When you’re shorthanded, it changes everything.
Basketball is a 5-on-5 game, but coaches know better. If you want to beat the really good teams, you need about nine to 10 sturdy, reliable players. Now, they don’t all have to be movie stars. You can have a character actor or two, but you need that big ensemble cast. Think Ocean’s Eleven rather than the Magnificent Seven.
Down to just eight healthy scholarship players — it was seven before Baylor received the jolly news that freshman Tyson Jolly had been cleared to go — the Bears simply didn’t have enough bodies to push in Wichita State’s’ direction on Saturday.
“They’re banged up, we’re banged up, them probably a little more than us,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “We feel their pain.”
When you’re shorthanded, there is no wiggle room. Think you have room for error? Think again. You’re in a crowded New York City subway car. At rush hour. On Black Friday.
Baylor couldn’t afford to have Jo Lual-Acuil no-show for the first half. The Bears couldn’t overcome their own hesitancy to pull the trigger on open shots — Jake Lindsey should have launched at least three more shot attempts than he did, even hitting just 1-for-6. In a gritty, physical game against a junkyard dog of an opponent, Baylor couldn’t play 5-on-8, either. You’ve got to get some luck with the calls, and the Bears didn’t.
Wichita State has a history of swooping behind enemy lines and winning games and deflating packed arenas.
I’m not one to normally criticize the officials — and I’m not blaming Baylor’s loss on them, not unless they swished in a bunch of 3-pointers when I wasn’t looking — but they definitely botched a couple of critical calls down the stretch. A Shocker defender yanked Acuil to the court late in the second half as a pass sailed over the outstretched fingers of the Baylor center, yet the baseline official whistled possession to the Shockers. (Air ball on the referee.)
Whatever. Play on, make up for it later. And Baylor didn’t.
You know how some basketball coaches will tell a guy, “You’ve got five fouls, use them all?” Scott Drew can’t do that with this Baylor team. Foul trouble is big trouble for the Bears. Who’s he going to put in — the managers? Whichever student-section sign holder can hit a free throw?
If you haven’t been doing the math, here’s how Baylor got in this situation. In NCAA men’s basketball, teams have 13 scholarships. Two guards — Al Freeman and Wendell Mitchell — transferred over the offseason, and their spots weren’t filled. That’s 11 guys. Jolly, a guard from Oklahoma City, was sidelined with a heart issue. Now we’re at 10. Leonard Allen, a promising sophomore seven-footer, took a leave of absence due to personal medical issues, the team announced in late October. That’s nine. Guard Mario Kegler, a former Mississippi State player, has to sit out this season by NCAA transfer rules. Down to eight. Terry Maston’s recent broken hand — he was Baylor’s steadiest low-post scorer, shooting 63 percent — brings the count to seven.
Hey, but on the upside, Jolly’s return pushes it back to eight.
“Eight’s better than seven,” said Drew, always able to find the positive spin.
Sure, Baylor has some walk-on players, but it’s been such a challenge that Drew hasn’t been able to conduct many 5-on-5 drills or scrimmages in practice. That makes it difficult when you’re trying to prepare for a team like Wichita State, which entered Saturday’s contest No. 1 in the country in rebounding margin, at plus-18.
“It’s been tough lately,” Baylor guard Manu Lecomte said. “We’re trying to bring guys in. Ish (Wainright) was there yesterday (at practice), came back. Obim (Okeke) now, and a couple other guys trying to help us. And that’s big-time.”
Now there’s no reason for the Bears to be running through the bowels of the Ferrell Center yanking fire alarms. It’s not panic time. Truth be told, it was rather remarkable that they were right in the game against a Shocker team that torched the nets at 62 percent from 3-point range.
If the duel with the Shockers offered a sneak-peek trailer into what’s yet to come in Big 12 play, and both Drew and the Baylor players compared it to a conference game, it shows that it’s going to be a grind every night for the Bears. They’re going to need more of a bulldog mentality, the kind of growl that 6-5 freshman forward Mark Vital (8 points, 7 rebounds) gave them off the bench. He offered Vitality. (Boo-hiss, I know).
“That’s how it’s going to be in the Big 12. Every game is going to be tough,” Lecomte said.
The next five games before Big 12 play shouldn’t be tough, however, and that’s good news for the Bears. After back-to-back slugfests against Top 25 foes Xavier and Wichita State, Baylor will play the likes of Sam Houston State, Randall, Texas Southern, Savannah State and Southern prior to the start of conference play at Texas Tech on Dec. 29.
The Bears need those games to get Vital and Nuni Omot more acclimated to playing the power forward position with Maston on the shelf. They need time to work Jolly into the mix. Maybe they can recruit a couple more warm bodies from the football team, as they did with Okeke, a running back for Matt Rhule who played both football and basketball at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas. They need time for Maston to get healthy.
If Saturday’s game taught us anything, it’s that this Baylor team is still good.
It’s just not deep.