By Shehan Jayarajah
Fresh off a championship run in the National Invitational Tournament last season, Baylor men’s basketball looks to return to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in five years under head basketball coach Scott Drew. Baylor comes into this season ranked No. 25 in the Associated Press poll, the seventh year in a row that Baylor has been ranked.
Baylor added six new players this season after a summer that saw three players graduate and two transfer. Leading scorer and assist man Pierre Jackson graduated after a stellar two-year career at Baylor. Former guard/forward Deuce Bello transferred to Missouri and former point guard L.J. Rose transferred to the University of Houston.
To minimize the losses on the roster, Baylor has a talented incoming class led by three freshmen, two transfers and a walk-on sophomore.
Freshman forward Ish Wainright is poised to be one of the biggest newcomers in college basketball. Coming in, he was rated as a consensus top 75 prospect and four-star recruit, but was also ranked as high as 28 by ESPN.
Wainright has one of the truly unique skill-set. Some players are considered to be a jack-of-all-trades, and Wainright clearly fits this mold. He is a 6-foot-5-inch wing player, but his 245-pound physique and freakish athleticism allows him to be a factor on the wing or interior. He is one of the best passers on the team this season, and is expected to play point-forward for stretches. He has been quoted before as saying that he loves to play defense, and can be the best perimeter defender for Baylor right from day one.
“For those who haven’t seen him, Baylor Nation is going to be really excited with this kid,” Drew said. “It looks like Rico Gathers has a 6-foot-5 twin out there. Ish is someone who is physically very imposing. Not many people with his size and strength have his skill level.”
Baylor has a hole at the point guard position with Pierre Jackson gone to the NBA. Baylor feels like it has the answer with another junior college transfer.
Junior point guard Kenny Chery transferred to Baylor this season after playing two years at State Fair Community College. Chery was the top player for State Fair, and a top 15 junior college recruit after averaging 16.4 points per game, 4.7 rebounds per game and 3.7 assists per game as a sophomore. He also shot 44.6 percent from the three-point line.
“The most important thing I feel I can add is leadership,” Chery said. “Dedication, commitment, I’m going to bring it every day. For those who haven’t seen me, I play fast. I really play defense for all 94 feet. I love to pass. I can score as well, but this summer was about getting comfortable playing with the guys.”
Chery and Wainright are expected to start for Baylor at the point guard and small forward respectively. Despite the changes on the roster, Baylor has an experienced core.
Senior guard Brady Heslip has the most experience on the wing. In the last two seasons, Heslip has shot 42.1 percent from the three-point line on almost six three-point attempts per game.
“This year’s frontcourt draws a lot of attention,” Heslip said. “And that’s great for me as a three-point shooter. It’ll open things up a little bit more, like my sophomore year.”
Off the bench, sophomore forward Taurean Prince is expected to play a much bigger role this season. Prince was solid for Baylor in the limited minutes he received as a freshman.
Junior guard Royce O’Neale is also poised to be a major contributor this season. O’Neale is a 6-foot-6 wing who started every game for the University of Denver last season. He is a solid shooter, adept ballhandler, excellent passer and solid perimeter defender with length.
The frontcourt is where the Bears will have the biggest advantage. Sophomore center Isaiah Austin was a top five recruit in the class of 2012 and the third McDonald’s All-American in Baylor history. Austin was named to the Big 12 All-Rookie Team and the All-Big 12 Second Team by the media. For the year, he averaged 13.0 points per game, 8.3 rebounds per game and 1.7 blocks per game.
After never averaging more than four points in his first two seasons, senior power forward Cory Jefferson exploded onto the scene with 13.3 points per game, 8.0 rebounds per game, 1.9 blocks per game and a ridiculously efficient 61.0 percent from the field.
In the NIT tournament, Jefferson was dominant. He finished with 21.6 points per game on 71.9 percent shooting in five games. Jefferson was named All-Big 12 Honorable Mention.
Off the bench, the frontcourt also boasts sophomore power forward Ricardo Gathers. In only 16.7 minutes per game, Gathers averaged 5.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. The only freshman to compile more rebounds in the Big 12 was Austin, but Austin did it in 29.9 minutes per game compared to Gathers’ 16.7 per game.
The three-man rotation of Austin, Jefferson and Gathers has the potential to be the best in all of college basketball. Between the three players, Baylor has the ability to counter with size, strength, quickness and skill
The Bears have an advantage inside that cannot be matched by any team in the Big 12. Both Austin and Jefferson have a chance to play in the NBA. For the first time in years, Baylor has true length on the wing with O’Neale and Wainright. If Chery works out, he could be an even better complementary player than Pierre Jackson was last season.
Baylor started the season in the top 25 last season as well, but eventually flopped. This team is different. With this lineup, Baylor looks to make it back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011.
Baylor will open the 2013-14 season against Colorado on Nov. 8 in Dallas. The Bears play their home opener on Nov. 12 against South Carolina.