If healthy, Baylor should be the surprise team in the Big 12
A lot of people don’t expect much from Baylor. The Bears were picked 9th in the Big 12. They received zero votes in either preseason poll. And Bart Torvik’s rankings have the Bears 77th, with just a 4% chance of making the NCAA Tournament.
There are plenty of reasons to like this team. KenPom has Baylor 40th, and they’re not too far in his metric from being a top 25 team. The Bears have added a ton of new players, and they were a couple of bad breaks from making the dance last season; They beat Vanderbilt and SMU in secret scrimmages.
The season opens on November 6th—Midterm Election Day! That doesn’t leave much time to offer some takes.
Like last year, we’ll take a look at the scholarship players, analyze some big questions and predict every game on the schedule.
King McClure- Baylor’s senior shooting guard is the leader of the team. I had a long interview with him over the summer that you can read here.
McClure is Baylor’s starting shooting guard, and the Bears need a quality season from him. He hasn’t been the 3-point shooter that he expected to be out of high school. But he’s been a much better defender than anyone thought.
I expect a good year from McClure. His mindset seems perfect, and at worst, he’ll be an excellent defender that can go off from three a few times this season.
Makai Mason- Baylor desperately needs the Yale transfer to stay healthy. He’s missed almost all of the last two seasons with injuries. The Bears are hopeful he can hold up over a full season, but if there’s a big reason to doubt the 2018-2019 Bears, it’s his health.
Mason is a great isolation scorer and passer. He devastated Baylor in the 2016 NCAA Tournament—his 31 points keyed the upset. If he’s healthy, Baylor’s going to finish much higher than their preseason ranking of 9th in the Big 12.
Nobody submitted a nickname for him. That means we’re calling him “The Makai Man.” If you don’t like this nickname, then you have only yourself to blame for not stopping me from giving him that nickname.
Tristan Clark- The sophomore big man is the most important player for Baylor. I think he’s also going to be the Bears’ best player.
Clark was on nearly every one of Baylor’s most efficient lineups. He played superbly early in the season, earning the KenPom MVP award in three of Baylor’s non-conference games.
Baylor has to get a full season out of Clark. Their offensive big man depth is limited. Clark needs to expand his range and work on his lateral quickness. But he’s flashed some excellent ability and likely has the highest ceiling on the team.
Mario Kegler- The Mississippi State transfer is eligible. He could be Baylor’s best player. Kegler has solid range and gives the Bears a much better wing scorer than they had last season.
Kegler will play both small forward and power forward. The Bears need him to stay healthy as well. He had knee surgery in the off-season. He’s going to be Baylor’s best scorer in a host of games, and he’ll start at the three.
Mark Vital- Baylor’s 21-year-old sophomore will be the starting power forward. He’s an explosive athlete and has unbelievable energy. He might be the Big 12’s second best defender after Sagaba Konate.
Vital’s limitations are on offense. His 3-point shooting, while improved, is still not going to be great. He struggled to finish on layups and dunks last season. The Bears don’t need him to score 10 points a game, but there are some games where they’ll need him to score 10 points. He’ll have to find a way to do that.
Darius Allen- Allen comes to Baylor after playing junior college ball the last two seasons. He might be the Bears’ best 3-point shooter and he’s quite the athlete. He picked Baylor over West Virginia and Wichita State—two programs that know how to find guards outside the high school ranks.
Allen will likely be Baylor’s first guard off the bench. He can wax-and-wane, but his peaks will be something.
Devontee Bandoo- The man from Hutch Community College. Like Allen, he’s a good 3-point shooter. Bandoo hit 44% of his triples and scored 16 points per game last season. He’ll be a good 3-point option—something Baylor could have used last year.
Bandoo should stay in the rotation all season.
Matthew Mayer- The top 100 high school recruit and Austin native is way better than I thought he’d be early. He impressed everyone in Baylor’s scrimmage over the summer with returning vets, including Taurean Prince and Royce O’Neale.
Mayer can really find his own shot. The man can be a little trigger happy, and he needs to add muscle to stay on the court as a small ball four.
Jared Butler- Baylor’s backup point guard arrived after Alabama would not clear him medically. He’ll be in the rotation and will back up Mason. He was a top 100 recruit and is quite good. This man is not L.J. Rose.
I’d expect him to play a lot with Davion Mitchell, an Auburn transfer, in the backcourt next season. He’ll play a good bit this year too.
Freddie Gillespie- A former D-3 player and walk-on. Gillespie has improved immensely. He’s a very strong defensive player, and if Baylor struggles defensively, they’ll insert him.
Gillespie is smart and a monster worker. His offensive game is limited. He’ll mainly be a put-back man. But his defense will get him minutes.
Flo Thamba- The future is bright for Baylor’s lone freshman big man. His ceiling is quite high, but he is very young, playing a difficult position in America’s best league. He could be a redshirt candidate.
Can Baylor stay a top 40 defense?
Baylor lost Jo Lual-Acuil, Manu Lecomte and Nuni Omot. Those three were all plus defenders. Lual-Acuil helped man the back of the zone, and Lecomte often limited dribble penetration. It’s a fair question if Baylor can maintain a top 40 defense.
But as I noted last week, minutes continuity hasn’t mattered for Baylor’s defense:
We’ll get to this more below, but Baylor’s size could matter. Baylor has done a nice job with their traditional two big man lineups of either limiting shots at the rim or limiting their opponents’ percentage in that area. Can a smaller lineup stop teams from shooting well and getting to the hoop? That’s a fair concern.
Baylor may need to be much better at creating turnovers or defensive rebounding. The 2018 squad ranked just 253rd and 226th in those respective categories. It’s hard to build a good defense with marks like that, but Baylor’s larger lineup limited opponents to the 37th worst effective field goal percentage. It’s hard to do that playing smaller.
I’d expect Baylor to play much more man-to-man defense. They’ll still play some zone, but Baylor’s not going to be as comfortable playing drop pick-and-roll coverage. The Bears looked good defensively in the second half switching all ball screens against Florida (even though the Gators were still hitting some shots). I’d expect Baylor to switch a little more and live with teams trying to isolate on them.
My guess is that Baylor finishes right around 40 on defense. KenPom has Baylor at 32 in the preseason. I think the Bears lack of size will hamper them in limiting shots, and Clark will have to hold back at times to avoid foul trouble. Bart Torvik’s preseason rankings have Baylor at 89 on defense. That seems low, but there is a giant range of possible outcomes for the Bears’ defense.
Will Baylor’s offensive rebounding crater?
Baylor has built top 25 KenPom offenses by dominating the offensive glass. With Ekpe Udoh, Rico Gathers, Johnathan Motley and Lual-Acuil, Baylor’s always had a top offensive rebounder recently. Will a smaller Baylor team and one that often plays just one man taller than 6—foot—6 be able to sustain that mark?
Baylor has a few guys that could get much better on the offensive glass. Motley became a star offensive rebounder when Gathers left. Lual-Acuil started grabbing more when Motley left. There will naturally be more opportunities for Vital and Clark without Lual-Acuil and Terry Maston grabbing offensive rebounds.
The Bears are likely going to fall some in this category. They’re just not going to be as tall, and the Bears are probably going to play a little differently on offense; there won’t always be a big man close to the hoop when a shot goes up. But the Bears aren’t going to drop into the 100s, unless we enter into some kind of world where another Texas school loses to Kansas in football.
Can Baylor stay healthy?
No question is more important to Baylor’s season. Butler and the other players in line to soak up minutes if Mason can’t go are good players. But they’re not quite where Mason, Clark and Kegler are. Baylor’s going to be a much worse team if any of those guys miss much time.
Predicting injuries is nearly impossible. Sometimes life just keeps betraying us. Mason has missed so much time. Clark has been banged up, and it’s never a fun fact that Kegler has had a major knee procedure. The team is already without Jake Lindsey this season. They really need to catch a break with the three most at risk guys for injury.
Will the Bears shoot way more threes?
I thought Baylor might shoot more threes last season, and then Baylor finished last season 320th in 3-point percentage. So, I can’t be more wrong in this category this season!
Baylor didn’t shoot many threes last season because Maston became their biggest offense late and so many guys didn’t shoot well.
As the data shows (3PR=3P%), Baylor hasn’t been in the top half nationally in percentage of shots taken from three. I think they should have taken more threes some of these seasons. Baylor has to this season. Other than Vital and Clark, 90% of rotation minutes will go to plus 3-point shooters. The Bears need floor spacing to help their players operate. Without much spacing last season, Baylor’s 2-point percentage cratered too:
I think Baylor will attempt their highest percentage of shots from three in team history. That doesn’t mean Baylor is going to be the Houston Rockets or the Golden State Warriors in firing so many triples. But the Bears are going to look different offensively. This team can’t survive playing like they did last year.
Can Baylor hang with big teams?
As we’ve mentioned several times, this team isn’t going to be big. And the Big 12 has plenty of big teams. KSU, WVU and KU will all play two big lineups. Texas and TCU can survive going big too. The Bears are going to be challenged with those units. Luckily there isn’t much of a correlation between Baylor’s height and defense:
I think Baylor’s biggest challenge with those teams isn’t going to be a height task. Dedric Lawson from Kansas might be easier to guard with the quicker Vital than he would be with a taller player. The bigger challenge is going to be defending a league with so many talented players across nearly all positions.
I’d prefer if Baylor had one more plus offensive big man. But plenty of teams have won spacing the floor and not playing two big men. The Bears can do that.
Will Baylor be better at avoiding turnovers?
No problem has consistently plagued Baylor like turning it over. Baylor’s turnover rankings have been catastrophic:
The Bears problems with turnovers are particularly deadly in the Big 12. West Virginia defeated Baylor three times last season. Baylor tried going big. They tried playing small. They went fast, and they went small. Just about everyone handled the ball. And nothing worked. If Baylor had won any of those games, they would have made the NCAA Tournament.
I wouldn’t expect Baylor to be a top 100 team at avoiding turnovers, but this—along with 3-point shooting—is probably the area where Baylor can make the biggest improvement. First, this is a lot of ground to make up. The 240 pound man didn’t win “The Biggest Loser” when that was on NBC every night. The 500 pound guy won. He had way more to lose. Similarly, Baylor has way more to gain. Second, Baylor has more creators. Teams won’t be able to overload the strong side (ball side) as much or count on the Bears coughing it up so often in transition.
This area remains a real concern for Baylor. The team has to improve at not turning it over. They don’t have Motley or someone that is going to be one of the nation’s five best players. But they have a ton of guys that can get to the hoop and create their own shot. Press Virginia will still be a problem. But the old mantra that “If you can hard hedge, you will hard hedge Baylor” should be gone. These aren’t the same Bears.
Will there be chemistry issues with the rotation?
With Mitchell and Macio Teague sitting out as undergraduate transfers, Baylor has 11 scholarship players. Even if Thamba redshirts, or at least accepts that he’s not going to play a ton of minutes, the Bears still have 10 guys battling for time.
Scott Drew and most coaches aren’t thrilled to play 10 guys. Someone is going to drop from the rotation. It’s more likely Baylor has to drop two guys from the rotation than they end up playing 10 during Big 12 play. The 2012 team didn’t play Anthony Jones or Cory Jefferson very much, and those two guys were certainly capable of playing major minutes just about everywhere. That team still stuck together and made the Elite Eight.
Baylor’s been able to survive with concerns about minutes. I trust Drew and the staff will be able to handle this. The 2010 team didn’t keep Nolan Dennis in the rotation, and he was a top 60 recruit. That team held up and made the Elite Eight. If someone becomes a problem —and I don’t expect that after what I’ve heard about how these guys seem to get along much better than some other Baylor teams did—the Bears should be okay moving on. I don’t think this will be an issue, but it’s something a few people might wonder about if the 9th or 10th best player has a big non-conference game against a lesser opponent.
Is this team too young/new?
Baylor has just three players returning who have played for the Bears. Maybe these guys won’t be able to grasp the zone, or if Baylor has to win some close games in a tough Big 12, they might lose as guys make a few bad mistakes because they haven’t mastered Baylor’s system.
I don’t think this is going to be much of an issue. I’d much rather get senior Makai Mason with senior Tristan Clark. But Mason and McClure are seniors. Kegler is three years removed from high school. Vital is old enough to get into Cricket’s.
Plenty of teams have won with transfers or young guys. Iowa State under Fred Hoiberg was Transfer U. Baylor seems to be embracing that same model. Talent wins in college basketball. I’d rather be good and old in college basketball than good and young. But I’d certainly rather be a little more talented and young than worse and old.
Baylor opens on Election Day against Texas Southern. Because this preview is offering lots of takes, we’ll also offer some election predictions: the Democrats will win the House and net 30 seats. The Republicans will gain two Senate seats—Missouri and North Dakota—while only losing in Nevada. That will give them a net gain of one seat. ODB does not endorse political candidates. If you’re wondering though, we would have endorsed George H.W. Bush in 1992.
If you can’t figure out why I didn’t break down Texas Southern, it’s because the Bears are going to win that game. They’ll also win their games against Southern, Prairie View A&M, Nicholls State and New Orleans. Those are all teams ranked 277th or worse on KenPom’s preseason rankings. Baylor is at least a 97% favorite in those contests. Baylor has not lost to a team in that range this decade. This year won’t be different.
If you made it this far, you deserve to see Maston showing up Mo Bamba:
Baylor battles Ole Miss in their first game during the Emerald Coast Classic (though theoretically the games against Southern and Nicholls State in Waco are under the framework of the event). Ole Miss shouldn’t be very good in Kermit Davis’ first season. The Rebels were picked last in the SEC. The Bears win that one.
In the second game, Baylor plays the winner of George Mason-Cincinnati. Cincinnati should win that game. The Bearcats lost quite a bit from last season’s team, but they still are the preseason No. 5 defense in the Torvik Rankings. That physical defense will be tough for Baylor, and I think they fall in the title game. But now that I’ve delivered bad news, here’s a GIF of Lecomte hitting threes to put away Kansas:
Baylor will be favored in two other non-conference games. They’ll play a good South Dakota team in the Ferrell Center. Baylor has a talent advantage, and they won’t have to play on the road. I think the Bears win that one. I also think Baylor will beat Stephen F. Austin. That’s another top 150 KenPom opponent. Baylor is likely to only be about a 75% favorite to win both those games. 25% probability events happen all the time, so nothing is guaranteed.
The Bears head to Wichita State and Arizona. Both of those teams are relatively down this season. The Shockers lost all of their top rotation players, except Markis McDuffie. Arizona lost all of their best players. The Wildcats had a much better recruiting class than the Shockers, but their not going to be great. I think Baylor finds a way to win both games. These are listed coin flip games on KenPom, but I think both of these teams are going to be worse than he has them.
Baylor will be a slight favorite against two other Power Five opponents. Baylor hosts Oregon on December 21st at the Ferrell Center. Bol Bol is a possible top five pick, and the Ducks return a few big pieces from last year. But that team doesn’t strike me as an Elite Eight quality team, and Baylor should be favored in most home games against opponents outside that window. The Bears also host Alabama in the Big 12-SEC Challenge. The Crimson Tide are 51st on KenPom. Their offense struggled last season. Kira Lewis is going to be very good, but he’s not going to be as good as Collin Sexton. I think Baylor wins this one too.
That would make Baylor 12-1 in the non-conference. They’d have some solid wins. Baylor has a pretty good non-conference schedule. There are certainly some excellent brands. Unfortunately for Baylor’s strength of schedule, Wichita State, Arizona, SFA, Cincinnati and Oregon are all weaker than they’ve been recently. Several of those games will count as Quadrant 1 victories, but they won’t be the best wins under the new metric introduced by the NCAA Selection Committee. Still, despite not making it with an 8-10 conference record last season, I think 8-10 in the Big 12 with a 12-1 non-conference record would put Baylor in the field.
We’ll break these down by group. Baylor opens the Big 12 schedule with TCU. And I think the Frogs are going to be very good. They add one of the best junior college players in Yuat Alok. With how bad Vlad Brodziansky was on defense, I think Alok will improve the team. The Frogs return Alex Robinson, Jaylen Fisher and Desmond Bane. I’ll say Baylor splits those games. Jamie Dixon has sure turned around that program, and it would be a welcome result to split the series this year.
Baylor then hosts Iowa State. I’m way less high on the Cyclones than some of the preseason rankings. KenPom has them 25th and some people think this could be the Big 12’s second best team. I don’t think their new transfers boost this team enough. Iowa State finished 13-18 last season. Steve Prohm is one heck of a coach, and Lindell Wigginton might be the league’s best guard. But I think Baylor doesn’t have a bad day in Ames, and as they have a few times recently, they grab a win. Baylor sweeps Iowa State.
Kansas comes to Waco on January 12th. I agree with the preseason rankings that have the Jayhawks ranked No. 1. Lawson might be the country’s best player. The Jayhawks have two top 10 recruits in Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson. Kansas shot poorly in Waco, and if there’s a weakness for this team, it’s shooting. But Kansas is insanely deep and talented. This team is a giant favorite to win the league, and anything short of a Final Four would be a massive disappointment. I also fear how Baylor will defend both Lawson and Udoka Azubuike in the pick-and-roll. Given that, I have Kansas sweeping the Bears:
Baylor then travels to Stillwater. Oklahoma State lost most of their best players, and they aren’t recruiting like Kansas. This team isn’t bad. They’re still ranked 62nd to start the year on KenPom. But I think that’s a little high. That team weirdly swept Kansas last season. I don’t think they’ll be that kind of team again. I have Baylor sweeping Oklahoma State.
Texas Tech comes to Waco after that. I am lower on the Red Raiders than the consensus. Keenan Evans, Zhaire Smith and Zach Smith are quite the trio to lose. They’ve added a big transfer, and Chris Beard needs to get out of Lubbock because the man sure is a problem to have recruiting Texas. Despite saying I’m lower on Texas Tech, this is still going to be a good team. The Red Raiders absolutely crushed the Bears in Lubbock. This won’t be an easy team to split with. But Baylor did that last year. I think they do it again.
Baylor then travels to Morgantown just two days later. Oh boy. I think Baylor will be much better at avoiding turnovers, but West Virginia is still going to be a problem. Jevon Carter is gone, but the Mountaineers just plug in dudes. Konate is an absolute beast. I think Baylor gets swept by the Mountaineers because this man is the best shot blocker in college hoops:
Oklahoma is Baylor’s next Big 12 opponent. Trae Young, thank God, is not playing again. He was the country’s best player last season, despite people overreacting to a late recession by the Sooners’ guard. It was insane he didn’t win Big 12 POY. Baylor should sweep the Sooners. Let’s remember the Sooners from the times Young torched TCU, not the time he went wild and stopped a Baylor team that made 15 threes from winning in Norman:
Baylor-Texas finally happens on February 6th. Dylan Osetkowski is skinnier and supposedly shooting better. Kerwin Roach and Matt Coleman are back. Jericho Sims feels close to breaking out. And we all hope Andrew Jones can play again. I think Texas is a little overrated. Bamba is gone, and I don’t think their new guys will make up for him. They’re largely running it back with a mediocre team. This squad should make the NCAA Tournament, but I’m not a big Shaka Smart guy. I think Baylor splits this series.
The Bears play Kansas State on February 9th. The Wildcats are a tough team to project. They return every major piece from last season’s Elite Eight team. But until they knocked off TCU in overtime in the Big 12 Tournament, they didn’t beat a team in the top half of the Big 12 or a top 25 squad. This team also might face the old “Disease of More” as guys like Barry Brown, Xavier Sneed and Dean Wade battle to establish position. I think Kansas State will finish in the top 15 and third in the Big 12. But I think Baylor will manage to win one game against Kansas State. The Bears struggled to defend Wade lasts season, and they were handled pretty easily both times. Kansas State’s defense likes to have the weak side defender tag the roller on pick-and-rolls. That led to a giant day for Nuni Omot in Manhattan last season, and I think with a better 3-point shooting team, Baylor feasts on weak side 3-point shots and splits the series with Kansas State:
That puts Baylor at 10-8 in the Big 12. I have the Bears losing in the Big 12 semi-finals, which would leave Baylor with a final record of 23-10. I think that puts the Bears into the field as a No. 6 seed.
I have the Bears advancing to the Sweet 16. This team can give opponents unique looks, and we’ve all seen Mason win a game in the NCAA Tournament.
This Baylor team certainly doesn’t have many folks predicting much. They’re picked 9th in the Big 12, and most expect Baylor to miss the dance. But Baylor’s found a way to win when doubted. The 2010 team was picked 10th in the conference and was a bad charge call against Duke from making the Final Four. The 2017 team didn’t receive a preseason top 25 vote. They earned a No. 1 ranking.
There’s no guarantee for how this season goes. Mason could get hurt. Maybe Clark or Kegler miss significant time too. And maybe this group just doesn’t quite put it together and goes into the tank.
I’m optimistic about this squad. They’ve got experienced guys and quality shooters. They have an excellent coaching staff and a big man that’s ready to break out. Things always end differently than we expect, but I expect things to end well. Plenty of people don’t believe in this squad. I do.
Source: Our Daily Bears