Welcome to the Plus/Minus, your regular evaluation of Baylor men’s basketball. Each week we consider two pluses, two minuses, and one net neutral.
King McClure has been the rock upon which the rest of the team rests. In Game 1, he had a line of 23-5-5 with 1 block, 1 steal, and only 2 of Baylor’s 19 total turnovers despite having the ball in his hands most often. His aggression driving the ball was the only activity toward the rim Baylor had in that game, especially with Tristan Clark missing significant minutes due to foul trouble. Baylor lost that game, but without McClure, they might have been crushed.
In game two, the senior finished with a much more modest line of 2-3-7 with 1 steal and 4 turnovers. His presence was steadying on the younger players. He offered encouragement and coaching every time the team huddled together. Then in transition, McClure rewarded Clark for running the floor with two easy baskets before the defense could get set. Only 1 of his 6 shots fell, but there again, he only shot 6 times. He recognized his teammates were playing well and gave them the ball in the right spots.
Like he said in his postgame presser after game 1, McClure is happier scoring a handful of points in a game if it’s a win than getting 20+ points in a loss doesn’t mean much to him. He demonstrated both those things this week.
A Chance to Cohere
While not exactly a plus for the team, it is a plus for the season. In the last 5 seasons, Baylor scheduled at least one Power 5 team in its first 4 games. In each season from 2014-17, Baylor played a Power 5 team in its second game. Had the Bears gone from losing to Southern Texas to facing an opponent the quality of South Carolina, Oregon, or Wisconsin, it is not difficult to imagine the season going quickly into a tailspin. As is, Baylor has two more games against lower level opponents before facing Ole Miss, who are not projected to be especially strong this season.
With so many players new to D-I college basketball — Baylor’s average experience is 1.46 years, 212th in the country according to KenPom — Scott Drew’s team needs time to work out the kinks and learn how to play together in live game situations. Matthew Mayer needs to learn the true impact of reckless shooting, and Devonte Bandoo needs to gain confidence within the flow of the offense. Mark Vital needs to learn how to fill the hybrid guard/forward duties previously assigned to Jake Lindsey and Ish Wainright.
That sort of growth comes with time and experience. Thankfully, Baylor has a couple more games scheduled before facing a higher level team.
Discipline has been, perhaps, the greatest problem that has surfaced so far in this young season. On defense, it manifests itself in guards gambling for steals and bigs getting out of position defending pick and rolls. On offense, too many shots are being taken from the mid-range or perimeter players are indecisive when they get the ball. Vital, for instance, will pass up a wide open three, choosing instead to stand still, take an awkward dribble in, then be forced to hoist a shot 10 seconds later with a hand in his face. He’s not the only one who’s hesitating, either. In game 1, for instance, McClure was the only player willing to drive toward the basket off a screen, while his teammates remained content to keep dribbling along the perimeter unless the lane was wide enough for a bus.
Game 2 showed some improvement on the offensive end, but the defense still looks a mess. Don’t let the 20 turnovers fool you; a more talented team than Southern would have eviscerated Baylor’s man-to-man defense on Saturday. Clark, Mayer, and Freddie Gillespie were continually blown passed by opposing guards when asked either to switch or to blitz the ball handler in pick and roll defenses. Mayer flops like a fish when he’s hit with a screen, and while Jared Butler demonstrates effort, he is still learning how to navigate the bigger bodies in the college game.
The most obvious way to improve is to simplify the defense. In seasons past, Baylor’s defense has been very conservative, valuing sound play over steal and turnover rates. With the lack of relative size, Drew clearly wants to be more aggressive and speed opposing offense up. At the moment, that’s not turning out. As with the offense, it could just take time to figure out. On the other hand, putting Clark into situations to draw early fouls is not in the interest of the team at large.
As of November 11th, Baylor is 261st in the country in free throw rate on offense and 228th in the same category on defense, with rates of 24.6 and 43.3, respectively. For those unfamiliar, free throw rate is an indicator of how frequently a team gets to the line per shot attempt. The D-I average so far this season is 35.7.
In game 1, Baylor attempted only 11 free throw attempts and allowed 21. In game 2, it attempted 21 and allowed 21. Part of the problem is that Clark has attempted just 1 free throw. As the primary big in the post, he needs to be drawing more contact and getting opponents into foul trouble, not just the other way around.
It’s a small sample size, but against two less talented teams, Baylor should have been able to dictate terms by getting to the line often. Bandoo managed to do that in game 2, reaching the charity stripe 7 times. He, McClure, and Clark need to get to be able to get to the line in crucial situations and knock down the freebies.
Butler, by the way, has a few times demonstrated an excellent ability to jump into a big’s body around the rim to fend him off and finish the layup. With that level of comfort with contact, he has a chance to find himself at the line plenty in the future.
Baylor’s signature team feature for a second running has been throwing several 6’9”+ players onto the floor together with wingspans to reach the sun and back. Not so this year. Baylor ranks 101st in the country in average height, per KenPom, far below its top 50 rankings in the last two seasons. It’s important to know that KenPom’s ranking is based upon the average height of the team weighted by minutes played. It is the effective height of a roster.
The odd thing is, Baylor should probably consider playing smaller more often. In game 2, Drew seemed to want to protect Clark from playing center and drawing fouls by playing him alongside Gillespie and Flo Thamba most of the time. Trouble is, Baylor’s offense is much better served when Vital or Mayer (when he’s not playing wildly) is at power forward and one of the first three guys can play center. It opens up more driving lanes by pulling a body out of the paint and adding a potential shooter. On the other hand, Drew’s offense calls for lots of screens, so many that it might necessitate having two big bodies on the floor just so guards have someone to set them a flare screen.
That’s why this team’s effective height is a neutral. There are advantages and disadvantages either way. Ideally, Drew could rely on Vital’s strength to make up for his lack of height and play him at the 4 (maybe even the 5??), but until Vital stops drawing foul calls, Drew just can’t play him enough minutes to justify it.