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Baylor Basketball Preview: The Return of the Awesome Play?

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Mark Vital should help Baylor score out of a popular set

NCAA Basketball: Texas Tech at Baylor Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

For the second time this decade, Baylor did not have a top 25 KenPom offense. The Bears went from 23rd to 62nd last season. And with Manu Lecomte, Terry Maston, Nuni Omot and Jo Lual-Acuil gone, it’s fair to wonder if the Bears might regress even further.

Although one play can’t sum up Baylor’s season, for much of the season, the 2018 Bears couldn’t run the awesome play with near the consistency they did in 2017. And their inability to run that play hurt their ability to generate easy buckets.

Before diving into what went wrong, let’s lay out the play.

The awesome play has the small forward run around a big man and collect a pass on the right wing. The small forward then looks for a big man that receives a rip screen from a guard near the hoop. If the first action works, here is the result:

Occasionally the screen gets a little violent:

If the first action is taken away, the rip screener then runs around a down screen near the free throw line:

Finally, if neither of those options work, the third option is to have the point guard run around a stagger screen for three:

The play gives Baylor’s big men space near the hoop. Often teams would get crossed, like Oregon did, or they’d focus too much on stopping the strong side, leaving a lob opportunity:

Baylor relied on two things to get a big man open near the hoop. First, Baylor needed the pass thrown at the right moment. Throw the pass too soon, and the screener may not have finished his screen or might get called for a moving screen. Throw the pass too late, and the preferred action is gone. College basketball requires making the right reads:

Second, Baylor needed someone that could rifle the pass. I asked King McClure about the Bears’ struggles running that play last season and he said, “Without Ish Wainright throwing that pass, it wasn’t working.” I still have no idea how Wainright could throw it so well:

The Bears started last season with Omot trying to play Wainright’s role. It didn’t work out. He missed chances to make the pass:

And when Maston ran the wrong way on a screen, he struggled with decision-making:

The hope for the 2019 Bears is that Mark Vital can start throwing that pass like Wainright. Vital is likely to be the starting power forward (though I still dream of the day we play him some at the five—the Fival lineups!). The 6-foot-6 sophomore ran the play pretty well last season, and he’s added a good bit of muscle this off-season. He was throwing this pass 15 pounds ago:

He’s also good at deciding when the play isn’t there. Baylor finished 308th in turnover percentage in 2018. That mark doomed the team. They can’t give away possession next season, especially with a likely drop-off in offensive rebounding without Lual-Acuil and Maston. Fortunately he’s okay accepting when the pass isn’t there:

Vital also helps the Bears alter the play. He’s capable of putting the ball down and getting to the hoop. Sometimes he was too aggressive going for dunks—a missed dunk against Wichita State is hard to forget. But he’ll have some shots, especially if opponents play off of him and dare him to shoot:

I also have a weird compliment for Vital. He can play nonchalantly. He certainly has exceptional effort and along with McClure, is the Bears’ best defender. But he does a nice job disguising his decisions and where he’s going. On that 3-point shot against Oklahoma above, the Sooners can’t read his eyes or his focus to shoot the gap on Lecomte. And against TCU, Jamie Dixon’s staff had the play scouted, which led the Horned Frogs to eviscerate the action. So Scott Drew and his staff decided to have Terry Maston pop out to the free throw line. If Vital had overreacted to that new play, TCU’s defense might have come out. But he played it cool and Baylor scored:

The 2018 Bears turned to Vital later in the season on the awesome play and it worked well. With better shooting surrounding him this season, opponents aren’t going to be able to hone in on one action in the set. And with Vital stronger and likely to play a lot more minutes, the Bears have hopes the 2018 Bears’ struggles with the awesome play are a thing of the past.