Men’s basketball is unquestionably the most transient of college sports.
One-and-done NBA-bound players are common at powerhouses like Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke. With only five starting positions available on the court, transfers are also a major part of the culture.
All these factors make it difficult for coaches to put experienced teams on the floor.
But Baylor coach Scott Drew’s team is an exception. All five Baylor starters are upperclassmen including senior guard Ish Wainright, junior forwards Johnathan Motley and Jo Lual-Acuil, and junior guards Manu Lecomte and Al Freeman.
That abundance of experience is a big reason why the Bears reached No. 1 for the first time in school history last week. Now ranked No. 6, Baylor matched its best start in school history at 17-1 with its 74-64 win over Texas on Tuesday at the Ferrell Center.
While Wainright is the only senior on the squad, all four starting juniors have redshirted and are in their fourth season of college basketball. Both Motley and Freeman redshirted when they arrived at Baylor as freshmen in 2013 while Lecomte redshirted last year under NCAA transfer rules after playing two seasons at Miami.
Following his transfer from Neosho County Community College, Lual-Acuil redshirted last year due to a heart issue.
Redshirts are much more common in college football because gaining strength is so important for high school players stepping up to the next level. But having that extra year to put on muscle and learn the system can also benefit college basketball players, and it has certainly paid off for Baylor.
“The vast majority of recruits want to play major minutes right away,” said Texas coach Shaka Smart. “What Coach Drew has done is have frank conversations with his guys that development right now is the most important thing. You look at a guy like Motley. When he was a redshirt sophomore last year, he was way ahead of schedule. With guys redshirting and bringing in transfers, it gives them the opportunity to become an older team and have some continuity. The guys sitting out learn the system and know what goes into winning.”
Drew remembers a conversation he had with point guard Tweety Carter, who starred for the Bears from 2006-10. Carter made an immediate impact for the Bears, helping them reach the NCAA tournament in 2008, the NIT finals in 2009 and the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament in 2010.
“Tweety Carter said, ‘Why didn’t you let me redshirt my freshman year?’” Drew said. “You were a McDonald’s All-American. He’s like still you should have given me the option. From that point on our staff thought about it and said maybe we need to give guys options because that’s the fair thing to do.”
While all-Big 12 forward Ekpe Udoh and guard Brady Heslip had to redshirt due to NCAA transfer rules, Drew redshirted Cory Jefferson during his second year on campus in 2010-11 because the Bears had an abundance of big men. The move paid off as Jefferson became an NBA draft pick in 2014.
Motley wasn’t thrilled to redshirt when Drew first approached him with the idea in 2013.
“I didn’t really want to hear that,” Motley said. “I was ready to play and come in and help the team. But I met with some people like my mom and I thought it would be a better thing for me to do. Just adding weight and going against guys like Cory Jefferson, Rico Gathers and Isaiah Austin every day prepared me for where I am now. Looking back on it I’m thankful I did it. I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t done it.”
Motley has seen the benefits as he’s become Baylor’s leading scorer and rebounder as a fourth-year junior and is among 25 candidates for the John Wooden Award as the nation’s top player. He’ll likely be picked in the NBA draft if he decides to forgo his senior year.
“Everybody wants to be in the NBA after high school and they’re upset they have to go to college,” Drew said. “After one year of college they wish they still could be in the NBA. So we don’t make anyone redshirt. We give them the options because at the end of the day it’s their final decision on everything.”
Redshirting often isn’t practical for coaches since the NCAA only allows men’s basketball programs 13 scholarships. But Baylor should be well set up for the future by currently redshirting freshman guard Tyson Jolly and freshman forward Mark Vital while guard Wendell Mitchell redshirted last season.
Drew is reaping the rewards of his foresight to redshirt players, and he’s got a top 10 team to show for it.