By Cody Soto
The Bears are coming, and they’re ready to roll.
Baylor men’s basketball returns to the Ferrell Center on Nov. 14 in its first game for the 2014-2015 season. The Bears bring with them a new team and new attitude, but one thing is constant: they want to make the NCAA tournament.
Head coach Scott Drew is ready to make school history and lead the team to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances. Drew and the Bears made an impressive run to the Sweet 16 last year before eventually falling to No. 2-seed Wisconsin in Anaheim, Calif.
“Baylor basketball has never gone to the NCAA tournament on odd years and we haven’t gone in back-to-back years, so I think there’s definitely some firsts that we would like to take care of,” Drew said. “Each and every game, we want to win and be competitive and put ourselves in a good position for conference titles and national championships.”
The Bears bring back seven lettermen and add six newcomers to the roster after losing seven players, four of whom played major minutes: Brady Heslip, Cory Jefferson, Gary Franklin and Isaiah Austin.
Senior guard Kenny Chery and senior forward Royce O’Neale expect to lead the way for an inexperienced team. They know it is not going to be easy, Chery said.
“The coaches have a lot of trust in Royce and me,” Chery said. “The key is going to be keeping everyone on the same page and making sure we’re focused. We need to execute what the coaches want us to execute.”
Chery said his role is bigger this year after starting for the Bears last season. He averaged 11.5 points per game and is the only returning double-digit scorer. O’Neale posted 7.1 points per contest his junior year.
“I’ve been getting better every day and I’m making sure everyone does as well,” Chery said. “Our focus this year is really on speed, pushing the ball, and putting pressure on defense. I have to communicate on and off the court and make sure that everyone is listening and paying attention to all the details.”
Chery and O’Neale will get help from junior forward Rico Gathers, a 280-lb power player. Gathers came off the bench last season and scored 6.4 points and added 6.4 rebounds per game.
Gathers is ready to get the sour taste of the team’s Sweet 16 loss out of his mouth and use it as motivation for the upcoming season, he said.
“Coming off a Sweet 16 year and taking a bittersweet loss to Wisconsin, that’s motivation enough to make that push to not just make the tournament, but go to the Elite Eight and the Final Four,” Gathers said. “I am most excited about this great group of guys with a new team, a new look, and new expectations. We are ready to be back on the floor to get the season started and get it underway.”
Redshirt freshmen Johnathan Motley and Al Freeman will also be in the rotation after taking their first year to learn the program, Drew said.
“We expect a lot more out of them because we lost a lot of production and players,” Drew said. “Al Freeman is someone who is a strong guard who can play multiple positions and score points for us. For Johnathan Motley, going up against Cory [Jefferson] and Isaiah [Austin] every day really made him better. He’s somebody that everyone saw as a great potential player, and now he’ll be able to back that up.”
Baylor will play a shorter and more athletic lineup after losing Jefferson and Austin, both big men. The duo measured out at 6-foot-9 and 7-foot-1; the tallest player on the Bears this season at 6-foot-9.
“Motley is our tallest and strongest vertical-wise. We are used to having many six-foot guys [in the middle], and he’s the closest one we got now,” Drew said. “We are going to find a way to put our best team on the floor and adjust from there.”
The Bears also added two true freshmen, forward T.J. Maston and guard Dee Durham, along with three transfers: guards Austin Mills and Lester Medford and forward Deng Deng.
“At Baylor, we reload. We don’t rebuild,” Drew said. “It’s great for our coaching staff knowing that we have new players this year because we can work with them. We are going to learn a lot more about our guys within the first month of practice.”
Coming from Beverly Hills, Calif., Mills feels welcomed to Baylor and looks forward to using the team’s chemistry on the court.
“It’s a big change from Los Angeles to Texas so far, but the guys have been great and Waco’s been good to me,” Mills said. “I am really excited because people don’t know what to think about us. With many guys leaving last year, more of us have to step up and we’re ready to shock people.”
The Bears used their summer workouts and a Marine training program as a great bonding tool to bring together the young but talented team.
“There are going to be times during the season when we’re down at halftime and have to come out and pick it up. We cannot be pointing fingers,” sophomore forward Ishmail Wainwright said. “That Marine training helped us out a lot because it really bonded us. When that came around, it showed that we could trust the guy to our left and our right. We are young and still getting used to each other, but now we say, ‘This is my brother. We got you. We are going to be there to help you up.’”
Despite losing a lot of talent, the Baylor Bears are ready to prove themselves once again and play tough non-conference matchups to prepare themselves for a challenging Big 12 conference slate.
“Every year, we try to play the best non-conference schedule that we can,” Drew said. “A lot of the teams we are playing made the NCAA tournament, and some of them had some success in the tournament, so it will definitely prepare us for conference.”
While the team’s strengths may not be their height, Baylor will find ways and have the belief that they can win, Drew said.
“Each team has different strengths, but we believe in the people we have,” Drew said. “We’ve adapted our style of play to meet whatever our team’s strengths might be. We don’t have the seven-footer that we’re used to. We’ve been very efficient on the offensive end in the past, so that’s why it’s important to get practice in. We always like to play fast in position, but without [Austin and Jefferson] we are going to have to play fast.”
Baylor men’s basketball starts the 2014-15 McNeese State season at 8:30 p.m. on Nov. 14. The game will broadcast live from the Ferrell Center on FOX Sports.