Last season was a beautiful ride for the Baylor men’s basketball team as it earned its first No. 1 ranking in school history and eventually reached the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden.
To climb to those heights again, the Bears will have to get a lot of production from fewer players.
The Bears will only have eight scholarship players on hand when they open the season against Central Arkansas at noon Friday at the Ferrell Center.
But the Bears hope to make up for their lack of depth with considerable experience as four seniors return, including guard Manu Lecomte and forwards Jo Lual-Acuil, Terry Maston and Nuni Omot. Junior guards Jake Lindsey and King McClure also return.
“The great thing about playing in the Sweet 16 or going deep into March is the experience it gives to the returning players,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “It should make everybody a little hungrier. Always having four seniors is a good thing, especially coming off of postseason the last few years.”
With newcomers Tristan Clark and Mark Vital joining the rotation, the Bears are ranked No. 24 in both the Associated Press and coaches preseason polls. Staying healthy will be important as the Bears attempt to reach the NCAA tournament for a school-record fifth straight year.
Baylor lost two key players from last year’s team, including second-team All-America forward Johnathan Motley and versatile forward Ish Wainright, now a tight end on the Baylor football team. Motley averaged a team-high 17.3 points and 9.9 rebounds last year before deciding to forgo his senior year and signing with the Dallas Mavericks.
Replacing Motley’s production in the paint will likely demand a group effort from Lual-Acuil, Maston, Omot, Clark and Vital.
“He did great things, he was an All-American, he helped us win a lot of games,” Lual-Acuil said. “But you can’t look at it as anybody coming in and doing all that because that’s a big shoe to fill. Collectively, I think we can replace him. But I don’t think there’s just one person that we can look at and put all the pressure on like that.”
The 7-foot Lual-Acuil made the all-Big 12 defensive team last season as he led the league with 2.5 blocks per game. He averaged 9.2 points and 6.7 rebounds, and should put up bigger numbers this year.
“Jo’s become a more consistent scorer, but what makes him elite is his shot-blocking presence,” Drew said. “He’s gotten better at rebounding and he’s gotten better at making free throws. He had so much energy early last season but going through the grind of the Big 12 for the first time always wears on you. But now he knows what it takes.”
Maston gave the Bears valuable minutes off the bench last year, and was particularly hot in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament as he scored 22 points against New Mexico State and 19 against USC to propel Baylor into the Sweet 16.
But Drew is counting on him to be more consistent throughout his senior season after averaging 7.1 points and 3.8 rebounds while playing 15.6 minutes per game last year.
“Terry was such an offensive spark last year, but with Motley gone he needs to show more consistency,” Drew said. “Offensively he’s just gifted. He scores very easily. With the added strength you get throughout your college career, hopefully he’s a better rebounder and defender as well.”
Omot didn’t become eligible until after the fall semester last season, and had some good moments. At 6-9, he has the size to boost Baylor’s rebounding and has a good shooting touch from the perimeter.
The Bears should get a boost from the 6-5, 230-pound Vital who redshirted last year. He was ranked the No. 1 recruit in Louisiana in the 2016 class, and has gained a reputation for his high flying dunks.
The only incoming freshman in this year’s class is Tristan Clark, a 6-9, 245-pound forward who averaged 17.5 points and 10.1 rebounds in leading San Antonio Wagner to the Class 6A finals last year. Drew is expecting major contributions from Clark on a thin roster.
“Tristan’s somebody who is different than most freshmen,” Drew said. “He comes in with a physical frame. Tristan can score inside, he also can knock down the jumper. He’s somebody who has a great demeanor, just wants to get better each and every day.”
Baylor’s guard rotation of Lecomte, Lindsey and McClure will be counted on heavily to play a lot of minutes and be productive in numerous areas. With Al Freeman transferring to North Carolina State and Wendell Mitchell to Trinity Valley Community College, the Bears will need to get the most from their remaining guards.
After transferring from Miami, Lecomte was named Big 12 newcomer of the year last season as he took over at point guard and averaged 12.2 points and a team-high 3.8 assists while shooting 40.8 percent from three-point range.
Lecomte gained further experience by playing for the Belgium national team over the summer.
“It was a great experience to play with real pros,” Lecomte said. “They already make money and are like 30 years old at least. The game is different. It teaches you another part of the game, so it helped me a lot.”
Lindsey came off the bench for most of his first two seasons at Baylor, but should take a bigger role as both a shooting guard and point guard. He’s a savvy player who improved his three-point shooting percentage to 40.4 last season.
“The great thing about Jake is he’s one of those guys that has no ego and no concern, it’s whatever’s best for the team,” Drew said. “And he’s one of those guys that comes up, ‘Coach, you want me off the bench? You want me starting? Whatever you want, I’m great with.’ I’m sure at some point we’ll have him in both of those roles.”
McClure is one of the most athletic players on the team, and gained valuable experience by starting 13 games at shooting guard last season. His minutes and stats should take a big jump after he averaged 14.3 minutes and scored 5.0 points per game.
Both guard Tyson Jolly and center Leonard Allen are currently out with medical issues. If they return, Baylor will have much more depth, but for now the Bears will go with an eight-man rotation with the players they have available.
The Bears went unbeaten through a strong nonconference schedule last season, and they hope to do the same with powerhouses like Wisconsin, Xavier and Wichita State coming up in the next few weeks.
“I think we have one of the toughest non-conference (schedules),” Lual-Acuil said. “But we just look at it one game at a time. Right now, we’re just focused on Central Arkansas. Hopefully, we get a victory. And then from there, we’ll look at our mistakes and what we did wrong, things we did right.”