By Ben Everett | Sports Writer
No. 24 Baylor men’s basketball opens the season at noon today at the Ferrell Center against the University of Central Arkansas.
The Bears yield a veteran team consisting of four juniors and four seniors and are looking to make it to a school-record fifth straight NCAA Tournament.
Head coach Scott Drew said the postseason experience from previous years will propel the Bears to success this season.
“Having four seniors is a good thing,” Drew said. “Especially coming off of postseasons the last few years where they’ve had games and experiences to get them better. Hopefully that will put them in a position to lead us now like the seniors the last few years have done.”
Despite having a surplus of veteran leadership, the Bears will still need to find a way to replace the departures of forward Johnathan Motley and guards Ishmail Wainright and Al Freeman.
Motley, the 2017 Karl Malone Award winner for the nation’s best power forward, led the Bears in scoring and rebounding with averages of 17.3 points per game and 9.9 rebounds per game during the 2016-17 season.
Senior center Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. said the toughest aspect of Motley’s game to replace will be rebounding because many of the returning players are due for scoring increases.
“The biggest thing is rebounding,” Lual-Acuil, Jr. said. “As far as scoring goes, I think King [McClure] is going to make a big jump, Nuni [Omot] is going to take a jump up in production, TJ [Maston], Tristan [Clark], too.”
With Lual-Acuil Jr. and senior point guard Manu Lecomte returning, the likely starters will include junior guards Jake Lindsey and King McClure and senior forward Nuni Omot.
Senior forward Terry Maston and freshman forward Tristan Clark add depth in the front court, but the Bears will be lacking guards this year.
Lindsey, Lecomte, McClure and freshman guard Tyson Jolly are the only guards listed on the roster, and Jolly is currently sidelined due to an undisclosed medical reason.
Sophomore guard Wendell “Chuck” Mitchell opted to transfer following the season and junior guard Al Freeman graduated and decided to play his final year of eligibility at N.C. State, leaving the Bears with a depleted backcourt.
Lindsey said the lack of depth means the guards will have to be in peak physical condition.
“Obviously losing Chuck and Al hurts,” Lindsey said. “We’ll just have to do a good job taking care of our bodies and be efficient with how we expend our energy. I think we have plenty of talent.”
Central Arkansas brings the No. 1 scoring offense in the Southland Conference during the 2016-17 season to the Ferrell Center.
Drew said UCA’s strengths lie on the offensive side of the ball as the Bears play at a fast pace and are not afraid to launch 3-pointers.
“They had the No. 1 rated offense [in the conference] last year,” Drew said. “Top 50 pace in country, they play fast and play in transition. They shoot a lot of threes.”
The Baylor defense will be keen to UCA senior point guard Jordan Howard, an all-conference performer a season ago after averaging 19.5 points per game and shooting 45 percent from 3-point range.
Drew said he and his staff tried to enlist Howard’s brother, Markus, who wound up choosing Marquette, so Baylor holds their family with high esteem.
“Jordan Howard is a returning all-conference player for them,” Drew said. “He’s a very good player. We recruited his brother Markus Howard, so we have a lot of respect for him and his family.”
The Bears stay at home for their second game, facing Texas A&M-Corpus Christi at 7 p.m. Monday at the Ferrell Center.