Welcome to the Plus/Minus, your semi-periodical assessment of Baylor men's basketball. The Plus/Minus is where we ask what works (plus) and what doesn't (minus). We will look at individual games, as well as season trends to help us figure out the answers to those questions. Each post we will consider three pluses, three minuses, and one plus/minus when it could go either way.
Baylor has concluded it's non-conference schedule. Scott Drew and the Bears did a pretty great job handling a tough slate of games, losing only to the current #2 Syracuse Orange and beating the likes of Colorado, Kentucky, and a plucky Dayton team. Not bad! Baylor has come out ranked #9 in the AP poll and come Monday will likely be the highest ranked Big 12 team heading into its conference opening game at Iowa State and its Hilton Magic. The Big 12 will be grueling this season. Four schools are capable of winning the conference title, with varying degrees of likelihood: Baylor, Kansas, Oklahoma State, and Iowa State. Another four, while unlikely to compete at the top, can all play the role of spoiler: Kansas State (who already upset OkState on Saturday in the Octagon of Doom), Texas, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. That leaves only two teams that should be guaranteed wins for those four top teams, TCU and Texas Tech, and we all know how that worked out for Kansas last season. Gird up your loins, Baylor Faithful. It could get real bumpy real quick.
Let's get to the plus/minus.
Gathers gathering gatherables
Rico is just about everyone's favorite Baylor Bear, and it's easy to understand why. I mean, look at his enthusiasm! His infectious energy and intensity, paired with a body hand-sculpted by the football gods but repurposed by the less concussion prone gods of basketball, generate the image of a classic blue collar player mixed with a golem. I'm not sure the basketball gods fully realize the sort of horror they have unleashed on the hardwood.
Here's a stat for you: since Sports-Reference began tracking offensive rebounding percentage in 2009, no one has a higher career percentage than Gathers. Not even Kenneth Faried, the Manimal himself. So far this season, Gathers has collected a nation leading 23.5% of available offensive rebounds when he is on the floor. The next highest percentage on the team belongs to Cory Jefferson, who has an ORB% of 10.5%. Think about that for a little bit. Just let it soak in. Ready for the real kicker? Cory Jefferson, who is second on the team in defensive rebounding percentage, has a DRB% of 23%. That's right, Gathers nabs offensive rebounds at a higher clip than anyone else on the team collects much more attainable defensive rebounds. That's insane. Oh, and he grabs defensive rebounds at an even higher rate of 24.3%. The extra possessions he provides for this team are invaluable.
Besides rebounds, Gathers has another favorite collectable: fouls. When he gets an offensive rebound under the basket, Gathers tends to go right back up with the ball. His aggressiveness almost invariably leads to the opposing team committing a foul to prevent him from getting the easy bucket. Gather's shoots 10.9 free throws per 40 minutes, the highest count on the team. Per game, Gathers is 2nd on the team in free throw attempts with 5.1, behind only Cory Jefferson's 6.2, despite averaging 9 fewer minutes per game. Even if Gathers has the free throw shooting prowess of Shaquille O'Neal, these fouls add up quickly, helping Baylor to get into the bonus early and forcing opposing teams to bench their big guys with foul trouble.
If Gather's can ever get his offensive game up to an acceptable level, he could become one of the most valuable players not just off the bench but in the entire country.
Baylor has one of the better schedules in all of college basketball. As of January 5th, two days before the game at Ames, Baylor owns the #16 RPI, the NCAA's metric for determining likely candidates for the Tournament. In the non-conference portion of the schedule, Baylor played three games against top 50 RPI teams and went 2-1 in those match-ups. Against teams ranked 51-100 in RPI, Baylor is a perfect 4-0. Translation: The Bears have been competitive against teams likely to make the tournament and have beaten the teams they should. That's a pretty good resume on its own. Baylor's performance thus far will be a huge boon in being selected for the Tourney.
Baylor's conference schedule provides an even greater opportunity for the Bears to make themselves an attractive Tourney team. The Big 12 is the #1 conference in terms of RPI. As of now, Baylor has eight games scheduled against RPI top 25 teams: Kansas (1), Iowa State (3), Oklahoma State (15) and Oklahoma (22). Three other schools (Texas, Kansas State, and West Virginia) are in the RPI top 100. That is one hellacious schedule. If Baylor can manage to come out of conference play without getting too mangled, they've got a good shot at a top 10 seeding in March. Currently, Joe Lunardi projects Baylor as a 3 seed out of the west. If I had to guess right now, I'd say Baylor will receive a 7 or 8 seed after limping through what looks to be the toughest conference in basketball. Only time will tell, and this Baylor team certainly has the talent and opportunity to earn a top 3 seed.
This might surprise you, but Baylor is actually the most experienced team in the Big 12 this year, according to StatSheet. No other Big 12 team plays its upperclassmen more minutes than the Bears. This experience manifests itself in various ways.
First, Baylor's defense is greatly benefited by its experience, especially when it plays a zone. Defense in basketball is as much about intelligence and recognition as it is about athletic ability. Consider, for example, the defensive issues Kansas and Kentucky have faced at times. Past Bill Self teams have been identifiable by their feisty defense, yet, with one of the most athletic teams in the country that includes perhaps the best perimeter defender (Wiggins) and perhaps the best rim protector (Embiid), Kansas has really struggled to stop opposing teams from consistently scoring or drawing fouls. Those issues come from lack of experience. Baylor will have to lean on its defense if it has a chance to make it through conference play, and it can do so partly because of the experience of the players in the system.
Experience also provides Baylor with an advantage over some of the younger teams in the country, even if those teams have more talent. Consider this quote from Gathers following the win over Kentucky early in December:
Baylor's Gathers: "When you’re playing a bunch of freshmen on the court, it’s all about thinking. We basically out-thought them today."— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_CJ) December 7, 2013
He's exactly right. Young teams tend to have difficulty managing their emotions during a game. They can become flustered as things start to slip away, allowing one mistake to lead to the next. Look no further than KU, one of the country's youngest teams, allowing Florida, one of the country's most experienced teams, to go on a 23-0 run in the first half of their game. Baylor's experience permitted that big second half comeback against Dayton in Maui, and it was the difference against Kentucky. The Big 12 is a relatively young conference this season, and Baylor's experience might be its biggest edge.
Heslip against athleticism
I'm getting worried about Heslip. In the game against Oral Roberts, Heslip would run around about 2 million screens, curl around onto the wing from the baseline, catch the ball, and be only a single step ahead of his defender. Who plays for Oral Roberts. One step. He was shooting the ball before he could even turn his body fully towards the basket just to get a clean look. He was making them, sure, but it's still worrisome.
Against the three most athletic teams Baylor has faced this season (Kentucky, Syracuse, and Colorado) Heslip managed to get off just 15 total shots. Against Kentucky? Two shots. Two stinking shots. No matter how many off-ball screens he ran through, Heslip simply could not separate himself from the uber-athletic Kentucky defenders. I'm not even going to touch on the defensive liability he poses.
The Kentucky game was just one game, and one that Baylor won, but Heslip's lack of athleticism is going to make it tough for him to get a considerable amount of floor time and even tougher to be productive in those minutes. The kid is a dead-eye shooter, no doubt, and the amount of attention defenses have to pay him is helpful for spacing the floor. Thus far in the season, however, Heslip has been as effective as a decoy as he has been as a viable weapon.
The Austin-Jefferson duo
Unfortunately, I don't have any stats to back this up, but watching the Bears so far this season, Jefferson and Austin are having a tough time sharing the floor.
This half of Isaiah Austin is just more weird proof that he and Cory Jefferson for some reason are playing better without the other.— BaylorScout Tim (@TimWatkins04) December 31, 2013
That tweet was during the Oral Roberts game, and I tend to agree. Austin and Jefferson are just playing better without one another right now, and it's hard to pinpoint the reason. Maybe their style of play overlaps too much. Both are going to the post more consistently this season, and although Jefferson has done a bit more pick-and-pop recently, both primarily roll to the basket after setting a screen up top. Still, you'd think they'd be able to sort things out a little better than they have, despite having similar games.
Another possible reason, one that I'm particularly fond of, is that they each benefit from the presence of Gathers. With him on the floor, Austin and Jefferson can focus more on scoring and playmaking, letting Gathers do most of the dirty work collecting rebounds and loose balls. When they share the floor, the hierarchy is tougher to figure out on the offensive end. When Gathers is on the floor, however, Jefferson and Austin each become the obvious primary front court scorer. Of course, this is all speculation, as I don't have access to any sort of data that tracks the production of two man units. Things seem to go better when Gathers subs in for one or the other, though, and its tough to tell if that has more to do with the Austin/Jefferson pairing or Gathers himself.
"Let him get his"
If you look at some of Baylor's closer games of the season, you can spot an interesting trend. In the six games that have been decided by ten points or less, Baylor has allowed a single player to score 20 or more points four times. This includes the loss to Syracuse, in which C. J. Fair scored 24. In the other two games, Baylor allowed three different players to score in the double digits.
Maybe this doesn't mean much. After all, in the game against Chaminade, Baylor allowed Varidel to score 42 and still won by 16. And maybe it's just common sense that this sort of thing would happen. If someone plays well for each team, it's probably going to be close. It is still a bit worrisome, however, that players from Northwestern State, Chaminade, and Louisiana Lafayette have been able to go off against Baylor this season to keep their teams in the game for at least stretches, if not the whole game. Kansas, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, and Oklahoma each have players that could go off for thirty points on any given night. Can Baylor manage to suppress those scorers, or will they opt to allow those players to dominate and limit the damage done by the rest of the team? Based on what we've seen thus far, Baylor might be better off making the supporting cast step up while the Smarts and Wigginses get smothered.
So far this season, Baylor has gotten inconsistent play from what was supposed to be the deepest spot on the roster. Royce O'Neale, Taurean Waller-Prince, and Ish Wainwright have each had their share of ups and downs. For O'Neale, it has mostly been up. He has been extraordinarily efficient shooting the ball (he leads the team in effective field goal percentage at .725), but he has also turned the ball over 26.8% of the time when he has the ball, second highest on the team. He might be Baylor's most consistent wing defender, and he will get the toughest assignments on defense whenever Baylor plays man-to-man.
Wainwright has had a rough start to his freshman season. He has the highest turnover percentage on the team, 35.8%(!!), and he is shooting the ball below 45% from the field, lowest on the team. He has seen his starting spot assumed by O'Neale, and he just doesn't seem to have any confidence. I was able to attend the game against Savannah State, and in person it becomes very clear that Wainwright wants nothing to do with the basketball. He passed up open shots, and he picked up his dribble in the backcourt at even the hint of pressure from a 5' 10" guard whom he should easily be able to dribble around. I understand having jitters, and his slow start has definitely shaken his confidence, but games against teams like Savannah State should be his opportunity to feel things out, gain some confidence, and be more assertive, especially once the game is clearly in hand. Instead, I saw Waintwright make one good move all game. Otherwise, he played scared. Unless he can get his head straight, he is going to continue to see his minutes taken by other guys as Baylor gets deeper into its conference schedule.
Then there's Prince, who is at the other extreme. Prince is a hyper-aggressive, downhill scorer who is also able to mix in a surprisingly effective mid-range jump shot. Whenever the ball is in his hands, he is trying to beat his man off the dribble to either score at the basket or draw the foul. Somehow, this style of play has not led to very many turnovers. The shot either goes up or the defender reaches in and commits the foul. Where Prince does get in trouble is fouls. He's usually good for one or two offensive fouls a game, and he tends to reach on defense instead of moving his feet. He's also a black hole, with the highest usage rate out of all of Baylor's perimeter players. It should also be noted that his best games have come against the weakest competition Baylor has faced this season. His erratic style of play tends to make him less effective against more disciplined, more talented opponents. Essentially, Prince is the scorer's version of Gathers -- tons of energy off the bench devoted to a single aspect of the game.
All three of these long-armed players are devastating in Scott Drew's zone. Baylor greatly benefits from their presence on the floor, but they need to be more consistent and reliable in order to be out there. If they can do that, Baylor could be one of the most formidable perimeter defenses in the country.
We have yet another video of a former Baylor Bear winning at life. While Perry Jones III is starting to see an uptick in minutes and responsibility for the OKC Thunder, it's really off the court where he is excelling: