No. 16 Baylor will be the first team in the country to tip off the new college basketball season Tuesday morning when it faces Central Arkansas at 11 a.m. at the Ferrell Center.
That’s OK with Scott Drew because he’s as anxious as anyone to see how his veteran team comes together. The Bears have so much depth that Drew won’t reveal his starting lineup until game time.
“You need to be here at 11 to find out,” Drew said. “The good thing for us, the starting lineup doesn’t matter. We have a good rotation and a lot of players who are capable of really contributing. That’s the great thing about depth is if someone gets in foul trouble, someone’s injured, someone’s not playing as well, you have a lot of people to pick up the slack.”
Baylor is labeling Tuesday’s early start as “I’m Going to College Day” with children from local schools taking a field trip to attend.
The season opener will feature the return of junior forward Tristan Clark, who is coming back from a knee injury suffered last season in early January. The preseason all-Big 12 choice was enjoying an outstanding year before his injury as he was averaging 14.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocks.
Clark, senior forward Freddie Gillespie and sophomore forward Matthew Mayer all underwent lengthy rehabilitation periods following injuries.
“The thing that’s still tough is with Tristan, Freddie and Matt coming off six-month rehabs and still trying to get them in the fold of things and seeing how they progress and how they’re able to do,” Drew said. “The way they play determines how many minutes they play. That’s the blessing in depth if someone’s not able to be successful, you can find someone else who is.”
With returning starter Mark Vital returning and Flo Thamba showing great progress as a freshman last season, the Bears have plenty of talent up front. Freshman forward Jordan Turner could also be in the mix.
But Baylor’s backcourt is also deep with starter Jared Butler back after averaging 10.2 points and 2.7 assists last season, and top sixth man Devonte Bandoo returning. Two transfers who sat out last season, deep threat MaCio Teague and point guard Davion Mitchell, will also be major players this season.
“Our practices have been very competitive,” Bandoo said. “We have so much depth. It’s just a back-and-forth battle, bumps and bruises, a lot of guys getting elbowed. It’s very competitive, but when it’s competitive, it brings the best out of everyone.”
The Bears developed chemistry playing in Italy this summer on a foreign tour, and learned more about themselves in scrimmages this fall against Texas A&M and LSU.
“An advantage of scrimmages is you don’t just play a game,” Drew said. “We did situations, we played 20-minute halves and you can play three or four of those, so you get a lot of chances to look at a lot of different lineup combinations. With us, both of them give you Power 5 competition. You get a chance to see areas you need to improve in, and hopefully it translates into your first couple of games.”
Drew expects Central Arkansas to be an improved team after finishing 14-19 overall last season and 8-10 in the Southland Conference. Baylor rolled to a 107-66 win over Central Arkansas in Waco two years ago in the only previous meeting between the two schools.
Like Baylor, Central Arkansas also played in Italy this summer. The Baylor players know they’ll need to summon the energy for the early start.
“I think morning games, definitely coaches and players alike, don’t really prefer them,” Gillespie said. “But I think it’s a good test because we have to bring the energy ourselves.”
The game will be streamed on ESPN-plus, with former Baylor guard King McClure making his TV broadcasting debut when he joins longtime Baylor broadcaster John Morris.
“We might yell, ‘King get in there, just out of habit, or King block out,’” Drew said. “But it’s great having him be a part of it.”