd big off the bench (pretty much Rico's role the past 2 seasons) or as the starting center. There is a big jump between those two roles. Prince could rotate between either forward spot, though he played more often at the wing last year, and more effectively.
Center – Here is the big spot right now for the Bears. With Isaiah Austin back, this team fits in perfectly. Rico can stay predominantly at the 4-spot, with Taurean Prince playing mainly at Small Forward with some minutes at Power Forward if they need. They can also take their time and not force too much responsibility on redshirt freshman Johnathan Motley. Finally, Chad Rykhoek will also be kept in a backup role.
With Austin, those are perfect roles for all three players, with Austin getting 30 minutes per game, and 10 minutes rotating between Motley, Gathers and Rykhoek if you need him. Without Austin though, both of the post positions are questionable.
With Austin Lineup / Minutes Breakdown
Point Guard – Kenny Chery (28), Lester Medford (12)
Shooting Guard – Allerik Freeman (15), Lester Medford (13), Kobie Eubanks (12)
Small Forward – Royce O'Neale (25), Taurean Prince (10), Ish Wainright (5)
Power Forward – Rico Gathers (28), Johnathan Motley (8), Taurean Prince (4)
Center – Isaiah Austin (30), Johnathan Motley (8), Chad Rykhoek (2)
Without Austin Lineup / Minutes Breakdown
Point Guard – Kenny Chery (28), Lester Medford (12)
Shooting Guard – Allerik Freeman (15), Lester Medford (15), Kobie Eubanks (10)
Small Forward – Royce O'Neale (25), Ish Wainright (8), Kobie Eubanks, (4)Taurean Prince (3)
Power Forward – Rico Gathers (28), Taurean Prince (12)
Center – Johnathan Motley (25), Chad Rykhoek (10), Rico Gathers (5)
Without Austin, the Bears will have to lean heavily on younger posts like Motley and Rykhoek. It will also mean that signee Terry Maston might have to play immediately rather than redshirt along with fellow signee Damiyne Durham. With Austin, both of those players could redshirt, with Maston getting stronger in the post and Durham getting used to better competition.
Without Austin, this becomes a team that will really depend on its guard and wing players. Taurean Prince will probably have to shift down to power forward much more than he did last year, which could expose the Bears on the glass even more. However, this is still an extremely talented team, just not one with a lot of depth down low, something that most teams rarely ever have.
Simply put, the Bears have been spoiled the last few years with their riches in height. If Austin comes back, those blessings will continue via the way of a true 7-footer down low, anchoring the paint. Without Austin, Scott Drew will have to scramble a bit (by way of getting a transfer that is immediately eligible or another high school recruit) with the additional scholarship available and will probably have to go to more of a man defensive look due to the lack of size in the paint.
Overall, this is a team with options, but much better ones with Austin returning as you would expect. They will be much deeper in the back court and the wing spots this year, but time will have to tell if the Bears height advantage will take a dip this year, and it all begins and ends with Isaiah Austin.