With the top four scorers gone from last year’s team, Baylor coach Scott Drew will put his least experienced basketball squad on the floor in 14 years.
Drew might have to check the names and numbers of his players when the Bears open the season against Texas Southern on Nov. 6 at the Ferrell Center. After opening preseason workouts last Wednesday, the Bears are very much a mystery team with a lot of lot of moving parts.
“It’s the least experienced team we’ve had since our second year here, so it’s been a long time since we’ve been this inexperienced,” said Drew, who is entering his 16th season as Baylor’s coach. “But at the same time we really like the group in general. They work really hard and spend a lot of time on their own in the gym. They’re a very good academic group.”
Gone from last year’s team are guard Manu Lecomte, forwards Nuni Omot and Terry Maston, and center Jo Lual-Acuil. The Bears finished 19-15 and reached the second round of the NIT after missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years.
The Bears will also miss guard Jake Lindsey, a key member of the team for three seasons who is redshirting this year after undergoing hip surgery. Lindsey said he’ll see how rehabilitation goes before deciding whether to come back and play as a fifth-year senior next year.
“If I’m not healthy enough, there’s no point in hurting myself,” Lindsey said. “But I would love to come back and play. It’s just a matter if I’m healthy enough.”
However, Lindsey will still be with the team helping out the coaching staff.
“Jake is like having a coach on the floor,” Drew said. “He always knew when and where the ball needed to be, what defense. So that experience and just everything he brought as far as leadership-wise will definitely be missed on the court. He’s a Baylor guy, loves Baylor. Each and every day he’s trying to help make sure this team is ready to go so we can be successful this year.”
Shooting guard King McClure is the only senior and is the top returning scorer after averaging 8.1 points per game. The Bears will likely need more consistent scoring from him and his senior leadership will be important.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys, a lot of guys who have never played on this level before,” McClure said. “And they look to me as the older veteran on the squad. You can’t always look to the coach because the best teams are player-led teams. I think my biggest role would be me being a leader, guiding the younger guys so that they can know what to do, how to play, and just provide my experience.”
Besides McClure, sophomore forwards Tristan Clark and Mark Vital are the only other players who have seen game action with the Bears.
The 6-5 Vital will provide the Bears with a lot of energy and athleticism. Clark, a 6-9, 240-pound power forward, showed a lot of promising signs last season, as he averaged 6.8 points and 4.5 rebounds.
“Tristan has really improved,” Drew said. “He’s somebody who finished last year analytically as our second most efficient offensive player in Big 12 play. Physically he’s gotten bigger and stronger, and somebody that’s more confident. So we’re going to expect a lot from him and we need a lot from him.”
The Bears are expecting major contributions from transfer guards Makai Mason and Mario Kegler. A graduate transfer from Yale, Mason burned the Bears for 31 points in the Bulldogs’ 79-75 upset in the first round of the 2016 NCAA tournament in Providence.
However, Mason has been plagued by foot problems the last two years, so keeping him healthy will be a major goal because the Bears need his experience at point guard.
“The irony is Makai is one of those guys who loves to be in the gym,” Drew said. “One of the stories I love hearing about him from Yale is he went to a dance formal and he was on his scooter. He left halfway through to get 500 shots up in the gym on his scooter. He’s somebody who loves being in the gym, and hence you’ve got to guard against him doing too much on his foot because his foot has had a couple of surgeries and has a lot of scar tissue and wear and tear.”
The versatile Kegler is expected to be one of Baylor’s top scorers after averaging 9.7 points and 5.5 rebounds as a freshman two years ago at Mississippi State. Kegler, who sat out last year due to NCAA transfer rules, underwent offseason arthroscopic knee surgery but is expected to be ready to play early in the season.
“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.”
The Bears received some good news recently when the NCAA granted freshman guard Jared Butler a waiver to play this season after he enrolled at Alabama this summer.
Butler is from Reserve, La., where he played under Tim Byrd, who coached former Baylor stars Tweety Carter and Rico Gathers. As a senior last season at Riverside Academy, Butler made all-state as he averaged 27.4 points, 8.8 rebounds and 8.4 assists.
“All Coach Byrd’s guys know how to compete and how to win, and Jared Butler’s a competitor,” Drew said. “He’s a great athlete. He was a really good football player before focusing on basketball his senior year. He’s somebody who can run the floor, sees the floor real well, has good size and strength, and all the intangibles you’d want from a player.”
Junior college transfers Devonte Bandoo and Darius Allen will give the Bears more outside shooting options at guard while 6-9 freshman wing Matthew Mayer brings a variety of outside and inside skills.
Junior Freddie Gillespie and freshman Flo Thamba will be counted on as rim protectors. Gillespie stands 6-8 while Thamba is 6-10.
“Freddie Gillespie is somebody who might be one of the most improved players I’ve ever been around just from his time here to where he is now,” Drew said. “He’s got a 7-6 wingspan, so he does a great job contesting shots at the rim. Flo is somebody with a 7-5 wingspan, so a lot of athleticism with those two.”
Guards Davion Mitchell from Auburn and MaCio Teague from North Carolina-Ashville are redshirting this year due to NCAA transfer rules. But they will help the Bears prepare for games with the skills they bring to practice.
“Davion and MaCio are two guys you don’t have to watch much of practice to know they’re really good,” Drew said. “The best thing about them is their intangibles. They love to be in the gym. They take care of their business in the classroom and are very good students. They do a great job of getting other guys in the gym as well. We’ll get better each and every day of practice because of them.”