Baylor’s tournament ceiling was as high as the bracket allowed. Had the Bears only met the buzzsaw known as the Kentucky Wildcats in a later round, the team could have very well boasted their first Final Four appearance. Coach Cal’s team looked unbeatable, and proved their worth in March, winning the title in a massively convincing manner.
David Stern and his chrome-domed replacement-to-be called the names of Quincy Miller, Perry Jones III and Quincy Acy to the NBA. We saw these young men play hard for their school, and now they are living out their dreams as professionals. Seniors Fred Ellis and Anthony Jones, who provided everything from leadership to buzzer-beaters, graduated.
Where does this leave Baylor?
Scott Drew seems to have proven his recruiting worth in gold yet again, with what looks like to be a freshman class poised to impact games immediately.
Isaiah Austin, the 7-footer from Arlington, looks like a force to be reckoned with on both sides of the floor. With his size, IQ, and perimeter skills not normally seen at that position, Austin can get his points in any number of ways. However, it remains to be seen if he can perform at a high level against equal or better athleticism.
Ricardo Gathers is a man. At 6’7", the top Louisiana recruit has all physical tools he needs to fill Acy’s role. Rebounding, effort plays, and defense will make "Uncle Rico" a fan favorite and immediate impact player come conference play.
L.J. Rose, the 6’4" Houston guard might have the most talent for passing the ball on this roster. While still young and raw, Rose could still end up playing important minutes for this squad.
Taurean Prince, San Antonio, adds a great wing presence. Prince has a solid mid-range game, with nice height at 6’7". His role has been set in stone yet, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him be asked to do the same kind of things that Anthony Jones did during his time in Waco.
All things considered, Drew did an incredible job with this incoming class.
How does Baylor stack up?
While it has seemingly been the case each of the past three years, the Bears have a legitimate chance to contend for the Big XII title. Perennial power Kansas still stands in the way, and Big XII newcomer West Virginia will always be competitive with Bob Huggins at the helm. The Texas Longhorns’ season could very well hinge on how much time sophomore PG Myck Kabongo is sidelined while under investigation by the NCAA for contact with a professional agent. With him, they are a contender. Without, the look like they might be in trouble.
But it isn’t just the top-shelf of the conference that Baylor has to worry about. The middle-class of the Big XII has improved across the board. An Oklahoma St. team that has missed the past two NCAA tournaments has a very different, competitive feel with the addition of freshman guard Marcus Smart (who has been touted as an excellent leader) and the maturation of sophomore guard Le’Bryan Nash. Kansas St. returns a ton of talent, and did a very acceptable job in replacing Frank Martin with a similarly defensive-minded Bruce Weber.
What can we expect?
With most of the loss coming in the frontcourt, Baylor will have to rely on the youth movement down low. Austin, Gathers, and Junior Cory Jefferson will all have to step up on both sides of the court.
If Scott Drew can somehow combine the raw talent underneath with the experience, on-ball defense and shooting provided by Brady Heslip, A.J. Walton and Big XII POY candidate Pierre Jackson, a Big XII title is definitely in discussion.
A potentially underrated aspect of this year’s team: the ability to play man-to-man defense. Coach Drew’s patented match-up 2-3 zone has been controversial at best, often leaving shooters in the corner to be guarded by less mobile bigs. This year, the Bears have the athleticism to switch in and out of that look should Drew make that call.
With two Elite 8 appearances in the last three years, post-season success is not a new frontier for the Bears. Come March, anything is possible. Kentucky is young and arguably weaker. An Indiana squad led by C Cody Zeller looks to make noise in spring as well, after being ranked AP #1 in preseason.
5 Keys for the Season
Defensive versatility. I’m not a blind hater of Drew’s 2-3 zone. When done right, it can really disrupt a team that doesn’t move the ball efficiently. The issue is that once the zone is cracked, or if one single player can’t handle his responsibility, it mutates into a wide-open corner 3, offensive rebounding, backside alley-oop monster. Being able to switch into an effective man-to-man front would do wonders. Drew would push that button occasionally last season, but our less athletic guards would get demolished by the likes of the Mizzou and Kansas backcourts. Play man-to-man more and put pressure on the ball.
Use all 7’. Already, parallels have been drawn between the games of Perry Jones III and Isaiah Austin: mid-range bigs that shy away from intense contact under the basket. I don’t get this vibe from Austin, but regardless, he needs to make sure to establish a post presence on both sides of the court. There is concern about his weight and strength, but not much can be done about that this season. He will get plenty of opportunities to display his ball handling and shooting stroke, but his rebounding and post offense will need to carry his game.
Limit opponents’ offensive rebounding. The Bears have all the tools to be a great rebounding team. We did last year too. However, we still were still ranked 8th in the conference in offensive rebounds allowed during conference play. With the frontcourt size and talent the Bears have in Cory Jefferson, J’mison "Bobo" Morgan, Isaiah Austin, and Ricardo Gathers, there is almost no excuse
Move the ball. We have an incredible scoring talent at PG with Pierre Jackson. That much is undeniable. However, ranking 10th in the conference in percentage of points from assists per game is not going to help deep into March. Move the ball and include all of the fun new weapons the Bears have added.
Manage Turnovers. Over the course of the ’11-’12 season, the Bears turned over the ball an average of 13.7 times. Compared to last year’s Kentucky squad who averaged nearly 2 less TO’s per game and considering how tight games in March tend to be, 2 extra possessions can be the difference.
My Season Prediction:
The Bears fall short of a regular season conference championship, but heat up as post-season begins. A Big XII tournament win leads the Bears to a #2 seed in the NCAA tournament and the Bear’s first Final Four appearance in 62 years.
The Bears start the journey with C.J. McCollum and Lehigh this Friday, November 9th. Look for the matchup-specific preview on Thursday.
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