Baylor MBB looks forward despite tournament letdown

No. 00 senior forward Royce O'Neale makes a break after rebounding the ball against UT.
Kevin Freeman | Lariat Photographer
No. 00 senior forward Royce O'Neale makes a break after rebounding the ball against UT.   Kevin Freeman | Lariat Photographer
No. 00 senior forward Royce O’Neale makes a break after rebounding the ball against UT.
Kevin Freeman | Lariat Photographer

By Cody Soto
Sports Writer

The Baylor men’s basketball team will head back to the drawing board after its season was brought to an abrupt close following the Bears’ 57-56 loss to 14-seed Georgia State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last Thursday.

Georgia State’s R.J. Hunter buried a deep three-pointer to send the Bears home, which ties the earliest they’ve been knocked out of the tournament with head coach Scott Drew at the helm. The difference was the final three minutes left in the game, and things did not go their way, Drew said.

“That’s not who we are, and yet I know that’s what will be dwelt upon and talked about is how we didn’t finish the game, and that’s on me as a coach,” Drew said.

The Bears (24-10, 11-7 Big 12) will now look ahead and start planning for another season, one that is eight months away. The Bears lose two seniors to graduation: guard Kenny Chery and forward Royce O’Neale. Neither may have not led the team in points per game, but their leadership came in a different way.

Chery leaves his mark as the best free throw shooter in the history of Baylor basketball. This year, the Canadian posted a 82.4 percentage after hitting 102-of-116 free throws for 87.4 percent in his first season at Baylor. However, Chery couldn’t connect from the stripe and missed his final free throw that could have sealed the game for the Bears.

Drew made it a point to remind the team of the missed opportunities after the game: 21 turnovers. They missed 21 opportunities to win the game but failed to hold onto the ball.

“Momentum is a big thing, and once you make one turnover, now all of a sudden, things get sped up, and that’s what happened to us,” Drew said. “It wasn’t one play. I know that was the big thing in the locker room, just making sure they know that no player, no one play, led to this loss. We had 21 turnovers. We had a lot of other opportunities.”

O’Neale leaves the squad as one of the most versatile players of the season. He finished second with 113 assists for the Bears and led the team in three-point percentage (.458) en route to another NCAA tournament appearance.

When the season started, expectations were not high. The team lost forwards Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin and guards Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin. They were often undersized and didn’t have the talent like in previous years, but Drew didn’t let that stop him from making history.

The Bears broke history this season with its second consecutive NCAA Tournament bid, and made a big run in the Big 12. Although they lost some lofty matchups against Oklahoma State, Kansas and an overtime loss at Texas, they finished in the top four of the conference.

Unlike previous seasons, Baylor didn’t have its go-to player where if things went wrong, then they got the ball. The balance of offensive attack really benefitted the Bears, forcing teams to cover every player like they would make the game-winning shot.

“Everyone on this team is unselfish. In practice, we always look for one more pass,” O’Neale said. “We trust each other so that’s why we pass it. Sharing the ball is key.”

The season saw two players emerge from the bench that ultimately helped the Bears make the NCAA tournament: junior forwards Rico Gathers and Taurean Prince. Prince and Gathers combined for 25.5 points per contest, and both made the All-Big 12 team. Gathers was recognized for his defensive work and Prince earned the Sixth Man of the Year award.

Gathers greatly improved from last season to lead the team in rebounds and broke a few records along the way. He now holds the record for most rebounds in a game, which came on Jan. 21 with 28 rebounds against Huston-Tillotson.

“Rico is someone who has actually changed the way we practice with rebounding drills,” Drew said. “Too many of our guys were getting injured battling against him, he does an excellent job fighting and he’s becoming more and more skilled because he’s working on his game.”

With O’Neale and Chery gone, junior guard Lester Medford and sophomore guard Al Freeman will have to step up to the plate and run the offense next season. The Bears were very successful with their three-guard rotation, and with three new guards checking in next year, they should get plenty of minutes.

Gathers and Prince return next season, and so does redshirt freshman Johnathan Motley. He will be a key player next year as well, but he will need to do some maturing during the offseason. Motley can be a huge threat to the Bears, but his lack of aggressiveness has not allowed him to perform as well in Big 12 play as he did in non-conference contests.

A few things Baylor needs to work on in the offseason: turnovers, executing down the stretch, and ball control. If the Bears can do that, they can return a deadly team to the Big 12 next year.

The Ferrell Center may not host another basketball game until next fall, but the Bears will be in there practicing and getting ready to make history with the goal of reaching three consecutive NCAA tournaments. With the upset loss against Georgia State, Drew and the Bears will remember one thing: finish.

“This is a league that each and every night if you don’t bring it, you’re going to lose,” Drew said. “And if you bring it, then you give yourself a chance to win.”