By Ben Everett | Sports Editor
Baylor men’s basketball entered the season with only a few experienced players. The Bears lost four key contributors from the 2017-18 season to graduation and one to an injury. Four of five starters this season are either new to Baylor or played a bench role last season. The lone returning starter was sophomore forward Tristan Clark.
That changed last week when Clark was ruled out for the season due to a left knee injury. Baylor head coach Scott Drew said Clark was an integral part of both their offensive and defensive systems.
“You look at Tristan. […] That’s a pretty good guy to give the ball to because he finishes at a high rate,” Drew said. “The other thing is he does such a great job passing out of double teams. Defensively, we were one of the top-10 shot-blocking teams in the nation percentage-wise and he was a big part of that.”
In their first game without Clark, the Bears started 6-foot-5 forward Mark Vital at center against No. 7-ranked Kansas. A late run by Baylor fell short in the end, but Vital dominated the glass in the loss, securing eight offensive rebounds to keep the Bears in the game.
Vital said Clark wanted the players to play hard and prioritize rebounding, and Vital followed suit.
“Tristan told us before the game that he couldn’t be out there, so he told us to play as hard as we can and crash the boards,” Vital said. “I took that personally.”
Clark averaged a team-high 14.6 points per game before the injury. Freshman guard Jared Butler, who has started two games in Clark’s absence, said the whole offensive system has a different feel without Clark.
“We’re running a different offense,” Butler said. “We usually play through Tristan and we didn’t play through that, so it was a different feel.”
On Monday, the Bears traveled to Stillwater to face Oklahoma State in their second Big 12 road game. Baylor’s offense looked completely different, with the team knocking down a season-high 15 3-pointers in the 73-69 win. Drew said the team relied on defense and rebounding before the injury, but now the Bears are attempting to outshoot other teams.
“The irony is early in the year, defense and rebounding helped us win games,” Drew said. “But conference-only stats, we have the No. 1 offense in the Big 12 and lowest turnover percentage. It took us a couple weeks to get to that with everybody healthy and now we have to do the same thing.”
Senior guard King McClure, who is third on the team in points scored, made his mark in the win over the Cowboys. McClure notched a career-high 29 points on 7-for-11 shooting from 3-point range. Drew said the silver lining for Clark’s injury is that it allows other players to step up and lead the team.
“That’s the great thing about a team is it gives other people opportunities to step up,” Drew said. “I know everyone on the team was down and upset for Tristan, but we have good leadership and we have good character. These guys want to win and compete and now they have an opportunity to do that in the Big 12.”
Sitting at 10-6 and 2-2 in the Big 12, the Bears are currently projected to finish eighth in the conference by KenPom, a college basketball statistics website. Baylor is looking to make its way back into the NCAA Tournament after missing out last year. Drew said the coaching staff is doing all it can to maximize the talents of the players they have available.
“That’s the exciting thing as coaches,” Drew said. “Whatever players you have, trying to put them in a position to be successful. We had just figured it out with Tristan and now we’ve got to figure it out without him.”
Baylor has a chance to notch a resume-building win when it faces No. 8-ranked Texas Tech at 5 p.m. Saturday at the Ferrell Center.