BearsIllustrated Contributor, Dallas Morning News Blogger
Baylor basketball is coming off an outstanding 24-10 season in 2014-15. The Bears earned a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament, before getting upset against Georgia State by now-Celtics’ guard R.J Hunter at the buzzer.
Many have been down on the Bears after the disappointment, but fact is, that’s life. Sometimes you just get upset. Duke has been through it, Missouri has been through it, Georgetown has been through it. That’s what makes the NCAA Tournament so much fun…from the outside.
But now, we bring back a Baylor team fresh off one of the most disappointing losses of Scott Drew’s tenure. They return three starters and most of the rotation, along with three freshmen who are expected to have a chance to contribute right away.
However, this season rides on the back of seniors Taurean Prince and Rico Gathers.
Prince has elevated his stock to that of a first-round draft prospect this offseason with strong performances at the Nike Basketball Academy and for Team USA in the Pan-American Games. Most impressively, Prince was named to the All-Nike Academy Team. The other guys on that lest were Kris Dunn, DeAndre Bembry, Ben Simmons and Damian Jones. All the other players are major contenders for All-America status. Prince is no different.
Gathers has established himself as one of the most dominant rebounders in basketball, but has also developed his all-around game. He will once again be a lead contender for All-Big 12.
It has been interesting to see Baylor shift its strategy from a star-studded game to one driven by defense and versatility. This roster fits nicely within that. Almost every player on the roster can play more than one position. Nine of the team’s 12 players can pass, shoot and handle the basketball effectively.
The Bears may have been knocked out in the first round, but we saw Scott Drew coach his best basketball last season. It is clear that he is learning and evolving as a leader. It’s exciting to think what the Bears might be able to do this season.
I think the Bears go through non-conference play unscathed, including big wins over Oregon, Texas A&M and No. 18 Vanderbilt. The Bears will then go through Big 12 play 10-8 and finish fourth in the Big 12, behind only Kansas, Iowa State and Oklahoma. Watch out for the Bears in the Big 12 tourney and during their third straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
Predicted Record – 23-8, 10-8
BearsIllustrated Co-Owner, Publisher
For the first time in Baylor basketball history, they have the opportunity to advance to the NCAA tournament three times in a row. A program first of back-to-back trips was achieved last year, even if the visit was much shorter than expected after their upset loss to Georgia State in the first round. A 24-10 season, and a 4th place finish in the Big 12 was the result.
Coming back are two senior leaders, and two of the best players in the Big 12 in Taurean Prince and Rico Gathers. Prince was the nation's best 6th man in 2014-15. Gathers, one of the best rebounding weapons in recent college basketball history, will be looked at to carry an even larger load on the offensive end. With those two, along with rising sophomore Jonathan Motley at center, carrying the load down low, the Bears should have one of the best front courts in the Big 12.
The questions will be about a new back court after the loss of two key seniors in Kenny Chery and Royce O'Neale. How the Bears replace their ball handling, passing, perimeter shooting, and experienced leadership will go a long way to explaining how the Bears will play in 2015-16. If they can get good point guard play from starter Lester Medford and whichever young freshman steps up into the complimentary role (be it Jake Lindsey, the current backup, or top recruit King McClure), the Bears need a backup point guard.
Medford had success last year as the starting 2-guard, and the primary backup at point guard behind Chery, and will be depended on to lead the way this year. Baylor has a lot of options in the back court, but most are very young around Medford. Al Freeman, a 3rd year sophomore, is expected to step into the starting lineup at shooting guard. McClure and fellow freshman Wendell Mitchell will fight for time at the off-guard spot as well.
The other big question for the Bears will be their backups down low. With the loss of Juco transfer Jo Acuil for all of non-conference play, Baylor has a lack of size on the bench. 6-foot-7 sophomore TJ Maston is the lone big man on the bench. Taurean Prince is expected to split time between both forward positions, with Ish Wainright getting more time alongside him at small forward.
With several questions still unanswered, the Bears have been picked in the middle of the pack by the coaches and media. This looks like a 20-win team with Prince and Gathers leading the way, and if they can answer a few of those questions, could be a Top-4 finisher in the Big 12 a step behind Kansas, Iowa State and Oklahoma in terms of talent and upside.