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Tristan Clark’s Sophomore Season is the Most Underrated Stretch in Baylor Basketball History

Never forget how he carried a struggling team through a bad stretch

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018-2019 Bears are easy proof that correlation does not equal causation. The Bears began the season 9-5 with Tristan Clark. They went from a terrible offense with him as their best player, to the Big 12’s best offense without him. So his subtraction caused by a devastating knee injury must explain the offense’s ascendancy. That narratives persuades many.

People believe stupid narratives all the time. And the idea that Clark—in any manner—hampered Baylor’s offense is proof of that.

The Bears were terrible offensively during the nonconference portion of the 2018-2019 season. They had an adjusted offensive efficiency of just 101.6. But that was due to one huge factor: the Bears couldn’t hit threes. Baylor hit 28.9% from three before Big 12 games. That mark ranked 324th nationally and was the worst of any power five team.

During conference play, the Bears suddenly started making threes. Baylor led the Big 12 in 3-point percentage. Against Syracuse, the Bears scored a preposterous 1.3 points per possession. They did that by drilling 16-of-34 triples.

The easy way to look at that dichotomy—Baylor made threes without Clark, and they didn’t with him—is to say that Clark must explain it. Without him, Baylor must have had so many open shots. With him, the lane must have been too clogged. Absolute nonsense.

The 2018-2019 Bears really did just miss shots with Clark. In a small sample size, teams can miss shots and it can mean nothing about lineups or scheme or anything more complicated than that. Jared Butler shot a terrible 24.6% from three during nonconference games. He hit 42.2% during conference games. Butler told me in the summer of 2019 that he shot poorly because, “Being a freshman and trying to prove to yourself, the coaches, the whole world that you belong. (That puts) a lot of pressure on yourself.” Butler is one of the smartest and most honest players I’ve interviewed. He’d have no trouble telling me if Clark’s absence explained the change. You’re telling me Butler wouldn’t have hit this shot with Clark on the court?

The other Bears’ struggled too because they didn't’ have a rhythm. Mario Kegler missed the first six games of the season because of a suspension. He started 2-of-24 from deep. The man just couldn’t make a shot. After changing his form that offseason—something King McClure verified to me that summer—Kegler needed playing time to get his form down. And Makai Mason went 10-of-39 from beyond the arc in 6-of-7 games after an injury kept him out to start the year. With his ankle in bad shape, Mason wasn’t ready to make shots off the dribble like he was later in the season. Mason went 9-of-12 from three against TCU. The man was more automatic that day than COVID-19 in a crowded bar. Clark’s absence didn’t make that possible.

King McClure should also end this idea that Clark made hitting threes impossible. As the only returning regular after Clark’s injury, McClure hit more threes during nonconference play. I’m not arguing that McClure was hampered from deep by Clark’s absence—though in our society people often cherry-pick whatever argument boosts their side—rather McClure is proof that something like shooting percentage can vary greatly.

I wish I didn’t have to spend so much time beating back the narrative that Clark’s absence helped Baylor in 2018-2019. Clark’s presence kept them alive. He was spectacular. Clark had a box/plus minus of 12 in those 14 games. Over a full season, that mark would have ranked No. 3 nationally, only trailing Zion Williamson—playing perhaps the greatest season of the millennium—and Brandon Clarke—a man that would thoroughly dominate the Bears without Clark.

Nothing was easier than giving the ball to Clark and getting a bucket. He led the nation in field goal percentage (74%). The Arizona coaching staff told their team not to double Clark. They thought Chase Jeter, a quality college player, could handle him. Sean Miller appears to have instructed his staff poorly:

He did more damage to the PAC-12 than Larry Scott:

The Bears also had a fierce defense with Clark. Without him, the Bears allowed 99 points per 100 possessions. That was worse than the 94 they allowed with him. They sure could have used him against Gonzaga’s two NBA big men in the NCAA Tournament. His shot-blocking prowess would have helped Baylor so much during Big 12 play:

Baylor’s had a wonderful decade. And the 2018-2019 team might be the most impressive coaching and rally job. The staff and players reinvented the offense and key guys stepped up.

The Bears would have been better with Clark though. His sophomore season run was unbelievable. With the exception of Johnathan Motley, no Baylor big has been as automatic with the ball. It’s a shame such a devastating injury took away what Clark had. But to have seen it for a few months was wonderful.

In the years ahead don’t let someone tell you the Bears were better without Clark. He kept a bad team afloat so that when they became good, his effort against Arizona, Oregon and Iowa State let them make the NCAA Tournament. They made a good run without him; they’d have made a better one with him.

The best things in life don’t last long enough. Clark deserved better; in a fairer world, he’d either be in the NBA or joining Butler on the All-Big 12 team. Despite a career ending injury, he should take solace that he maximized his talent and brought so many joy. We should all hope to say the same when something ends for us.