It wasn’t even so much about today.
There will always be another day — that is, until there’s not anymore. For Baylor, Saturday’s 73-68 loss to seventh-ranked Kansas provided an opportunity for self-reflection. A chance for the Bears to ask themselves, “Who are we going to be going forward?”
The basketball gods can be ruthless sometimes. They played identity thief before the game ever started, shoplifting Baylor’s sophomore big man Tristan Clark, unquestionably the team’s best player. Clark will miss the rest of the season due to a knee injury that Baylor forward Mark Vital said “hurt a lot” for the Bears.
That the Bears struggled most of the day to produce much in the way of aesthetically-pleasing basketball on Saturday isn’t really the point. Baylor could have lost to the Jayhawks with Clark in the lineup.
But Clark is gone. And the Bears must figure out a new identity — and quickly.
Look, nobody on Baylor’s roster is going to replace Tristan Clark. Short of some radical cloning procedure coming out of the Baylor science building, Clark’s consistent low-post scoring — he led the nation in field-goal percentage at 73.7 percent — and sturdy rim protection are no more. Such gifts are irreplaceable.
What’s more, Clark’s absence was especially conspicuous from the outset. Before, when the Bears really — I mean like really-truly-really-really — needed a basket, they could dump it down to the post to Clark, and he gave them a highly reliable option. As the Bears missed their first 15 shots from the floor, the question for those in the security-guard-neon jerseys was cruelly evident — where’s the offense going to come from with this group?
Any injury hurts. When it’s your best guy, the pain level only increases. But an injury is also an opportunity. It’s an opportunity for others to hoist themselves up to the backboard, take a gander at their reflections, and ask, who am I? What can I give this team?
“That’s the great thing about a team is it gives other people opportunities to step up,” Drew said. “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.”
This is an opportunity for Makai Mason. The transfer guard from Yale must play the heady floor general role, because the Bears need it more than ever. He’s got to play with Ivy League smarts. He needs to know when to pull the trigger on his own shot, and when to keep the ball moving to his teammates.
This is an opportunity for King McClure. The senior guard has a chance to carve out a more significant slice of the scoring pie. McClure must fire away with confidence. He’s got to be the King, not a Prince or an Earl or a Duke. He’ll have better days than his 1-for-8, four-point outing against the Jayhawks. He’ll have to.
This is an opportunity for the 6-foot-8 Freddie Gillespie and the 7-foot Flo Thamba. Those dudes possess that ever-enticing tangible of size, so by default they’re going to get more time. Gillespie and Thamba averaged a combined 20 minutes an outing before. Against Kansas, they logged 26 minutes, and their playing time figures to only increase in the coming weeks.
But they’ve got to be more than warm bodies out there.
“No question. They’ll have an opportunity to (play),” Drew said. “The good thing is, they have their own skill sets and strengths, and we can utilize and play to them as well. 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.”
This is also an opportunity for Drew and his coaching staff. They’ve got to figure out new ways to score, new ways to win.
“Tristan did so much of that for us in the past, because if you give him the ball in a one-on-one (situation) he scores,” Drew said. “If you double, you give a shooter an open shot. That was the offense, to some degree. Now we need to work on everybody kind of picking up, getting other people shots. Because we have talented players, but you need to manage it. So we’ll create ways to put our guys in the best positions, because they all have talents and skill sets.”
Drew acknowledged after the game that part of the fun of coaching is tinkering. It’s taking what you have and trying to maximize its potential. It’s going to the drawing board and figuring out how to build a better mousetrap — even when your housecat has gotten lost.
At the end of the game, Baylor employed a press defense that presented the normally-cool Jayhawks with some problems. Baylor whittled a KU lead that was once 23 all the way to four. So, maybe that’s who the Bears need to be going forward. It’s hard to play a trapping style of defense all game long, but hey, West Virginia (aka Press Virginia) has shown it can be done. At the very least, maybe the Bears could roll it out in spurts.
I thought Baylor’s ceiling with Clark topped out in the NIT. Without him, a postseason appearance becomes all the more elusive.
But who knows? Maybe we’re just dealing with a case of mistaken identity. At the very least, you had to admire Baylor’s pluck against the heavily-favored Jayhawks.
“We’ve got a lot of talented players. We’ve got a lot of guys that care about each other, a lot of guys that want to win,” Drew said. “So now, it’s just putting them in position to be successful.
“We’re in football country. If you’ve got a drop-back quarterback and your offense is all spread offense, that’s great. But now if you go to a running quarterback, you better put in the Wildcat. We’ve got to figure that out. We’ll put in new things offensively, defensively, to put these guys in the best position to be successful.”
So, what’s next? That’s up to the Bears to decide.