There were several indicators both before and during Baylor’s unimaginable Tuesday night loss to Texas Southern that should have clued us in on the state of the team tonight and going forward.
First was the loss of three starters: Jake Lindsey to surgery, Mario Kegler to a suspension for violating team rules, and Makai Mason to a tweaked ankle. Of course, the team has known for a long time that Lindsey would not be playing this season, but it still bears repeating that he was supposed to be a huge piece this season and cannot fully be replaced. Missing two key starters on top of that challenges the roster depth, which was a significant part of what sank the Bears against a Tigers team that, while having some talent, is far below their level. The effects of these missing starters would play out in obvious ways as the game unfolded.
Another pregame indicator that trouble was brewing came from King McClure’s radio spot that played 20 minutes before tipoff. In response to a question asking him to describe the team, McClure answered that, as a team, this year’s squad is still learning how to play. Yikes. He gave similar comments in the postgame, so I don’t feel out of place mentioning it here. McClure’s comments showed themselves throughout the game. Jared Butler showed no inclination to attack off the pick and roll, and the defense looked confused much of the night. Texas Southern got look and after look for the roll man all game, resulting in far too many dunks and layups. Baylor was lucky to lead at half given the quality of shot it allowed. A better team would have laid waste to the Bears’ defense.
The game itself provided signifiers that depth was going to be a problem for at least Game 1. Scott Drew’s first man off the bench was Matthew Mayer, a true freshman forward who looked wild in his first collegiate game. It’s easy to see how he could grow into a useful player this season and a key piece down the road, but he looked every part the true freshman on Tuesday. He drove into crowds and put up difficult shots, and he was out of sorts on defense. As Drew said in the postgame press conference, Mayer played man defense when the team was in zone and vice versa, on top of losing his assignment on some possessions. The kid has demonstrated his scoring ability in practices and aggression in the game. Like Taurean Prince, Mayer will have to figure out how to play under control to make the most of his abilities. He simply cannot have a 37% usage rate and walk away with 0 points, 0 assists, and 2 turnovers.
The moment when I first began to worry Baylor might lose the game, though, came when Obim Okeke subbed into the game to relieve Mark Vital from foul trouble in the first half. When the victory cigar becomes an emergency flare, you have little hope of rescue. Foul trouble plagued the Bears all night, and especially in the second half after Clark and Vital picked up their 4th fouls in the opening minutes of the period. Being forced to turn to Okeke to soak up even two minutes in the first half was a bad omen of Baylor’s ability to handle a tightly called game.
Baylor did present a few bright spots in this game, amidst the disappointing defense, lack of offensive flow, and myriad turnovers.
McClure was as aggressive and competent as he has possibly ever looked. He took advantage of any space or angle the defense gave him in the lane and knocked down 3-5 three-point attempts. McClure kept his team in the game when no one else could. His final totals were 23 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 block, and 1 steal on 10-18 shooting from the floor.
In the few minutes he was able to play, Tristan Clark looked like he will be a handful for opposing teams this season. He finished with a line of 11 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 blocks in only 19 minutes of play. He also used only 18% of Baylor’s possessions while he was on the floor. It will be interesting to see how Clark can get himself involved in the offense. Knocking down his only three-point attempt is a good step, but he will need the guards to get him involved in the low and mid-post to reach his potential.
Vital’s passing is as good as ever. One possession after being doubled in the post from the weak side, he anticipated an extra defender coming from the opposite corner and fired a pass to his open teammate. The shot was a miss, but the pass was one excellent example of Vital’s basketball IQ. He also appears to have revamped his shooting motion. When he was at the line, it looked like an honest-to-goodness free throw attempt, not the hitchy motion from last season. Excepting his 5 turnovers, Vital had a good night with 10 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals on 4-8 FGA.
Of the new guys, Freddie Gillespie looked competent in the backup center role. His defense wasn’t perfect; he took a long time to get back to his man after attempting a hard hedge against pick and rolls. That is probably a scheme adjustment Drew will have to make. Baylor’s guards will need to fight over screens to allow the bigs to drop back a little.
Both Darius Allen and Devonte Bandoo looked comfortable in transition, but neither was able to shake free for many open good looks in the half-court. If Baylor is going to compete in games this season, those two need to do better than 1-5 combined from the three-point line.
In all, this night showed just how far Baylor has to go. A 27% turnover rate does not bode well for future competition, and a free throw rate of 16% against an inferior team is downright disturbing. If the Bears cannot get to the free throw line and cough up the ball at that abysmal rate, this could be a long season. Hopefully the return of Mason and Kegler can provide stability in those areas.
The season is far from over, but this was the wrong first step.