Basketball Scouting Report: Baylor

The Vanderbilt Commodores can’t feel too good about themselves right now, because the team they lost to this past weekend in the Barclays Center Classic scored 26 points in its next game. Yes, Vanderbilt lost to Rutgers, which then crashed and burned against Virginia. VU has work to do. The road to renewal begins Thursday against Baylor.


The cupcake season is on hold, and that’s good for Vanderbilt. This team is being tested, and with the SEC being a very weak league – one in which the Georgia Bulldogs were the third seed in the conference tournament last March – it’s important to face challenging opponents. Baylor certainly qualifies as one, but the Dores get the Bears in Memorial Gym. A win here could go a long way toward improving the resume, and maybe – just maybe – giving this team a shot at upper-tier postseason hopes if it can go 13-5 in the SEC and win a game or two in the conference tournament.

Prizes and aspirations are great, of course, but the focus quickly becomes: How can Vanderbilt actually beat Baylor? Conceptually, the Dores’ task is clear. It’s just going to be hard for VU to break through.

BAYLOR AT-A-GLANCE

The Bears are not predictably unpredictable. They’re unpredictably predictable. Confused? We’ll explain, and yes, there’s a reason “unpredictably predictable” is the better term.

Baylor would be “predictably unpredictable” if its season-ending results were scattered all over the place. However, there is a pattern at work with the Bears… it’s just that you can never figure out how that path will unfold. Hence, “unpredictably predictable.”

Scott Drew took over as Baylor’s coach in 2003. After a few rough years following the Dave Bliss disaster at the Baptist school, Drew began to find his footing in the even year of 2008. The Bears made the NCAA tournament that season. Then came the pattern: no NCAA tournament in 2009, tournament (and Elite Eight) in 2010, no tournament in 2011, Elite Eight in 2012, no tournament in 2013, Sweet 16 in 2014. Baylor is the smaller-scale San Francisco Giants of college basketball: The even years are fantastic and the odd years are barren. The Bears have made the Sweet 16 or better in each of the past three even-year seasons. There’s predictability in that.

Where the Bears are more unpredictable is in their regular seasons. To illustrate the point, Baylor finished 9-9 in the Big 12 in each of the past two regular seasons. The difference was that in 2013, a Baylor team on the bubble lost in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament. The 2014 team reached the final after having closed the regular season on a strong note as well. The 2014 Big 12 was also stronger than in 2013, giving Baylor’s overall profile more of a boost.

Drew is an enigma. He gets his hands on jump-out-of-the-building talent. His 2010 team lost by a smaller margin in its Elite Eight game (to Duke), but his 2012 team was slightly more talented. Drew’s teams typically go through three-week stretches during the Big 12 season when they look lost, going up against the likes of Bill Self and Lon Kruger and Fred Hoiberg. However, in the Big 12 Tournament and the NCAA tournament, Drew has shown a marked capability to get his team to peak at the right time. He is the kind of coach who, when presented with make-or-break late-season moments, is able to focus players after they drift in January and early February. Drew has repeatedly done what John Calipari managed to pull off with last season’s Kentucky team. It might be exasperating and hard to figure out, but it works… just not every year. The larger point stands: 98 percent of college basketball programs would love to have Baylor’s problems of missing the Big Dance one year and then making the Elite Eight (or at least the Sweet 16) the next.

This year’s Baylor team is hard to measure, because one of its foremost players, point guard Kenny Chery, has missed three games in a row due to a foot injury. It’s not known how effective he’ll be, but Vanderbilt has to be mentally and tactically ready to play against him. Chery is lightning-quick on the dribble, and can break down defenses with regularity if he’s physically fine. Baylor suffered without him in a 62-54 loss to Illinois last Friday night in Las Vegas.

The Bears have not shot the ball well this season in Chery’s absence – they hit only 33 percent of their shots against Illinois, failing to score 30 points in either half. How you judge the statistical averages of Baylor’s players must account for that void on the roster over the past week. You also need to realize that a 71-47 win over Memphis looks really good… until you consider the fact that Memphis lost by 12 at home to Stephen F. Austin the other night, and is an absolute mess.

We might not know a lot more about Baylor for a long time. Vanderbilt needs to learn more about itself… and find a way to win this game, especially if the Bears are ready to make the NCAA tournament in an odd year for once. That would bolster the Dores’ resume when it really matters.

Starting Lineup

Forward – Rico Gathers –
Junior, 6-8, 280 2014-15: 9.7 points per game, 10.7 rebounds per game

Gathers, as you can see, is a load. He’s going to be extremely hard to contain on the glass, and very hard to move out of the paint when Vanderbilt plays offense. Gathers is the kind of player whose bulk makes him a great matchup for Baylor against teams that like to post up. He does not give Baylor a good matchup against teams whose fours and fives can step out and hit the foul-line or elbow-area jump shot. Can Vanderbilt draw Gathers out of the paint on defense? Doing so would help VU’s cause a lot. Denying him high numbers of offensive putbacks will also become a central task for the Dores’ post players.

Forward – Royce O’Neale – Senior, 6-6, 215; 2014-15: 9.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 3.4 assists per game

You can notice that while Baylor does not have size at the forward positions, it has high-energy guys who get their fair share of rebounds. Gang rebounding will be so important for Vanderbilt against the relentlessness of the Bears on the glass. O’Neale clearly likes to distribute the ball and has been doing so with Chery out. Vanderbilt doesn’t have to fear O’Neale as a scorer – it must fear him as a do-everything player who facilitates opportunities for others on the BU roster.

Forward – Taurean Prince – Junior, 6-7, 215; 2014-15: 12.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg

The Bears’ leading scorer, Prince doesn’t take a lot of threes (only 20 on the season) and doesn’t shoot well from the foul line (63 percent). However, he shoots just over 50 percent overall. He has a decent shooting touch and an understanding of what a good shot is. Smart players are dangerous ones, and Prince certainly seems to qualify as one.

Guard – Lester Medford – Junior, 5-10, 175; 2014-15: 8.6 ppg, 4.3 apg

This is one of the more mysterious Baylor players, just because he’s had to play with freshman backup guard Al Freeman (6.3 points, 2.7 rebounds) while Chery has been injured. Assuming Chery plays in this game, Vanderbilt must quickly identify how Medford plays in tandem with Chery and reacts to him in the Baylor backcourt.

Guard – Kenny Chery – Senior, 5-22, 180; 2014-15: 10.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.8 steals per game

Watch Chery’s quickness and lateral movement early in this game, assuming he plays. If he doesn’t play, the aforementioned Al Freeman will step in. Chery is the heartbeat of the Baylor offense, and when Baylor’s bad, it’s usually the offense which disappears instead of the defense. Chery or no Chery, Vanderbilt has to be ready to hit BU with a wave of tenacious defense before the under-16 timeout in the first half. The Dores need to give the Bears a lot to think about at the outset.

Bench

In addition to Freeman, Drew uses 6-9 forward Johnathan Motley, who averages 7.6 points and four rebounds per game, and 6-8 forward Deng Deng, who chips in with 5.3 points and 3.1 rebounds per game. Drew also turns to 6-5 guard Ishmail Wainright, who averages 2.7 points and 2.3 rebounds.

Keys to the Game

1) Relentless halfcourt defense.
Vanderbilt has to make this game ugly and difficult for Baylor. The Dores are not yet at a point in their evolution where they can expect to win games with the clean, flowing offense Kevin Stallings loves to see. That’s just not going to happen this early in the season, especially against a team with Baylor’s bothersome energy. This is not a game in which VU must outscore Baylor; it’s a game in which it must hold down the Bears instead.

2) Get to the foul line. Vanderbilt must learn to consistently earn free throw opportunities. Set offense can pry open driving lanes and create chances for foul shots, but when fluid screens and cuts don’t work, individual effort is required to get to the rim or outmaneuver a low-post defender on the blocks. However the Dores can do so, they need to get to the line. Shooting only 14 foul shots against Rutgers was a big reason the team fell short on Friday. The SEC is not a land where pure shooters abound. Being a strong free-throw team will put Vanderbilt ahead of the non-Kentucky, non-Florida (and perhaps non-Arkansas) pack come January.

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