I know how you must be feeling right now.
Last season, Baylor played a slogging - but successful - style of basketball. Scott Drew finally began earning some recognition for the program he had transformed from a smoking crater into a competitive, top-30 or better quality team. For the first time in program history, the Bears made it into back-to-back NCAA Tournaments. Things were looking up.
Then R.J. Hunter drained a thirty-foot shot to bring the world crashing down about our ears like he was Katniss Everdeen.
So you're asking yourself, "Can I do this again?" That is a question only you can answer, but I'm here to help. Allow me to introduce and reintroduce the hardhat wearing, neon green-collared, work-a-day Bears that will rebuild their home in your heart this season.
Back in the 2010-2011 season, Baylor had some high expectations coming in. Fresh off of a nail-biting loss in the Elite Eight the year before, Scott Drew had brought in a top level freshman in Perry Jones III to complement the veteran grit of Quincy Acy and the shooting prowess of LaceDarius Dunn. All that a young AJ Walton had to do was feed the ball to the star players around him. Walton ended the season with a turnover rate of 32.1%, and Baylor saw its lowest win total since 2007, going 18-12.
I bring that up as a reminder that guard play is important. Even elite college big men need someone to feed them the ball and initiate the offense. Baylor has plenty of talent and skill in the front court this season, but the back court remains largely unproven. Kenny Chery is gone. Does Baylor have a steady player to fill his role?
Lester Medford, Senior
7.6 points, 3.1 assists, 1.7 turnovers on 39.3 FG%, 38.5 3pt%, and 62.1 FT%
Last season, Medford played at the shooting guard position next to Chery. With Chery's departure Medford will slide into the point guard spot and bear the responsibility of initiating the offense. Medford could excel or he could sputter, and he might oscillate between those two modes from one possession to the next.
Medford has lightning speed he can use to blur around a screen into the lane. Once he gets there, however, he can find himself in trouble. At only 5-10, Medford has trouble finishing inside (45.3% at the rim last season, per Hoop-Math) when he gets among the trees. On occasion, Medford would find himself in the paint with no real plan, which resulted in a number of turnovers. If he can limit those instances, his outside shot and ability to bend the defense by slashing into the lane should open up opportunities for his teammates.
Al Freeman, Sophomore
4.8 points, 1.9 rebounds, 1.0 assists, and 1.1 turnovers on 42.6 FG%, 32.3 3pt%, and 70.2 FT%
As Medford moves to the one, Freeman should see himself move into the starting two guard spot. Freeman, oddly, is the longest tenured member of the Baylor back court, a red-shirt sophomore in his third season in Waco. He was 7th on last year's squad in minutes per game (17), but Baylor fans should expect to see a drastic increase in his floor time, for better or worse.
At his best, Freeman will rain down threes from the wing and play solid defense at the top of Scott Drew's zone, whatever form it may take. At his worst, he will try to do a little too much with the ball in his hands. Freeman had the bad habit on the fast break of holding onto the ball instead of passing it to his running mate, which led to turnovers and contested shots. When Freeman got to the rim, he shot well (61.9 %), but he also turned the ball over nearly 25% of the time while only assisting on 10% of his teammates' baskets.
If Freeman can slow himself down and make better decisions with the ball, he should be able to hold off the bevy of young guards Drew brought in this offseason.
Austin Mills, Senior
1.2 points and .8 assists in 5.8 minutes per game
Before we get to the new guys, though, we need to consider the 6-1 senior transfer guard who found himself earning minutes at the end of last season. Earning a measly 99 minutes all last season, Mills flashed some intriguing skills. While he was a bit sluggish on defense, he also showed some nice pick and roll chemistry with Johnathan Motley, dropping nice pocket passes to the big man rolling towards the rim.
Think of him as a destitute man's Chris Paul. I'm not sure how many minutes he'll earn this season, but if Freeman or Medford are struggling, Drew might turn to Mills in a time of need.
King McClure, Freshman
At 6-3, 220, McClure has decent size for a college two guard and good size for a point guard. I would be surprised to see him play point, though. McClure's offensive strengths are his jump shot and slashing ability. From what I understand, McClure should be competitive as a defender, but that transition is often difficult for freshmen to make.
Hopes are high for the young guard, but I am always skeptical of the impact a freshman guard can have when he's not a top 15 level recruit. Considering McClure's heart condition in addition to his inexperience, Drew might integrate him slowly into the rotation. Of course, the opposite could be equally true. If his talents shine and the veteran players struggle, McClure could quickly find himself shouldering a hefty load.
Wendall Mitchell, Freshman
According to this very informative 1-on-1 video with young Wendall, he likes: flat pick and rolls (Awesome! Boy do we have lots of those!), going downhill (so do most of the other guards, so you'll fit right in, Mitch), attacking in transition (only if you can wrest the ball away from Freeman and Prince, buddy), and playing up and down at a fast pace (uuuuuhhhhhhhhhhhhh about that, Mitch, Baylor finished 304th nationally in pace last season, per KenPom, so you might want to adjust your expectations on that front). On the whole, Mitch seems likes a nice fit for this squad. Depending on how others play above him, he could either play little at all or earn upwards of 15 minutes a game, which would be a lot for a freshman.
Yes, I am giving him a nickname that is a shortening of his last name, and you can't stop me.
Manu Lecomte, Junior
7.7 points, and 2.3 assists on 42.5 FG%, 39.7 3pt%, and 76.7 FT%
Lecomte transferred to Baylor this offseason from Miami. He will have to sit a season due to the NCAA transfer rule, but Baylor fans should look forward to his play next season.
For now, let's just get this out of the way. Take a deep breath...MANUUUUUUUUUUU!!
Players at this position could, potentially, play anywhere from the 1 to the 4. I expect them to mostly play off-ball, but the wing is an inherently fluid position and is growing more so by the year. Drew showed last year that he is willing to play guys at multiple positions. This year, depending on how some of the bigs shake out, he might fall back on a more traditional rotation pattern, but let's hope that proves to be false.
Taurean Prince, Senior
13.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.5 steals, and 2.0 turnovers on 47.2 FG%, 39.5 3pt%, and 64.4 FT%
You know him. You love him. He drives you crazy, and he carries the team on his back. He is Baylor's best (but perhaps not most important) player.
Thanks to a nice offseason in camps and with Team USA in the Pan-American Games, Prince has built some buzz as a potential first round pick in the upcoming NBA draft. He has size, a motor, and the ability to shoot from deep, the quintessential qualities of a 3-and-D player. He's like a DeMarre Carroll that doesn't pass very well.
Prince has also garnered his place in multiple top 100 lists, landing at 31 on ESPN and 36 on CBS. He could prove that to be an underrating of his ability by season's end, and I would not be surprised if he earns a little Big 12 PoY buzz as the season goes on. He can impact the game in nearly every way and, most importantly, can get buckets.
Ish Wainright, Junior
1.4 points and 1.7 rebounds in 9.6 minutes per game
I am a long documented Wainright bandwagoner. I might also be the last one left. Thus far in his Baylor career, he has been unable to shoot, cut to the basket off-ball, handle the ball (his supposed strength coming in), or have any significant (or minor!) impact on the offensive end of the floor. He played a little bit of defense last year, but not much, mostly because he rarely saw the floor.
With the absence of Royce O'Neale and another offseason of training, this could be Wainright's breakout year. In fact, I will declare it so! The Year of Wainright is upon us! (I will follow that very irresponsible bit of fandom with this more sober take: Wainright will likely be a solid rotation player, but nothing much more than that. When a wing can't shoot, that hampers his potential impact greatly. Last season, he attempted only 10 shots from beyond the arc. He'll probably shoot more this season, but not many.)
Jake Lindsey, Freshman
I put Lindsey in the wing category because of his size (6-5). In high school he played more of a combo-guard role, usually a label placed on a scoring point guard. It's not impossible to imagine a lineup, however, where Lindsey slides into the small forward position. Consider, if you will, a lineup of Medford-Freeman-Lindsey-Prince-Gathers. That lineup, which we likely will not see, provides a lot of ball handling, slashing, and shooting from multiple positions. Whether Drew will play Lindsey up a position or two from his comfort zone is uncertain, but not out of the question. This also assumes, of course, that Drew plays him at all.
I like Lindsey's long term prospects a lot. His size is a nice fit for the zone defense. Long, active arms disrupt passing lanes both on the wing and at the top of the key. He is the son of former Bear Dennis Lindsey, who is the general manager of the Utah Jazz, so Jake has grown up around the game at the highest level. If he picked up much from his surroundings, his basketball IQ could be quite high. With a year or two of seasoning, he could be a great glue guy.
Long live the human victory cigar.
This position is the strength of the team. Baylor's best player, Prince, is really at his best as a power forward, and Gathers, perhaps Baylor's most important player, bends the game around him in a way few college players can. If the younger big guys can take the next step up, this front court could be one of the most dominant rotations in the Big XII.
Rico Gathers, Senior
11.6 points and 11.6 rebounds on 45.9 FG% and 61.8 FT%
I said above that Prince is Baylor's best player, while Gathers is its most important. The distinction I draw is a simple one. Prince simply has more skill and ability than anyone else on the roster. Gathers, however, excels so greatly in one particular area (rebounding) that he changes every game he plays in to match his style. Baylor's style IS Gather's style: slow, relentless, and brutal.
Gathers has earned his own share of preseason recognition. He was selected to the All-Big XII Preseason Team, and earned spots 45 and 23 on ESPN and CBS top 100 lists, respectively. That wide disparity is, I think, a reflection of the distinction I drew above.
What Baylor fans can hope for from Rico this season, aside from his grabbing even more rebounds, is that he is better able to recognize when he should pass out instead of throwing the ball at the rim like his hands lack digits. In this great article by John Werner in the Waco-Tribune, Gathers is quoted as saying he wants to expand and improve his offensive game, highlighting passing as the key place to make that happen. If he really can do that - and if he can make upwards of 70% of his free throws - Gathers offensive impact could be even greater than his stupidly high offensive rebounding rate (18.2%), which was the third best in the nation, per KenPom.
Johnathan Motley, Sophomore
7.7 points and 4.2 rebounds on 41.7 FG% and 62.5 FT%
Another redshirt sophomore, Motley has the potential to make a Cory Jefferson-esque leap this season. He started last season out strong, but tapered off as teams began to scout his game. Werner's article has some glowing praise from Drew on Motley's play in Canada this summer, and it is reasonable to think that the young big can build on last season's success. At 6-9, 230, all the young big lacked was experience. With a year of play under his belt and another summer of strength training, he and Gathers could be the best rebounding duo in the country.
If Motley truly does make a leap, even a minor one, it could change the entire complexion of Baylor's rotation. Last season, Drew closed out games with a small ball lineup, playing Prince as a stretch big alongside two small guards and a small forward. An improved Motley could mean that Drew slides Prince back down to small forward with a potential closing lineup of Medford-Freeman-Prince-Gathers-Motley. That is a big lineup with, perhaps, just enough shooting to get by. All told, if McClure can shoulder a heavy role in his first year, I would prefer he be in the game instead of Motley, if only to improve the spacing of the floor and create driving lanes for Medford that a Gathers-Motley duo would muck up. The traditional way of basketball, though, is to go big when you can. If Drew does, this season's team could be an even uglier version of last season, which sort of makes me shudder.
This Australian JUCO transfer provides an alternative lineup option that keeps Prince at the 3 while still allowing Drew to go big. At 7-0, Acuil provides both shot blocking and a little 3-point shooting, not unlike the combination that Isaiah Austin offered in his two seasons. Acuil has the potential to be a great compliment to Gathers on both ends of the floor. Although Gathers was named to the all-conference defensive team, he is not actually a very good defender, excepting his ability to end a possession by grabbing the rebound. His feet are a bit slow, and his short arms plus a lack of spring make him a poor shot blocker/deterrent. Acuil's length and athleticism could allow him to block shots from the weak side that Gathers simply can't get to. On the offensive end, Acuil's shooting range could allow Baylor to continue playing the 4-around-1 offense they played last season. When four of your five players have to be guarded out to 20+ feet, that makes your team quite difficult to defend.
Some bad news: Acuil, like McClure, has some sort of heart condition and will be out at least another 4 1/2 weeks for testing and precaution. Prayers up for both those guys. Health before sport, even if Ball Is Life.
Terry Maston, Sophomore
No, no, that's not yet another new face. Terry is the artist formerly known as T.J. A bit of unsolicited advice to Terry: go by T.J. Don't give in to the Man and go by an adult name.
Last season, Maston tallied a grand total of 36 minutes of garbage time, outpacing Herd by only 21 minutes. This season, I would not anticipate Maston's role expanding too much. He could see more floor time if Motley or Gathers find themselves in foul trouble, but beyond that, the front court is simply too deep, especially accounting for Prince's ability to slide up to the power forward spot.
If you made it this far, congratulations. You have undergone the annual rite of reading my far too long position preview. This one is, if you can believe it, the shortest one yet!
Baylor's roster has the potential to be deep, even if it's a bit unproven. Steady play from the back court could be enough to allow the front court to bludgeon the other team to death, and potential improvement from both Prince and Gathers should have Big XII opponents shaking in their sneakers. I don't know how good this team will be, but the potential is there for them to earn a third consecutive NCAA postseason appearance. Let's hope they reach that potential.