After a rugged start to the season, Baylor was finally beginning to develop into the kind of team Scott Drew envisioned as Big 12 play got underway.
Everybody was healthy, grasping distinct roles, and forming team cohesiveness.
The Bears had a premier big man in Tristan Clark, a smart, experienced point guard in Makai Mason, a human hustle machine in forward Mark Vital, and solid veterans King McClure and Mario Kegler rounding out the starting lineup.
Players coming off the bench like guard Jared Butler and forward Matthew Mayer were providing instant energy. Everything came together in the Bears’ 73-70 win over No. 20 Iowa State last Tuesday.
But after Clark was diagnosed with a season-ending knee injury before Saturday’s 73-68 loss to No. 7 Kansas, the whole dynamic has changed.
Now Drew and his coaching staff will have to regroup and try to find different ways to attack as the Bears make a quick turnaround to face Oklahoma State at 8 p.m. Monday at Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater.
“In conference-only stats, we had the No. 1 offense in the Big 12 and lowest turnover percentage,” Drew said. “It took us a couple of weeks to get to that when we had everybody healthy, and now we’ve got to do the same thing. But that’s the great thing about a team is it gives other people opportunities to step up.
“I know everybody on the team was down and upset for Tristan, but we have good leadership and character. These guys want to win and they want to compete, and now they have an opportunity to do that in the Big 12.”
The loss to the Jayhawks left the Bears at 9-6 overall and 1-2 in the Big 12 heading into Monday’s road game at Oklahoma State. The Cowboys were erratic throughout nonconference play, but have won their last two games over Texas and West Virginia to even their record at 8-8 overall and 2-2 in the Big 12.
It’s extremely difficult to replace the 6-9 Clark because he did so many things for the Bears offensively and defensively. Not only was he Baylor’s second-leading scorer with a 14.6 average, he was third on the team with 6.3 rebounds per game and was far and away the best rim protector and shot blocker with 2.4 per game.
There wasn’t a more efficient offensive player in the Big 12 as he led the nation with a 73.7 shooting percentage, and was such a good passer that he could throw the ball back out from the post and set up his teammates for open shots.
“You look at Tristan, that’s a pretty good guy to get the ball to because he finishes at a high rate,” Drew said. “The other thing, he does such a good job passing out of double teams. Defensively, we were one of the top 10 teams in the nation in shot blocking percentage-wise, and he was a big part of that.”
Now forwards Mark Vital and Mario Kegler will need to take on bigger scoring roles and create a greater defensive presence in the paint. Vital stepped up against the Jayhawks for 10 points and nine rebounds while Kegler collected six rebounds and a blocked shot but had difficulty getting into an offensive groove as he hit just two of eight field goals and scored five points in 31 minutes.
Freshman center Flo Thamba and junior forward Freddie Gillespie will have to make bigger contributions as they each played 13 minutes against Kansas and combined for eight points and eight rebounds and a blocked shot.
“They’ll have an opportunity and the good thing is they have their own skill sets and strengths, and we can utilize and play to them as well,” Drew said. “We don’t need them to try to be Tristan, we need them to be Freddie and Flo. God gave them abilities, and we need the best of what they have.”
With Clark out, Butler moved into the starting lineup with outstanding results. The freshman point guard has shown great progress throughout the season, and stepped up against the Jayhawks as he scored a team-high 14 points while hitting four of eight 3-pointers with four rebounds and four assists.
The Bears hit the boards hard all afternoon against Kansas and finished with a 49-30 rebounding advantage. Trying to get back into the game after trailing by 23 points in the second half, Baylor’s press showed some promise by forcing numerous turnovers as the Bears pulled within four points late in the game.
“That’s the exciting thing of coaching is whatever players you have trying to put them in positions to be successful,” Drew said. “I think we had figured it out with Tristan, now we’ve got to figure it out without him. And it takes time to work on it. I know over the next couple weeks, we’ll be better. We’re playing games though now, so we’ve got to try to find ways to win in the meantime.”
The Cowboys are coming off Saturday’s impressive 85-77 road win over West Virginia in Morgantown. Freshman Isaac Likekele collected a team-high 23 points with nine rebounds while junior forward Cameron McGriff finished with 16 points and 10 boards.
Junior guard Curtis Jones, a transfer from Indiana, came off the bench to hit three of six 3-pointers and score 15 points. Junior guard Thomas Dziagwa nailed three of four treys and scored 11 points, and is a 45 percent 3-point shooter for the season.
McGriff has been Oklahoma State’s most consistent player throughout the season as he’s averaging a team-high 13.2 points and 8.1 rebounds. But as a whole, the Cowboys have had difficulty finding offensive consistency as they’ve shot just 43.6 percent.
The Bears have won their last six games against Oklahoma State, but winning any Big 12 game is going to be difficult without Clark, especially in tough road environments like Gallagher-Iba Arena.
“Every game in the Big 12 is a challenge,” Drew said. “For us, we had a loss (against Kansas). The good thing is that you want to get that taste out of your mouth, so you have a chance to play soon. Hopefully we can get the rest, get the food we need, then put together a simple game plan for them, then after that we’ll have a week to work on some things we can implement.”