The Baylor Bears entered the 2016 season receiving zero votes in the preseason polls for the first time in several years. That won't be the case anymore after a sensational opening week of action. A season opening win over Oral Roberts was just the start, as a dominant 66-49 victory over 4th ranked Oregon in front of a national ESPN crowd on Tuesday afternoon announced the Bears presence to the nation.
With the losses of Rico Gathers, Taurean Prince, and Lester Medford, the lack of expectations were easy explained away. That is one of the best rebounders in NCAA history, a lottery pick and an All-Big 12 point guard. With unknowns and little seen players needing to step into larger roles, the Bears were picked in the back half of the Big 12 standings as well.
So, how have the Bears gotten off to this hot start? Junior point guard and Miami transfer Manu Lecomte has been better than advertised. His outside shot has been sensational, making 8 of 18 deep shots through his first three games. What has been surprising is his facilitation and ability to take care of the ball. Lecomte has 21 assists against just 5 turnovers through three games, and outstanding a/t ratio.
With the point guard position settled and in seemingly good hands, the Bears other weapons have been able to simply do their job. Jonathan Motley, after missing the first game due to an NCAA suspension, is still recovering from an ankle injury, but is still averaging 14.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. Returning starting shooting guard Al Freeman is averaging 14 points per game as Freeman, Lecomte, and Motley all are making 50% of their shots.
The biggest surprise has been the all-around ability of junior transfer Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. who is averaging over 5 blocks per game. Acuil is the best defender the Bears have seen since Ekpe Udoh averaged 3.7 blocks in his lone season in Waco in 2009-10. Yes, the season is just 3-games in, but Acuil is providing presence at the rim that the Bears simply have lacked the past few years.
With Motley and Acuil patrolling the paint and cleaning up messes, the Bears are 25th in the nation in blocks, and are allowing just 44.9% 2-point field goal shooting (NCAA average is 49%). The Bears defense is ranked 28th in the nation according to KenPom.com.
The Baylor offense has been defined by ball movement and balance so far this season, with four players scoring over 10 points per game. Using an 8-man rotation, the Bears are starting an ultra-big lineup with Acuil and Motley down low, Ish Wainright at the wing, and Freeman and Lecomte in the back court.
With TJ Maston being the Bears lone true post player off the bench (until Nuni Omot ineligible till the semester break), the Bears are using Wainright as a post player as well, even starting him against Oral Roberts with Motley suspended.
Redshirt freshman Wendell "Chuck" Mitchell and Jake Lindsey have been the primary backup at the guard and wing spots, as sophomore King McClure continues to get healthy. Mitchell might be the Bears best athlete, an incredible dunker who has a bit of a Henry Dugat feel to his game, for those Bears who go back a decade. Lindsey is the Bears primary backup point guard, but is able of playing at the wing spot as well with his 6-5 height. McClure is a traditional shooting guard, who once healthy, will be able to provide scoring punch off the bench for the Bears.
This is a deep and athletic Baylor team, with enough depth to attempt to redshirt Tyson Jolly and Mark Vital. Once Omot is eligible, and McClure gets healthy, the Bears should be able to withstand foul trouble much better and use different types of lineups to match their opponents.
Need more height? Try Omot at the wing spot with Motley and Acuil down low. How about more quickness? Use a 3-guard lineup and slide Wainright down to power forward. how about shooting? Lecomte, Freeman, and McClure are all above average 3-point shooters, with Omot and Acuil being more than capable as well.
With that many options at his disposal, Coach Scott Drew will have the challenge of keeping everyone happy, ready and prepared for action in any role. Baylor heads to the Bahamas for Thanksgiving break, facing VCU in the next round with Michigan State on deck pending wins by both teams. If Baylor can get past the Rams, a top-40 team according to KenPom, the Top-25 Michigan State Spartans would present another great opportunity for a second marquee win.
Oregon will be a Top-10 team, especially when Dillon Brooks gets healthy. Florida Gulf Coast is a Top-100 team and a nice win. VCU is Top-40, while Michigan State is Top-25. That is an incredibly difficult schedule early in the year, especially for a team breaking in 3-new starters.
Baylor has a chance to make a big statement, even larger than their one last week against Oregon. Can they do it and continue to rise up the rankings?