Denny Medley/USA TODAY Sports

How the Baylor Bears went from Unranked to 4th in 3 Weeks

The Baylor Bears are ranked 4th in the nation at 8-0 despite not receiving a single vote in the polls in the preseason. How did the Bears get here despite losing their leading scorer, rebounder, and assist man from the 2015-16 season?

A basketball team is an living organism much more than any other sporting team. Baseball is an individual act for 50% of the game, and then still breaks down to you doing your job.  Football is more of a team game, but still depends on individuals doing their primary job.  But basketball is something else.  It is the main reason why I love it.  It is a true team sport, where each player doesn't have just one role, but can be asked to do anything on the floor.  

The 2016-17 version of the Baylor basketball team has exceed early season expectations. On paper, this is a worse team than last year's version that went 22-12 and was ranked in the Top-25 for most of the year.  That was a good basketball team.  On paper, replacing a lottery pick in Taurean Prince with Ish Wainright is a big downgrade.  Replacing one of the best rebounders in Big 12 history in Rico Gathers with Jo Acuil is another downgrade. You can make an argument that Lester Medford's replace Manu Lecomte was an upgrade before the season, but it was a fair question to ask by how much.  

Those three players were gone from a very good Baylor team, and the Bears were replacing them with question marks.  There was no 5-star freshman sensation to step in and get those points, rebounds, or assists. It was going to be a junior college transfer with a heart issue, a backup guard from Miami who sat out last year, and a senior who has averaged 5.9 points per game last year. 

But this team is better, and maybe significantly better because of the fit to the team and what the Bears need from that position.  Make no mistake, Rico Gathers is probably a better basketball player than Jo Acuil.  Taurean Prince is easily a better player than Ish Wainright.  But the fit that Acuil and Wainwright have provided for their roles has made this team better on both ends of the court. 

How can that be?  Prince and Gathers combined to contribute 27 points, 15 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. Compare that to Acuil/Wainright at 15 points, 13.7 rebounds and 4.8 assists and the Bears have gotten worse in 2/3rds of the stats.  Again though, it is about the fit.  

In 2015, Baylor used Medford and Al Freeman in the backcourt with Ish Wainright starting at the small forward position.  Prince and Gathers would start down low for the Bears, with Prince also getting time at small forward.  It was an odd lineup when looking at the Bears under Drew.  Starting two 6-foot-8 players (with Rico listed very generously at that) hurt the Bears post defense and their length on the perimeter.  

While the Bears were still exceptional on the offensive glass (4th in the nation at 40.4% rebound percent), they were just above average on the defensive side.  Baylor also was just 78th in the nation in block % and struggled to defend the 3-point line (291st in the nation at 36.9%).  The reason for this was that their lack of length on the inside kept the guards closer to the paint and not extending the defense. 

So what do we see in 2016?  With Jonathan Motley promoted to the starting lineup along side 7-footer Jo Acuil, the Bears have two true post players with tremendous size and length down low. Baylor is now 16th in the nation in block percentage, with Acuil averaging 4.4 blocks per game. Acuil has 35 blocks through 8 games, or just 4 fewer than the leader for the Bears (Motley) had in 34 games last year. 

With the Bears post defense stepping up and challenging more shots, Baylor's guards are able to extend further towards the 3-point line and challenge more shots. This has completely flipped the script on 3-point shooting by the opposition.  After allowing almost 37% last year, the Bears are now at 28.4%, 26th in the nation. 

The Bears have also seen an improvement to an already powerful offense, but that might be linked more to the emergence of Motley as a front line player and the presence of Manu Lecomte. The duo of Motley and Gathers was always a tough fit on offense, same with Taurean Prince and Motley. Neither was a true back to the basket that could get buckets.  While Acuil is still developing in this area, he is much more capable post player in that regard. 

Having a true center next to Motley forces the defense to put a smaller defender on the Bears power forward at times.  When that happens, Motley goes to work.  While Acuil doesn't have the range of Prince he is a better pure shooter than Gathers, so he is able to pull the bigger defender away from the basket giving Motley single coverage.  If the defense traps or double teams Motley, then the Baylor guards have been excellent at cutting and getting open. 

The Bears 2016 lineup of Lecomte (more of a true point guard and a better 3-point shooter than Medford), Al Freeman, Ish Wainright, Motley and Acuil has been the most well-rounded and solid unit on both sides of the court since the 2010 season with Ekpe Udoh in the paint. A true rim protector to help on defense, better point guard play, and a better mix of post talent have made the Bears the surprise of the 2016 season so far.  

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