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.
At the start of the college basketball season in this the year of our Lord 2018, we know less about the Baylor Bears than in most years. That can make preseason prognostication difficult. Our fearless leader Kendall Kaut has made a valiant effort with a massive season preview. Consider this article a supplement as I dig into some of his points from other angles.
Versatility, interchangeability, switchability, whatever you want to call it, Baylor’s roster is replete with players 6-5 to 6-9. Even after the loss of Jake Lindsey to season-ending hip surgery, Scott Drew has 5 pieces with which to play. We might even see backup units that feature a 6-3 point guard and 4 multi-positional wings ranging between 6-4 and 6-9. If Drew can manage to utilize that combination of skill and size, Baylor could be a tricky offense to guard. Alternatively, there could be a number of possessions in which Baylor runs a lot of screens, can’t get the ball to the mismatch, and just hands the ball of half-a-dozen times above the break before forcing up a tough, contested shot on a last ditch high screen. Nothing we haven’t seen before.
Two — possibly three — players will be key in maximizing this roster’s potential. Mark Vital could be a nightmare for opposing teams. At 6-5, he rebounds like a power forward and passes like a point guard. He doesn’t have much of a shot, but if he’s given the ball in a position to make a quick decision, he should be a capable driver against closeouts who will make the drop-off pass when the defense collapses. The other guy is Mario Kegler, whose 6-7, 230 pound frame will be difficult to match up against. I’m not sure how much he can do off the bounce, but he’s the sort of tantalizing player that you hope can drive against smaller defenders and knock down a couple of threes a game. It’s too bad he will miss the first 6 games due to violation of team rules. These early games were the opportunity to feel out how the offense will be divided between Kegler, Tristan Clark, and Makai Mason. As it stands, Kegler is now scheduled to make his debut against much stiffer competition than he should have been.
The guy I’m intrigued to see is Matthew Mayer. He’s a top 100 recruit with size, some skill, and what appears to be a killer instinct. Whether he can make an impact as a freshman, I’m not sure, but he’s got the make-up of a good college forward if he can adjust to the higher level of competition. Having a 6-9 player with perimeter skills could really juice the offense, though.
After three straight seasons in the bottom 250 in three-point attempts, this season needs to bring change. I won’t belabor the point here, as others have made the arguments on this site and elsewhere, but this roster is poised to break that streak. Kegler, Devonte Bandoo, Makai Mason, and King McClure all bring some amount of outside shooting. Bandoo in particular looks to be the dead-eye shooter that Baylor has lacked since Brady Heslip graduated. If Baylor’s team can manage to hit above 37% on its threes, the offense will take a big leap forward from a season ago.
Big Man Depth
Tell me what reliable big man Baylor has after Tristan Clark.
Point being, Flo Thamba, although he seems like a serviceable prospect, is a thin hope to fill the reserve center spot his freshman year. He is 6-10 and 245 pounds, not the skinniest guy Baylor has ever had, but there will be at least a few big men that will take advantage of his youth and thinner frame.
Behind him, the options are Freddie Gillespie, Kegler, and Vital, all of whom would be better as power forwards. Baylor won’t hardly have a choice but to play small this season. Whether that means a change in defensive scheme, I’m not sure. Once thing I do feel confident in: Baylor will have to double to post a lot when Clark rests.
Makai Mason comes in as a proven lead guard who can handle, find his shot, and break down a defense. Lindsey’s absence puts a lot on Mason’s ability to run Drew’s system and calm the other guys down when things get harried.
Vital and McClure are both capable ball handlers, but neither is a true point guard. Jared Butler is promising but still very young. Drew’s offenses tend to rely on having guards who can get to their spots when everything else breaks down. Will Butler be a guy who can do that, or will the load fall as heavily on Mason as it did Manu Lecomte last season? Like the big man position, a lot could ride on young or unproven players to survive during the minutes when the starters rest.
I talked some above about the versatility Drew has on the roster this season. Exactly what he intends to do with it remains to be seen. You might think Drew would use this as an opportunity to up the energy, both on defense and in transition. That just hasn’t been his way, though. Baylor has been in the top 100 teams in tempo twice going back to 2008, and has only cracked the top 100 in defensive turnover percentage twice in the same time frame. Drew teams are methodical, if not downright crawling. Most of the time, he would rather let opposing teams shoot long twos and eat away the shot clock than let defensive gambles turn into easy points at the basket. Conservative defense leads to low turnover rates, and low turnover rates lead to slow tempo. Even with the potential to shake things up, I just don’t see it happening.
One of those up-tempo years came in 2013 when the roster featured possibly Baylor’s most athletic point guard ever in Pierre Jackson, defensive menace A.J. Walton, a freshman Taurean Prince, and two end-to-end bigs in Isaiah Austin and Corey Jefferson. That team had an excellent mix of skill and athleticism across positions, and it would have been criminal not to let them wreak havoc and run. They also missed the NCAA Tournament that season. Even with the pieces in place to mix things around, I would expect Drew to utilize that versatility within his usual system. The only exception might come on offense when Tristan Clark sits. Unless Flo Thamba plays good minutes as a back-up true freshman center, Baylor won’t have a second post threat around which to orbit. Unless Freddie Gillespie or — Lord willing — Vital shows a capable post game, Drew will have to find a way to create mismatches and openings for a bunch of like-sized players who are all perimeter oriented.
And there it is, the first Plus/Minus of this 2018-19 season. We will be returning to this space regularly — hopefully weekly — to provide analysis as the season goes on. I’m excited for a new basketball season and to watch a host of new faces represent the green and gold!