After an erratic and sometimes unnerving nonconference schedule, Baylor coach Scott Drew hopes his team can play with enough cohesiveness to withstand the Big 12 grind.
That 18-game gauntlet begins Saturday at TCU’s Schollmaier Arena when the Bears face an 11-1 TCU team that continues to rise since coach Jamie Dixon’s arrival two years ago. Tipoff is set for 3 p.m. in Fort Worth.
The Bears (8-4) will open Big 12 play with some momentum after winning their last two games, including a 57-47 win over Oregon and an 84-44 blowout of New Orleans at the Ferrell Center. In those two games, Drew saw the kind of growth the Bears need to have a shot to win consistently in the Big 12.
“The biggest thing for us was the month of December, getting everyone acclimated and used to playing with each other,” Drew said. “It’s the first time we’ve been able to get continuity and get some chemistry. So I think we made huge strides because of the teams we played. They were quality opponents that prepared us for being ready to go in Big 12 play.”
The Bears struggled to find continuity earlier in their nonconference schedule since sophomore forward Mario Kegler was suspended for the first six games for an unspecified violation of team rules and senior guard Makai Mason missed the first three games with an ankle injury.
Both are playing their first season for the Bears after Kegler sat out last year under NCAA transfer rules following his freshman season at Mississippi State while Mason is a graduate transfer from Yale.
The Bears need both Mason and Kegler to play at a high level to enjoy Big 12 success. With his ankle improving, Mason ranks second on the squad with a 14-point average while dishing out a team-high three assists per game. Kegler is averaging nine points and 6.2 rebounds, but he’s shooting just 35.7 percent.
Sophomore forward Tristan Clark has been Baylor’s best offensive player as he leads the nation with a 78.0 shooting percentage and is averaging a team-high 14.3 points. But his teammates want him to look for more scoring opportunities.
“I think the biggest thing with Tristan is he’s so unselfish,” said Baylor guard King McClure. “Sometimes, we wish he was more selfish. He’s a willing passer, which is rare as a big for somebody to be able to pass that well, which is a skill. But sometimes, we would like him to just be more aggressive.”
Drew wants to see the Bears become a more proficient scoring team after ranking ninth in the Big 12 with 70.5 points per game and dead last with a 29.0 3-point percentage and 13.2 assists per game.
“Moving forward, hopefully we’re better taking care of the basketball, better sharing the basketball, better knowing where each person is at and having a better feel for the offense,” Drew said. “We’ve been able to add some things and tweak some things. They always say defense travels, so hopefully we can defend and rebound throughout Big 12 play. As our offense continues to improve and get better, hopefully we can be successful.”
After winning the NIT championship in his first season at his alma mater, Dixon led the Horned Frogs to their first NCAA tournament appearance in 20 years last season.
TCU’s only loss in 12 games this season was a 73-64 decision against Lipscomb on Nov. 20. Since then, the Horned Frogs have reeled off nine straight wins but haven’t played nearly as strong of a nonconference schedule as the Bears.
The Horned Frogs feature a veteran starting lineup that includes senior guard Alex Robinson, who is averaging 13.1 points and a Big 12-high 8.6 assists per game. Junior guard Desmond Bane is averaging 13.8 points and 5.5 rebounds while junior guard Jaylen Fisher is averaging 12.1 points and senior forward JD Miller is averaging 11.4 points and 6.3 rebounds.
Rounding out TCU’s starting lineup is 6-11 redshirt freshman center Kevin Samuel, who is averaging 8.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. Coming off the bench, sophomore forward Kouat Noi is TCU’s second leading scorer with a 13.7-point average while pulling down 4.8 rebounds per game.
The Horned Frogs rank third in the Big 12 with an 80.2 scoring average and lead the league with a 49.4 field goal percentage and 20.1 assists per game.
“Usually in college basketball, you can tell the teams that are pretty good because they’ve got a lot of fourth-year, fifth-year, third-year guys,” Drew said. “When your backcourt has played as many minutes and has been as successful as they have, that makes you feel a lot better as a coach. They do have a lot of experience and have been successful this year. They’re one of those teams that some people predict has a chance to win the league.”
With so many new players, Drew knows the Bears could have a tough time transitioning to the intensity of each Big 12 game. As Baylor’s lone senior who has been through the Big 12 wars, McClure believes he has to show his teammates the way.
“It’s definitely super competitive,” McClure said. “If you don’t come to play one night, you can get beat by 20 by anybody in the league. I love the competition. I’m a fierce competitor. I’ve just got to bring it every night. I hope the young guys can adapt. We’ve been telling them that’s how it is. I hope they listen and they take it in, so they can be prepared every single game.”