Coming off last year’s Sweet 16 appearance, the veteran Baylor basketball players hope they can parlay that experience into another deep NCAA tournament run.
Key players like point guard Manu Lecomte, center Jo Lual-Acuil, forward Terry Maston and guards Jake Lindsey and King McClure are back and ready to see how far they can take this year’s team.
The Bears are in their first week of preseason drills in preparation for the Nov. 10 season opener against Central Arkansas at the Ferrell Center.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys who played in big moments and hit big shots in big moments,” Lindsey said. “We have that experience and are ready to carry that over into bigger roles.”
The biggest issue facing the Bears is replacing Johnathan Motley’s presence in the paint. Motley earned second-team All-America honors by averaging 17.3 points and 9.9 rebounds last season before deciding to forgo his senior year and sign as a free agent with the Dallas Mavericks.
The burden will likely fall on Maston and Lual-Acuil, a pair of seniors who have to come up big inside. The 7-0 Lual-Acuil is a towering defensive presence who led the Big 12 with 2.5 blocks per game and averaged 6.7 rebounds, but he’ll likely need to be a bigger scoring threat after averaging 9.1 points last year.
“Jo is one of the premier defensive players in the country,” Drew said. “The intensity he brought, especially early in the year, was really special. And now I think after another year of weights and conditioning, hopefully he’ll be able to maintain that intensity and level of play throughout the Big 12.”
Maston delivered some big games last season, including a pair of 19-point performances in Baylor’s first two NCAA tournament wins over New Mexico State and USC. But the senior forward needs to be more productive for the Bears on a game-by-game basis.
“T.J. offensively is just gifted,” Drew said. “He scores very easily. When you lose Johnathan Motley you need somebody to pick up that scoring slack, and hopefully he’s able to do that. T.J. has definitely had flashes of brilliance, and now we want it to be more consistent.”
Nuni Omot, a 6-9 senior forward, should also help as an inside and outside scoring threat. Drew is also high on 6-9 freshman forward Tristan Clark, a gifted college-ready player from San Antonio Wagner High School.
“Tristan is at 245 (pounds), and normally freshmen come in at 215 or 220,” Drew said. “We’re blessed with Tristan because he already has a great frame. Because of that he’s got a chance to be successful early on, and I’m excited about that. He’s somebody who is very talented and has done well in practices so far.”
Leonard Allen, another 7-footer, is an intriguing prospect who didn’t go directly to college basketball after graduating from Round Rock High School in 2013.
Allen last played at San Diego City College in 2015-16 where he averaged 14.6 points and 8.7 rebounds as a freshman. He said he sat out last season due to grade issues while taking online classes at Austin Community College.
Allen is the older brother of Jarrett Allen, who played as a freshman at Texas last season before becoming a first-round pick by the Brooklyn Nets this summer.
“Whenever you have a 7-footer, you know they get better with age,” Drew said. “Being an older sophomore, somebody who is more mature, it’s probably going to take him a year to return physically, just from playing one of the last four years of competitive basketball. The natural talent and ability he has you can’t teach.”
Baylor’s backcourt will be led by Lecomte, who enjoyed a superb junior season for the Bears as he averaged 12.2 points and a team-high 3.9 assists while shooting a team-best 40.8 percent from three-point range.
Lecomte played for the Belgium national team this summer and hopes to build off that experience.
“It was a great experience to play with real pros,” Lecomte said. “They already make money and are like 30 years old at least. The game is different. It teaches you another part of the game, so it helped me a lot.”
Lindsey came off the bench for most of his first two seasons at Baylor, but should take a bigger role as both a shooting guard and point guard. He’s a savvy player who improved his three-point shooting percentage to 40.4 percent last season.
King McClure is one of the most athletic players on the team, and gained valuable experience by starting 13 games at shooting guard last season. Redshirt freshman forward Mark Vital could make an impact while redshirt freshman guard Tyson Jolly is currently being withheld from playing due to an undisclosed medical issue.
One of the biggest keys for the Bears will be developing the type of chemistry last year’s team enjoyed. Finding a do-it-all player like Ish Wainright, now a member of Baylor’s football team, would be a major benefit for this year’s basketball team.
Drew is glad to have six upperclassmen who can teach the younger players how to approach practices and games.
“You have a lot of experience, and those guys are used to the rigors, the toughness and intensity in which you have to practice and play,” Drew said. “That sets the pace, and they help the young guys get through practice and making sure that they’re taking care of their bodies afterward so they’re ready to go the next day as well.”