Last year, a lot was made of Baylor basketball’s ascendancy. We all know the story: no preseason AP votes, climbed up to the school’s first AP number 1 ranking, and settled into yet another three seed in the NCAA Tournament, where Scott Drew’s team has been seeded three of the past six years. People familiar with Baylor basketball under Drew weren’t surprised by the end results, even if the highs were much rosier than most could have imagined. It was always absurd that the Bears entered last year unranked, because everyone in the country should know by now that Baylor has formed itself into a genuinely stable, good program under Drew, even if most people can’t name a single Baylor player before the season starts.
AP voters will face that same temptation this season. Even last year, when Johnathan Motley was named to the preseason All Big XII Team, the Bears had little national notoriety. This season, Baylor got two honorable mentions for the All Big XII Team in Manu Lecomte and Jo Lual-Acuil. There aren’t many names to get excited about nationally on Baylor’s roster, and that usually translates to low national recognition.
Of course, last year’s success should boost expectations for Baylor. CBS Sports has the Bears at 17 in its most recent “Top 25 (and 1)” ranking, citing the return of three of last season’s top five scorers and an appearance in the Sweet Sixteen as reasons to believe the Bears will be solid again. It’s a wonder what a decent Tournament showing will do for the outside perception of a program. If there was one major culprit for the lack of preseason Baylor hype, it was consecutive first round upset losses in 2015 and 2016. Turned out, Baylor was a decent team the whole time and was particularly good last year.
And it was particularly good at doing what successful Scott Drew teams have been doing for almost a decade now: steady inside-out play with reliable three-point shooting created by lots of off ball screens, backed by a conservative defensive system. Whether it’s been Tweety Carter and Ekpe Udoh, Pierre Jackson and Perry Jones/Quincy Acy, Kenny Chery and Cory Jefferson/Isaiah Austin/Taurean Prince/Rico Gathers, or Manu Lecomte and Johnathan Motley, Baylor has relied on steady guard play and strong forward play to be the basis of its success. This season should be no different.
It’s tempting to read into the changing roster and think that this is the year Baylor switches everything up and moves to a different scheme. I myself, year after year, have fallen prey to speculating about Drew going more up-tempo with lots of aggression in transition and on the perimeter defensively. And for the past four seasons, it just hasn’t happened.
With the departures of Motley and Ish Wainright, I again find myself searching for reasons to think that Baylor will move to a more guard-oriented offense where the bigs are rim-runners and rebound grabbers and screen setters with few plays run where they have to make a decision with the ball. Lecomte, Jake Lindsey, and King McClure are all really good, and the play of Terry Maston, Nuni Omot, and Acuil just does not inspire eager anticipation. Each of those three has demonstrated value, and Acuil was surprisingly reliable with his post touches last year, but none carry the gravitas that Motley, Prince, Gathers, etc. did. The stars of this roster seem to all be under 6-5, Acuil’s go-go gadget arm blocks aside.
But what years of evidence point to is that one of the two bigs will get an early elbow touch, watch a guard scoot around a baseline screen on the opposite block, and decide whether to take an 18-footer, back down, or pass the ball back to the perimeter. It’s a scenario emblazoned into the soul of Baylor basketball now. And it’s been working. As the season draws nearer and more noise gets made about Baylor’s back court, don’t forget that it’s really the front court that has brought Baylor this far year after year.
Kendall’s point back in August was similar: Sure two stars are gone, but Baylor has settled into itself now. Don’t expect drastic change, even as the roster turns over. Baylor will still be good, and Baylor will still play like Baylor.
Few teams have performed as well as the Bears over the last eight years. Only thirteen teams have longer NCAA Tournament appearance streaks than Baylor, with five others tied with the Bears at four straight appearances. That last category, by the way, includes friggin’ Kentucky. That’s how hard it is to succeed at this level, even when you have the best recruits every year. Baylor has been in the Tournament six of the last eight seasons, largely playing in exactly the same way it has the last four years, with a slow, grinding offense and a conservative, mostly successful defense. Baylor’s kind of turned into the Kansas State football of Big XII basketball. Everyone knows what’s coming, and yet it keeps working despite a relative lack of acclaim and star power.
Last season showed that Baylor was more than people thought it could be. This season, it will be exactly what you think, and that’s a good thing.