When Baylor hits the court for the first time Tuesday night, Scott Drew will be just as interested as most fans to see what his basketball team looks like.
Drew is excited about his personnel, but he doesn’t know who will provide most of the scoring, which rebounders will emerge, and how they’ll mesh as a team.
Fielding his least experienced team in 14 years, there’s an air of mystery surrounding the Bears, who will open the season at 8:30 p.m. against Texas Southern at the Ferrell Center.
“I’m definitely excited about the potential of this group,” Drew said. “Each and every day we’re going to get better. We’ll be better throughout the year than we are at the beginning of the year. We have a lot of good pieces. I’m excited to see how quickly they can come together.”
The Bears will be without sophomore guard Mario Kegler, who Drew said will be suspended for the first six games for violation of team rules. Kegler, who sat out under NCAA transfer rules last season, is expected to be a key player for the Bears after transferring from Mississippi State.
Gone from last year’s 19-15 team are the four leading scorers, including guards Manu Lecomte and Nuni Omot, forward Terry Maston and center Jo Lual-Acuil. After a school-record four straight NCAA tournament appearances, the Bears were bounced by Mississippi State in the second round of last year’s NIT.
With senior guard Jake Lindsey out for the year following hip surgery, senior guard King McClure is Baylor’s top returning scorer after averaging 8.1 points last season. Sophomore forwards Tristan Clark and Mark Vital are the only other returning players from last year’s roster.
It’s little wonder the Bears were picked ninth in the Big 12 preseason poll, ranking ahead of Oklahoma State. Yale graduate transfer guard Makai Mason and his teammates will try to prove everybody wrong.
“I’ve kind of been underrated my whole life and a lot of our guys feel the same way,” Mason said. “We just try to take that chip on our shoulder and go out there and try to prove something.”
Instead of playing exhibition games, the Bears had two preseason scrimmages against Vanderbilt and SMU. Drew liked the potential he saw, but the Bears will certainly be a work in progress as the season unfolds.
“From Day 1, we’ve really enjoyed the work ethic, energy, excitement,” Drew said. “Especially with so many new players, first-year players, there’s a lot of teaching going on. And because of that, we’ve adjusted what we’ve done practice-wise to try to scrimmage as much as possible, bring in officials as much as possible, just to get them used to what games will be like.”
As the only returning senior, McClure will need to take on a bigger leadership role and develop into a more consistent player after shooting 35 percent from 3-point range last year.
“I feel like I’m definitely a leader on this team,” McClure said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys, a lot of guys who have never played on this level before. And they look to me as the older veteran on the squad. We’re down by 10, what do we do? Who do we look to? You can’t always look to the coach, because the best teams are player-led teams.”
McClure will need some outside shooting help from junior college transfer guards Darius Allen and Devonte Bandoo. Allen averaged 14 points and shot 36.2 percent from 3-point range last year for Palm Beach (Fla.) State while Bandoo averaged 16.6 points and 5.8 rebounds while shooting 43.8 percent from 3-point range for Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College.
The Bears got a better look than they wanted at Mason when he played for Yale as he burned them for 31 points in a first-round NCAA tournament upset in Providence in 2016.
Mason was an all-Ivy League guard that season as he averaged 16 points and 3.8 assists, but he’s been plagued by foot problems the last two years. Since the Ivy League doesn’t allow fifth-year redshirt players, Mason transferred to Baylor for his final year of eligibility following graduation from Yale.
Drew said Mason tweaked an ankle and it will be a game-time decision whether he plays in the opener. Throughout the season, Drew will monitor the point guard’s minutes to try to avoid more foot issues.
“I’m used to being able to work out whenever I want to all the time,” Mason said. “So trying to manage that is a little bit of a challenge, but it’s just something you’ve kind of got to deal with.”
Mason will likely share point guard duties with freshman Jared Butler, who originally signed with Alabama but received a waiver to play for Baylor. Butler was a two-time all-state guard for Riverside Academy in Reserve, La., as he averaged 27.4 points, 8.8 rebounds and 8.4 assists as a senior.
Butler comes from the same hometown as former Baylor stars Tweety Carter and Rico Gathers.
“The good thing with Makai getting limited minutes at practice and limited practice days, it gives Jared a lot more reps and a lot more opportunity to get comfortable in running the point,” Drew said. “That’s been great for Jared. As far as our team goes, the good thing is you’ve got several guys that can handle the ball.”
Clark is poised to take a big step forward after starting 30 games for the Bears last season and averaging 6.8 points and 4.5 rebounds while shooting an impressive 60.8 percent from the field.
At 6-9 and 240 pounds, Clark can withstand the physicality of the Big 12, and understands the mentality it takes to play at a high level.
“You’ve got to compete every single game and every possession,” Clark said. “Our coaches tell us that every game counts and you don’t know which game is going to get you out of the NCAA tournament. Every game has to be important, every possession has to be important. In the Big 12 we’re playing monsters. Everybody’s good, everybody’s talented.”
Coming off the bench last season, Vital showed glimpses of his athleticism and the energy he can provide. The 6-5 Vital is known for his highlight reel dunks, but is hoping to develop a stronger all-around game after averaging 6.7 points and 5.6 rebounds last season.
Kegler underwent offseason arthroscopic knee surgery, but played in Baylor’s scrimmages. The 6-7 sophomore will bring versatility to the floor after averaging 9.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and shooting 34.5 percent from 3-point range two years ago at Mississippi State.
“Mario is one of those guys who is a jack of all trades,” Drew said. “He handles it and defends it and is physical. There’s really no deficiency or weakness in his game. At the same time basketball these days is people being able to play one through four or one through five, and being able to guard one through four and one through five. He’s a perfect fit for that.”
One of the highlights for the Bears during their preseason scrimmages was the play of freshman Matt Mayer, a 6-9 forward from Austin Westlake. Like Kegler, Mayer will bring versatility to the table with his height and long-range shooting touch.
“Matt’s a dynamic offensive player, so he’s somebody that can score in bunches,” Drew said. “Typical of most incoming players, the emphasis in high school is mostly on the offensive end. So just learning the physicality and what’s required on the defensive end is always the biggest adjustment for freshmen.”
More strength inside will come from 6-8, 240-pound junior Freddie Gillespie and 6-10, 245-pound freshman Flo Thamba. Gillespie redshirted last year after transferring from Division III Carleton College where he averaged 9.7 points and 8.3 rebounds two years ago for the Northfield, Minn., school. Thamba averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds as a senior at Mountain Mission School in Grundy, Va.
The Bears will play a grueling nonconference schedule that includes Mississippi in the Emerald Coast Classic in Niceville, Fla., road dates at Wichita State and Arizona, and home games against SFA, Oregon and Alabama. They’ll face the usual grind in the Big 12.
“We’ve got to have one of the most challenging schedules, and I think that’s something Coach Drew tries to do and that’s something the players really look forward to,” Mason said. “Having all those challenges early in the year and preparing us for the Big 12 I think is really going to help us. That was one of the things that attracted me to Baylor, the opportunity to play in the Big 12. Every night is going to be a dogfight and that’s really fun.”