In an era of college basketball when one-and-dones and transfers are common, Baylor coach Scott Drew knows how fortunate he is to return a veteran team that’s gathered NCAA tournament experience.
Drew doesn’t have to rebuild with players who have only known each other a few months like so many other Power 5 conference teams across the country.
This Baylor team is loaded with players who have played together for two or three years and have developed a chemistry that should be apparent when they open the season Tuesday at 11 a.m. against Central Arkansas at the Ferrell Center.
“We have a lot of guys who know what it takes to be successful in the Big 12 and the NCAA tournament with the experience we were able to garner last year,” Drew said. “As a group we feel confident that we’ll have a lot of opportunities with our schedule to show people what kind of team we can be. Practice has been very competitive, and that’s a strength of this year’s team is our depth and experience.”
The Big 12 coaches picked the Bears second behind Kansas in the preseason poll, a much different scenario than last year when they were picked ninth. The Bears are ranked No. 16 in the Associated Press preseason poll after entering last season unranked.
Last year’s team overachieved as it finished 20-14 overall and fourth in the Big 12 at 10-8, and ended the season with a second-round NCAA tournament loss to powerful Gonzaga after opening with a win over Syracuse.
Drew did a masterful job of juggling his lineup after forward Tristan Clark went down with a knee injury in early January and senior guards Makai Mason and King McClure battled injuries during Big 12 play. Drew hopes he won’t have to deal with so many injuries this season, but the Bears have the depth to withstand some adversity.
“Having depth is huge and it gives us some versatility and different lineups,” said Baylor senior forward Freddie Gillespie “We can throw things at different teams as long as we keep everyone healthy, knock on wood.”
The Baylor players got another opportunity to bond this summer as they played four games in Italy while experiencing the culture. They could see the benefits of the trip when they opened practice this fall.
“The foreign tour was tremendous,” said junior guard MaCio Teague. “We spent a lot of time with each other, just walking around in Italy, in Rome, especially Florence. It was a very good time building bonds with each other and creating memories that will last a lifetime. Not only on the basketball court, but we’ll be able to call each other in the years to come and talk about the things we did in Italy.”
Keeping Clark healthy will be a key to a highly successful season. Before he went down last year, the 6-10 junior was averaging 14.6 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting a phenomenal 73.7 percent from the field.
Drew has seen Clark, a preseason all-Big 12 choice, expand his shooting range and expects him to be better than ever.
“During his absence, he’s been able to improve some of his strength but really improve his shooting,” Drew said. “Not that he was a bad shooter before, but he’s expanded his range and that will definitely help our team this year. I just asked everyone to realize he’s going to be much better at the end of the year than maybe he is at the beginning of the year as he gets that rust off and gets back into what he used to do.”
Though starting forward Mario Kegler left the team this semester to turn pro following a suspension, the Bears still have a lot of experience up front. Junior forward Mark Vital averaged 7.2 points and 7.2 rebounds last season and set the tone for Baylor’s defense with his non-stop hustle.
Gillespie was a surprise last year as the former walk-on averaged 5.3 points and 4.4 rebounds and used his 6-9, 245-pound frame to muscle up with some of the Big 12’s best big men.
With Clark drawing attention from defenses, Gillespie should have more opportunities to score.
“Playing alongside someone like Tristan allows Freddie now to be a recipient,” Drew said. “Last year when he was the only big in, spacing was different. With Tristan requiring so many double teams, it allows somebody like Freddie the opportunity to get offensive rebounds and get a lot of dunks.”
Sophomore forward Flo Thamba showed his raw athleticism last year and should be a more polished player in his second year in Drew’s system. Freshman forward Jordan Turner could also be a factor after producing two solid seasons at Sunrise Christian Academy in Bel Aire, Kan.
With Mason and King dealing with injuries last season, point guard Jared Butler stepped up big for the Bears as a freshman last season by averaging 10.2 points and 2.7 assists while hitting 60 3-pointers and shooting 35.1 percent beyond the arc.
Butler showed he could carry a team in a tough environment as he scored 31 points against Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse, and exhibited his defensive prowess by ranking second on the team with 33 steals.
While Butler is a returning starter, guard Devonte Bandoo was Baylor’s most productive sixth man last season as he averaged 8.4 points and shot a team-best 39.5 percent from 3-point range.
“Jared had a great summer with the USA team and trying out for that and playing overseas (in Italy),” Drew said. “Devonte was tremendous overseas as well. Playing overseas gives you 10 extra practices and four extra game experiences and puts those guys further along.”
With Teague and Auburn transfer Davion Mitchell eligible to play after sitting out last year under NCAA transfer rules, the Bears will have plenty of experienced depth at guard.
Teague is a superb outside shooter who averaged 16.7 points and shot 42.5 percent from three-point range two years ago at North Carolina-Asheville while Mitchell came off he bench for Auburn as a freshman two years ago.
“They had an impact on the team last year because every day in practice they got us better and they were able to learn the system and get a chance to run everybody else’s offense in the Big 12 and see what everybody did,” Drew said. “So they give you some experience. Davion is in his third year of college, MaCio is in his fourth year of college. Both are very good players and more than excited to play after spending last year watching.”
Matthew Mayer, a 6-9 sophomore guard, showed some glimpses of his potential last year with his shooting and driving ability. He could become a factor as he improves his defensive skills.
Since the Bears have considerable depth, Drew can alter his lineup from three big men to three guards depending on what the situation calls for.
“That’s the strength of our team,” Drew said. “Probably the bigs would think we’re a big team, the wings would think we have a lot of wings, though nowadays in basketball everyone thinks they’re a guard. I would say in college basketball your guards dictate so much. If you don’t have good guards, it’s really hard to be successful. We’re blessed to have good guards this year who are experienced.”
Though they’re sitting out this year under NCAA transfer rules, former UNLV forward Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Presbyterian guard Adam Flagler will add practice depth.
Drew annually plays a strong nonconference schedule to boost Baylor’s NCAA tournament resume, and this year is no exception as the Bears face traditional powers Arizona (Dec. 7) and Butler (Dec. 10) in back to back home games. The Bears could also play Utah and Villanova in the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Invitational.
“The NCAA has rewarded teams for playing quality opponents in nonconference,” Drew said. “Players want to play in good games and coaches want to coach in good games, and now it’s the quality wins more than just your total win record. We’ve gone out and tried to challenge ourselves.”