Men’s basketball looks to build on success

Senior center Rico Gathers slams dunks the ball during an NCAA tournament basketball game between Baylor and Wisconsin on March 27, 2014, in Anaheim, Calif. The Bears lost 52-69. Photo credit: Lariat File Photo

Baylor men’s basketball was ranked No. 21 in the 2015-16 USA Today Preseason Coaches’ Poll, marking the ninth straight year the Bears have been ranked to start the season and the fourth time BU has been listed in the preseason coaches’ poll.

The No. 21 selection in the coaches’ poll is the fourth-best in program history.

Last year, Baylor tied for fourth in the Big 12 and earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament for a second consecutive season, giving the program its first-ever back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances.

Head coach Scott Drew is hopeful that the team can get back to the NCAA Tournament after a heartbreaking loss in the opening round last season.

With nine returning playera, including All-Big 12 first-team selection, senior Rico Gathers, and Big 12 Sixth Man Award winner, senior Taurean Prince, the Bears look primed to reach March Madness.

“I think coaches remember those losses for a lifetime,” Drew said Tuesday at the Big 12 Men’s Basketball Media Day. “When I’m 80 and 90 years old, I’ll probably still remember that game and other big losses because they just stick with you … I think coaches remember those things. But when the players have that burning desire and they’re the ones that have that experience, that’s even more beneficial. Hopefully, at the end of this year, that’s something that will have helped us.”

Both returning forwards were named to the Malone Award Watch List, which recognizes the top power forwards in Division I men’s basketball.

While the two seniors were selected onto the same preseason watch list, their play styles couldn’t be more different.

Gathers, a native of Laplace, LA, has been described by many as a bruiser.

His overpowering 6-foot-8, 275-pound frame allowed him to lead the Big 12 Conference and break Baylor’s single-season rebounding record with 394 boards.

He was the only Power-5 conference player to average more than 11 points and 11 rebounds per game.

Following his impressive 2014-2015 campaign, Gathers was named as a second-team All-American for his energetic playstyle.

Even with the noteworthy statistics last season, Gathers has made a point to make improvements at the free throw line, knowing that he will get there a lot, Drew said.

“First and foremost, if he can become a 75 to 80 percent free throw shooter, his production is going to go way up,” Drew said. “Second thing, because we have a lot of length in practice, him finishing over length every day is something that will help. His jump shot has improved; it’s a lot softer, a lot better rotation.”

Prince, on the other hand, relied on his quick first step and three-point accuracy (.395 last season) to average 13.9 points in just 26.3 minutes per game.

His efficiency on the court gave him a second-team All-Big 12 honoree selection.

The 6-foot-7, 220 pound senior raised his level of play whenever it mattered most last season.

He ranked third in the Big 12 with 15.6 points per game in conference play. Following the season, his production at Baylor earned him a spot on Team USA for the 2015 Pan American Games, where he started every game and helped the team win a bronze medal.

“I think this summer really took his game to another level,” Drew said. “Having an opportunity to be one of eight college players on the USA/Pan Am team, and just the confidence he was able to gain from that [was huge]. The way he’s approaching each and every day at practice, it’s great to see.”

This will be the 13th season for Baylor’s all-time wins leader, Scott Drew, but the first season with a 30 second shot clock.

Drew said he believes the new timer will have its challenges, but ultimately, it will make the game quicker and more exciting.

“I think a quicker clock will help with that,” Drew said. “Officials are going to call it closer this year, which will give more freedom of movement, which will help with the scoring as well. Our football team scores a lot of points, and it’s fun to watch.

I know our basketball players like to score, so hopefully the tweaks this year will help.”

Baylor will look to get its season started on a positive note when it opens the 2015-16 season on Nov. 13 against Stephen F. Austin at the Ferrell Center.

That game will tip off at 8:30 p.m. and be televised on FOX Sports Southwest-Plus.