After making the NCAA Tournament for a school record fourth consecutive season, the basketball team opens the season ranked No. 24 and poised to extend that streak.
The Bears face the daunting task of replacing Johnathan Motley—perhaps the best player in school history. Baylor also needs to replace Ish Wainright—their reliable lock-down defender and masterful passer.
We’ll look at the players that should see the court, review some big questions and project the results of the season. Before last season, I guessed Baylor would finish second in the Big 12 and lose in the Sweet 16. The Bears ended up tied for second in the Big 12 and lost in the Sweet 16. That means I’m due to be wrong about this season.
Manu Lecomte- The Bear’s senior leader and floor general. He hit over 40% of his threes last season, and the Bears will need him to keep up that pace while taking more shots with Motley gone. He ranked in the 90th percentile as a defender, per Synergy.
At his best, Lecomte is a knock-down shooter who is one of the best point guards in the conference. He carried Baylor to a win over USC in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament. If he misses a long stretch of games, the Bear’s season will be in jeopardy.
If Lecomte matches his performance from last year, the Bears should easily be in the tournament. But if the Bears believe they’re at least the second best team in the conference, then Lecomte needs to be a real threat to Devonte Graham and Jevon Carter for Big 12 Player of the Year.
Jo Lual-Acuil- He ranked in the top 300 in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate. In route to an All-Big 12 defensive selection, he ranked 17th in the country in block rate, per KenPom. His defense should be a big strength for the Bears.
The Bears need him to be a bigger offensive weapon. He hit 8-of-24 3-point shots last season. With Motley gone, I think the Bears will keep him in the post quite a bit. But he’s a good roll man, and the Bears will need him to contribute like this consistently:
Terry Maston- There may be no player that will go farther in determining Baylor’s success this season. Maston has been brilliant in the past. He dominated Texas Tech and New Mexico State. But his defense has been abysmal—ranking in the 10th percentile last season, per Synergy.
If Maston can add 3-point range and become a below average defender, instead of a disastrous defender, the Bears will have a clear path to a solid leap. If he plays like he did last season, then the Bears could be a bubble team.
Maston is in his last year with the program. His natural talent and basketball IQ are super high. His effort when his shot doesn’t fall needs to improve.
Nuni Omot- An excellent screen setter and at 6-foot-9, he can play both small forward and power forward. He needs to improve his 3-point shooting. He shot just 33% last season. Defenses will likely leave him some space early in the season. He needs to make them pay.
Omot has worked hard this off-season, and he should be an improved player. If he’s shooting 38% from deep and playing 25 minutes a night, then the Bears will be on their way to earning a top five seed in the dance.
King McClure- After health issues the last two off-seasons, McClure finally has had a full summer to improve. Al Freeman has left for North Carolina State, and Chuck Mitchell bizarrely decided to transfer after the start of the school year. That leaves McClure needing to provide consistent scoring at shooting guard while playing heavy minutes.
McClure needs to do a better job not turning it over—his turnover rate ballooned by 6% from his freshman to sophomore season. The Bear’s KenPom offense dropped to 23rd nationally—the second worst mark they’ve had this decade. Turnovers were a major culprit, and McClure can’t turn it over on nearly 20% of his possessions.
This is the time McClure should make a major move. He was a top 60 national recruit, and he works hard. He’s a naturally gifted player with a nice shooting stroke. He’ll have a few nights where he’s held to single digits, but he should win a game or two this season with a big scoring outburst.
Jake Lindsey- He’ll be asked to fill several roles this season. With Wainright gone, he should begin the season playing small forward. At 6-foot-5, he has the size to defend some of the Big 12’s bigger wings, but he also has the quickness to slide over and match-up with guards.
If the Bear’s offense stalls, Lindsey will likely see major minutes at point guard. With Mitchell gone, he’s easily slotted to backup Lecomte. But the Bear’s offense was often at its best last season when Lecomte ran around screens. Lindsey improved as a ball handler and has orchestrated excellent opportunities for Maston.
Baylor will want Lindsey to be more of a Royce O’Neale guy than an Ish Wainright guy. To get the most out of him for the team, they need him to handle the ball, play solid defense—his role does not require spectacular defense—and drain more threes than he did last season.
Mark Vital- He’ll likely get 10-15 minutes a game. He’s an insane athlete that Baylor will try to get plays near the hoop.
Vital needs to improve his jump shooting. If he can’t, the Bears can still get valuable defensive play from him in some small ball lineups where he shifts to power forward. He’s athletic, strong and despite being fairly old, still just a red-shirt freshman.
After redshirting last year, Mark Vital is ready to fly. pic.twitter.com/5iprK8gEIN— Baylor Basketball (@BaylorMBB) October 30, 2017
If Vital never develops as a shooter, he should still end up a valuable player. In a perfect world, he’ll be an energetic guy off the bench but not a required rotation piece in the biggest games.
Tyson Jolly- With health problems, Jolly should be out for the non-conference slate. But he is tentatively scheduled to return for Big 12 play. That will be an important gain for the Bears.
Jolly has an incredible wingspan and can handle the ball. He’ll be a big addition against some Big 12 teams that will try and press the Bears.
Tristan Clark- He was the Texas 6A Player of the Year last season. A few around the program rave that he’s the most ready freshman big man the Bears have ever had.
He’ll need to add strength, and the grind of playing in the Big 12 will be a challenge for a true freshman. But he can hit jump shots, rebound and defend. He’s not going to play 30 minutes a night, but the 15-20 minutes he earns will showcase why he may end up leaving early for the draft after his sophomore or junior year.
Can Baylor maintain a top 20 defense?
The Bears had the best defense of the Scott Drew era, which propelled them to a Sweet 16 finish and No. 1 ranking in January.
The case for Baylor dropping from that mark is that Wainright and Motley were excellent defenders, and their replacements will not be as good. Wainright was a monster on defense, and he never shied away from selling out for every play:
The case for Baylor staying there is that Lecomte, Lindsey and McClure are all above average to great defenders. With another year to get better, the Bears should see improvement from their back-court. Omot is a plus defender and Lual-Acuil can block with the best of them. If Maston can just become an average defender, then the Bears will have a shot to stay in the top 20.
My guess is that Baylor ends up around 30th in adjusted defense. That’s fourteen sports worse than last year. Wainright is going to be sorely missed as a defender, and making up for him by committee won’t quite be enough.
Will the Bears solve their turnover woes?
From 2009 to 2017, the Bears have had a top 20 KenPom offense every season except the disastrous 2011 campaign and last year. They were 23rd last season.
Baylor’s ceiling was hampered by turnovers. West Virginia destroyed the Bears in Morgantown by turning them over 29 times. South Carolina and teams that could pressure Baylor made their lives too difficult.
Motley and Wainright—for all their incredible strengths—turned it over a lot. The Bears may not hit as many shots without those two, but they might take more shots because they won’t turn it over as often. Baylor should be significantly better at avoiding offensive turnovers this season.
Will Baylor once again be a top five offensive rebounding team?
The Bears have been top five nationally in offensive rebounding the last four seasons. In an era where so many teams have all or nearly all of their players drop back to avoid giving up transition points, the Bears continue to crash the glass. They gathered nearly 40% of their missed shots last season.
Baylor’s replacing Motley, who was a fantastic offensive rebounder. But the Bears have replaced Cory Jefferson, Isaiah Austin and Rico Gathers. They’ve kept gathering offensive boards. Maston and Lual-Acuil should grab their share this season. I’d bet on Baylor staying in the top five in this category. But a major drop in this area would be fatal for the team’s hopes.
Does Baylor start shooting more 3-point shots?
The Rockets attempted 32 3-pointers in the 1st half vs the Hornets. That is the most in a single half in NBA history. pic.twitter.com/Bciw6U6f1V— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 28, 2017
In the NBA, nearly every team is taking more 3-point shots. The shot is worth more points, and players have gotten much better at making them than they were even 10 years ago.
The Bears attempted a 3-point shot 33% of the time last season. That ranked 257th nationally. With Motley and Lual-Acuil down low, and Wainright struggling to find his range from deep, last season’s team did not need to fire a million threes to be good.
The 2017-2018 Bears should attempt more 3-point shots. Lindsey is a better 3-point shooter than Wainright, and Maston should be able to extend his range from 18 feet to behind the arc.
Baylor’s going to play two big men a lot, and the Bears will crash the offensive glass. They’re not going to have Lual-Acuil 22 feet from the hoop firing shots too often. But the Bears will probably attempt a few more threes a game this season.
Do the Bears have the depth to compete in the Big 12?
Baylor returns six guys who played major minutes last season. Vital, Jolly and Clark have not played a second of college basketball. They’re going to have to play quite a bit.
The depth problem could be a major issue if Baylor gets in foul trouble. This does not strike me as much different than most seasons—Baylor fell apart in Lubbock after Lecomte fouled out last season.
Few major college teams can sustain a major injury or foul trouble for their best player. The Bears depth will make it so they are not an exception. But I don’t think the Bears are going to lose many games that they’d win if they had a ninth guy who played at the level someone would expect from the 9th best player on a top 25 team. The Bears will win and lose based on how their top players perform.
Are the Bears doomed in crunch time without guys capable of creating their own shot?
I haven’t heard a ton of people voice this opinion yet, but in the Big 12, most games are fairly close. Before too long, people are going to say the Bear’s ceiling is limited because of this. Or it might be voiced as, “Baylor only has one guy who can create his own shot.”
Most teams do not have a ton of guys that can create their own shot. In modern college basketball, most teams are not isolating their best scorer and asking him to take the defense off the dribble. Even in crunch-time, most offenses run a set to get their best player open.
Lecomte should be able to create opportunities for the Bears. He was money late against Iowa State and USC. If the Bears need a shot to win, he’ll be the man they call:
Seven of Baylor’s first 11 non-conference games are against teams that begin the season ranked 249th or lower on KenPom. The Bears should win all of those games. The 2014 Bears made the Sweet 16, and they needed overtime to beat Northwestern State. Nothing is guaranteed in non-conference life. But the Bears should win all seven of those games.
The Bears are in a four team tournament in Kansas City the week of Thanksgiving. Baylor is guaranteed to play Wisconsin in game one, and then they’ll play either Creighton or UCLA in game two. Wisconsin returns Ethan Happ—a man who was one of the 20 best player in the country last season, and he did that without a jump shot. But the Badgers have to replace so many players this season. The Bears could lose this game, but I think they’ll win it.
In the second game, Baylor should be favored against either UCLA or Creighton. UCLA lost nearly everyone from last season’s Lonzo Ball experience. Creighton has Marcus Foster back (wild that he was a major nuisance for the 2014 Baylor Bears back when he was a Wildcat). I think Baylor will win both games and the tournament.
The Xavier game is going to be incredibly difficult. The Musketeers made the Elite Eight last year, and they return Trevon Blueitt, a talented 6-foot-6 man that can do about anything. Baylor won this game last season, with Lecomte doing about everything well, and Lindsey finding Maston:
I think Xavier will beat Baylor. The Musketeers aren’t as high on KenPom as they are on other rankings, but winning at Xavier will be a huge challenge. If the Bears lose this game, it should have little impact on their tournament resume.
Baylor hosts Wichita State on December 2nd. For SB Nation, I argued Wichita State should be the preseason No. 1 team. The Shockers are also my pick to win the national championship. I reserve the right to change this pick because Markis McDuffie—the Shockers second best player—is likely out. And Landry Shamet, the Shockers best player, should be playing. Both suffered off-season injuries. Wichita State’s struggled some early in the season, but with the Shockers returning five starters, I think they’ll win a close one over Baylor. Shamet will simply be too much:
The Bears also have to travel to Gainesville for the Big 12-SEC Challenge. The Gators look like the best team in the SEC, though some folks believe Texas A&M is going to be a lot better or think that Kentucky will find a way to win the league. Florida was not a great defensive rebounding team, but they did a good job turning opponents over. The Bears will also play this game after going to Kansas, then they turn around and play a home game on Monday against Kansas State. The Jayhawks are going to be phenomenal, and the Wildcats will be uniquely physical. That’s a week stretch where the Bears could be too spent to beat a Florida team that might be a little bit better than them.
That leaves Baylor 10-3 in the non-conference. That’s a good mark with Wichita State, Xavier, Florida, Wisconsin and the UCLA-Creighton opponent. Those are five tournament teams. Going 2-3 in those games should mean the Bears would only need to go 8-10 to feel very safe about making the NCAA Tournament. Anything more would be a quality seeding boost.
Baylor is projected to finish anywhere from 2nd to 8th. The Big 12 is once again the top KenPom league. We’ll run through each opponent.
The Bears are probably going to get swept by the Jayhawks. Kansas returns several major pieces, and the preseason player of the year in Devonte Graham. Malik Newman is eligible after transferring from Mississippi State, and he was fantastic in Kansas’ trip to Italy. The Hawks have some front-court depth issues, but they have the league’s most talented roster and have an astronomical home-court advantage. Baylor played Kansas close twice last season, and Maston has some opportunities with how the Jayhawks defend pick-and-rolls:
Kansas has a roster that’s just a little too good. I have the Jayhawks as a preseason Final Four team, and after not making it that far in the tournament since 2012, anything less than that will be a disappointment for most Kansas fans. If the Bears have a good shooting day in Waco, they’re good enough to beat Kansans. But the Bears are going to be underdogs in both games.
West Virginia will be an interesting challenge for the Bears. They blew Baylor out in Morgantown, but the Bears won pretty easily in Waco (without Lecomte). I think the Bears best bet to beat West Virginia is to play small and get more ball handlers on the court. The Bears made a superb run with Maston at center against USC. I’d like to see that smaller lineup do some work against the Mountaineers:
I think Baylor splits with West Virginia. The Mountaineers will force quite a few turnovers, and it’s reasonable to fear the Bears will get swept. But Nathan Adrian will be a bigger loss for West Virginia than many think. Bob Huggins has replaced quite a few guys and kept his system humming. He should finish second or third in the league again, but they’ll be some separation from Kansas to West Virginia.
Baylor has not lost to TCU in basketball since the Frogs joined the Big 12. That will be a difficult streak to maintain. TCU returns all five starters from last season’s NIT team, and the Bears nearly lost in Fort Worth last year. The Frogs were ranked 50th on defense last season. McClure had 13 points on six shots in his lone game against them last season.
I have the Bears splitting the season series. TCU is experienced and has talented players. Kansas is probably the only team that will sweep the Frogs. Jamie Dixon has the Frogs on the right track. The Frogs might drop a game or two they shouldn’t, but they’ll be in the NCAA Tournament.
Texas is picked to finish fourth in the Big 12 because some people forgot last season happened. The Longhorns had the 177th ranked KenPom offense. They add Matt Coleman, a 4-star point guard and can move Andrew Jones to shooting guard. Some believe that addition, coupled with Mo Bamba—a possible top five pick in the NBA Draft—means the Longhorns are a lock to make it back to the tournament. I’m not sold yet. Texas finished 21st defensively last year. Bamba could push them into the top 10. But this was an 11-22 team last year. Jarrett Allen was a great offensive big man. Adding Coleman and Bamba isn’t going to make this a top 50 offense. I think the Longhorns make the dance, but they’re closer to not making it than making the second weekend. I have Baylor sweeping Texas, and Omot making a few of these:
Oklahoma is a difficult team to predict. Lon Kruger is an awesome coach, and they’ve added 5-star point guard Trae Young. The Bears crushed Oklahoma early in conference play in Norman, and then won a tough battle in Waco. The Bears grabbed 38% of their misses in Waco and over 47% in Norman. The Sooners struggle with the Bear’s size:
Oklahoma should be much better this season. But the Bears just match-up well. I think they’ll sweep the Sooners.
Texas Tech might be the most underrated Big 12 team. They return nearly everyone, and they lost a lot of close games last year. The Red Raiders open the season 33rd on KenPom, and that seems a little low to me. Tech has big physical players at every position. They’re a weird team for the Bears. I think Baylor splits the series.
Kansas State is once again in the unending Bruce Weber limbo. He holds his job. He doesn’t seem like he’s ever going to be the guy to get Kansas State back to a top five seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats have to replace Wesley Iwundu. Dean Wade and Barry Brown should be solid players. Manhattan is a tough place to play, and the Wildcats are a bubble team. That should mean a series split.
Iowa State should be pretty bad. Monte Morris, Matt Thomas, Naz Long and Deonte Burton are gone. Solomon Young is back, and Wendell Liggington is a top 50 recruit. With the officiating at Hilton, and maybe the Bears will have some bad luck on a call or two again and lose a game:
The Bears should sweep Iowa State though. The Cyclones lost so much. Steve Prohm is an excellent coach, and Iowa State should be back next year. This year, Baylor is much better and sweeps the series.
Oklahoma State is at risk of their season spiraling out of control. Brad Underwood left for Illinois. They’re in the first year under Mike Boynton. He has to deal with the loss of Jawun Evans and Phil Forte. On top of that, he had to fire Lamont Evans as an assistant coach after he was indicted by the FBI. That cloud will hang over the program all season. Baylor should sweep the Cowboys.
That puts Baylor at 12-6 in the Big 12 (losses to KU (x2), WVU, TCU, Texas Tech and Kansas State. I think Kansas will go 16-2, and West Virginian will finish 13-5. Baylor would finish third in the conference and have some separation from the rest of the league. The Big 12 should be the No. 1 ranked KenPom conference and will likely be seen as either the best or second best conference nationally.
In the Big 12 tournament, I have Baylor losing to West Virginia in the semi-finals. Baylor would be 23-10 entering the NCAA Tournament. The Bears would lack some of the great wins from last season, but they’d have a bevy of RPI and KenPom top 50 wins. I think that would put the Bears into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 4 seed.
I think the Bears will win their first tournament game, but unfortunately, I have them falling in the round of 32. Predicting a single elimination tournament is difficult. My fear is that the Bears will meet an American or Big East team that is underseeded and can turn them over a bunch. Hopefully I’m wrong.
Baylor had never made the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons until 2015. They’ve now made it to four in a row. Scott Drew really has completed what might be the greatest (re)building job in the history of college sports.
The Bears have real weaknesses. They’re tasked with replacing the best player in school history and their glue guy/lock-down defender. Missing the tournament with those kinds of losses wouldn’t be shocking to some.
Baylor has real strengths too. They’re a fantastic offensive rebounding team and should be much improved from 3-point range. They also return many strong defenders from last season’s team that finished 16th in total defense. They’ll be a team that can beat anyone.
Baylor basketball has been difficult to forecast. The team received zero top 25 votes last season, but they advanced all the way to the top of the rankings. It’s possible to look at this team and think they’re closer to falling out of the top 25 than reaching a top spot again. But they return too much to fall too far. Regardless of where or how this season ends, it should once again be a joy to follow.