Ben Everett | Sports Editor
After back-to-back seasons of being picked to finish in the middle of the Big 12 Conference, Baylor men’s basketball finds itself near the bottom of the rankings in the annual coaches preseason poll.
The Bears were picked to finish ninth in the Big 12 this year, according to a poll of the head coaches in the conference. With only three returning players from last year’s team, which lost in the second round of the National Invitational Tournament, head coach Scott Drew will be looking for fresh faces to step into the spotlight.
The Bears saw point guard Manu Lecomte, center Jo Lual-Acuil Jr., forward Nuni Omot and forward Terry Maston graduate from the program. Additionally, senior point guard Jake Lindsey will be out for the season while he is recovering from hip surgery. That leaves Baylor with three players on the current roster who played with the team last season: sophomore forward Tristan Clark, sophomore forward Mark Vital and senior guard King McClure.
Key additions to the team include senior point guard Makai Mason, a graduate transfer from Yale, and sophomore forward Mario Kegler, who sat out last season after transferring from Mississippi State. Mason said the challenge of having an inexperienced team means they will have to work hard in order to build chemistry.
“We have a pretty inexperienced team overall,” Mason. “Only three returners who played big minutes last year. The experience of going to the tournament, a couple of guys have that: Mario [Kegler], Tristan [Clark], King [McClure], Mark [Vital] … It’s definitely a daily grind to try to get better, especially with all our new pieces. That’s something that most people don’t realize.”
Despite the newness of the players, Drew said the team has had great energy in practices and is eager to compete.
“From day one we’ve really enjoyed the work ethic, energy and excitement, especially with so many new players and first year players,” Drew said. “There’s a lot of teaching going on, and because of that, we’ve adjusted what we’ve done practice-wise to try to scrimmage as much as possible and bring in officials as much as possible just to get them used to what games will be like.”
Mason, who scored 31 points to lead Yale in an upset of No. 5-seed Baylor in the 2016 NCAA Tournament, will likely be the starting point guard with Lindsey sidelined. Mason said his transition has been smooth because of the relationships he has with the players and coaching staff.
“The level of comfortability with my teammates and coaching staff has really made [the transition] easy,” Mason said. “I like the people a lot here … I’m happy to be here, happy for the opportunity and I’m ready to get going.”
McClure, being the only senior on the team, will be looked to as a leader. The 6-foot-5 shooting guard put up 8.1 points per game last season and made 42 three-pointers while shooting 35 percent from deep. Drew said McClure has stepped up in practices as the leader of the team.
“He’s been a lot more vocal,” Drew said. “That’s really important because with as many freshman and first year players as we have, he’s the only four-year guy that we have. The other two returning players are sophomores. Leading by example, he’s done a tremendous job.”
The young players will be thrown into the fire early as the Bears have a loaded non-conference schedule. Baylor takes on Ole Miss and either Cincinnati or George Mason in the Emerald Coast Classic over Thanksgiving break. In December, the Bears have tough road tests against Wichita State and Arizona and a home matchup with Oregon. Mason said having a difficult schedule will help prepare the team for Big 12 play.
“I think we have one of the most challenging schedules,” Mason said. “It’s something that all the players look forward to. Having those challenges early on in the year and preparing us for Big 12. I think it’s really going to help us.”
Last year, Baylor didn’t take advantage of key non-conference games, losing to Wichita State and Xavier before starting Big 12 play. In conference, the Bears finished with an under .500 record for the first time since 2011 and failed to garner an NCAA Tournament bid for the first time since 2013. Clark said the coaches have stressed the importance of taking every game seriously.
“Our coaches tell us that every game counts and you don’t know what game will get you out of the NCAA Tournament, so every game has to be important and every possession has to be important,” Clark said. “In the Big 12 … everybody’s good, everybody’s talented. We have to execute and stay together.”
To prepare for the season, the Bears competed against Vanderbilt and SMU in closed scrimmages in October. Clark said the team gelled and played well together in their first real action.
“I had my doubts here and there, but we played very well,” Clark said. “We’re a young team, but everyone brought lots of energy. It was very comforting to see how we played and how everybody got along.”
The Bears open the season with four straight home games, starting with a matchup against Texas Southern at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Ferrell Center.