Last year was the year Dave Bliss and all followers of the Green and Gold had been waiting for. A return to winning in basketball last season was exactly what all expected when Bliss was hired to be the head man in Waco. And so it has become.
For the first time in over a decade the Baylor men's basketball team returned to post-season play with a big to the NIT. Though the Bears lost at New Mexico, the season was a huge success.
Projected to finish 11th before the year started, the Bears shocked the world on, not one, but two occasions. The first came on February 12th when Baylor made its first appearance on ESPN's Big Monday. The Bears made the most of the nationally televised stage as a jam packed Ferrell Center watched Kansas fall 85-77. Baylor's Terry Black and DeMarcus Minor carried the Bears that day but got big contributions from Wendell Greenleaf, Logan Kosmalski and Greg Davis.
After putting #6 Kansas down 25 at the half, the Jayhawk's largest halftime deficit under coach Roy Williams, the Bears gutted it out down the stretch for the win. Students and fans alike rushed the floor as the final horn sounded. Bliss and Black made an impromptu appearance as the opening segment of Sportscenter live from the court amidst the mob of celebrating Bears.
After finishing 6-10 in conference play and locking in 8th place, Bliss took the Bears to Oklahoma City for the Big XII Tournament. Bliss worked his magic again as Baylor jumped on 7th ranked Iowa State and won going away 62-49. The win was sweet as ISU had eliminated the Bears from the tourney the previous two years.
A remarkable run to the semi-finals of the Big XII Tourney and a solid season ensured Baylor its NIT bid. Baylor finished with a record of 19-12 and gave notice that the program was ready to break on to the national stage.
So, now we come to this season and though Black and Minor are gone, Bliss is excited. This edition of Baylor basketball is much different that lasts. It derives its strength from great depth and increased talent throughout the roster.
Here is a look at what to expect position by position this season:
Point Guard - Without Minor in the mix, the point guard spot is wide open. Last year's backup Matt Sayman is back and looks to have gotten stronger and more confident. Matt is a smart player who handles the ball very well. He will continue to see increased minutes on the floor.
However, as fall workouts have progressed, it's possible that you may see junior Wendell Greenleaf at the point as well. Always thought to fit the shooting guard mold, Greenleaf does handle the ball well and plays tremendous defense. Another player that will get in the mix at PG is freshman John Lucas, Jr. He has impressed since his arrival on campus and is likely to see the floor this year.
Shooting Guard - One of the strengths of Bliss' teams is that most of the players can play more than one position. An example of this is shooting guard where transfer Kevin Henry, a three-point specialist, is likely to start. He's got great range behind the arc and set the record for season three-pointers made as a sophomore at New Mexico.
But, also look for Greenleaf to spend some time at the two-guard spot as well, Wendell can score and shoot and is very aggressive.
Another true frosh is getting into the mix as well though. Kenny Taykir, a 6-3 sharp shooter from Willowridge High School, has shown the coaches alot this Fall. Taylor can flat out shoot and has impressed by being able to create his own shot.
Small Forward - Back in the summer, most people close to the program were going nuts with anticipation. Why you ask? Laurence Roberts. The 6-8 forward from Lamar High School was rated as the 14th best power forward recruit in the nation and the 5th best recruit in Texas. Laurence was dominant for Lamar last year and it's only a matter of time until he is at Baylor.
At 6-8 and athletic he can play the small forward but is big and strong enough to play power forward. He can shoot and is tough on the boards and plays solid defense.
The surprise to most Baylor fans is that senior Chad Elsey may be the front runner to start. After a 2001 season he'd like to forget, Elsey has come back determined to contribute in a big way. He's shooting very well and seems to have regained his form.
MCC transfer Rod Nealy (6-6, 235) has also looked good this Fall and will see significant minutes at the three.
Power Forward - Returning senior starter Greg Davis will start again this year but will be helped by not having to play center and having great depth behind him. Davis had to play longer minutes than Bliss would have preferred last season.
Returning sophomore Logan Kosmalski will also see a lot of time at the four and also maybe at the small forward spot. Logan's shooting ability and smart play were key to last year's success.
At least early in the season, it's likely that most of Laurence Roberts' playing time will be at the power forward spot.
Center - New Mexico transfer R.T. Guinn is the expected starter in the middle. At 6-10, 240 and strong, Guinn will provide a solid post presense for the Bears. Guinn is also a solid shooter and will present match-up problems with his three-point shooting.
Steven Othoro will back up Guinn at the five. Othoro was another surprise last season as he became a solid defender and rebounder for the Bears. One of his best offensive games came against Kansas on Big Monday.
Basically, Baylor lost Black and Minor, two all-conference players and that hurts. However, the depth and increased talent level across the board should counteract that loss. Bliss finally has a team that's to his liking from the standpoint of numerous players being able to knock down threes and great depth. That depth will allow Bliss to speed up the game and have his team play frenetic defense and aggressive offense.
This is going to be a much different team that what we saw in the spring of 2001. They may start slower, but I expect that by conference play, this team will have surpassed last year's team.
Here are my first and second teams:
1st team - Greenleaf, Henry, Nealy, Davis, Guinn
2nd team - Sayman, Elsey, Roberts, Kosmalski, Othoro
Small lineup: Sayman, Henry, Greenleaf, Roberts, Davis
Big Lineup: Greenleaf, Elsey, Davis, Guinn, Othoro.
My Take: - I really like Greenleaf and Henry at the guards. Greenleaf plays with incredible intensity and emotion and hits big shots. Henry has serious range and flat out fills it up. Sayman looks really good and will play alot. Taylor is much better than I expected and has a perfect shot.
Roberts looks more like a power forward right now, but is incredibly impressive. My opinion is that he has more upside at the three, but that may be why I'm not the coach. Elsey is shooting lights out right now. I just hope he carries that into the game tonight. Nealy is much more than I expected as well. He's 6-6 and athletic but also can score.
Davis and Guinn are great on the post. Both have moves and both can step out and knock down the trey. Same for Kosmalski, he's not quite as big but is a very smart player and hits big shots. Othoro looks better than last year and continues to improve. His 6-11 heighth and long arms will provide a presense in the lane.
The Bears tip off the season tonight at 8 pm in the Ferrell Center against the Texas Blue Chips, an all-star team out of Dallas.