Fresh talent, toughness propelling Bears to late season surge

Baylor freshman guard Jared Butler goes up for a layup against Iowa State on Tuesday in Ames, Iowa. Butler scored 17 points as the Bears defeated the Cyclones 73-69. Associated Press

By Ben Everett | Sports Editor

Three Baylor men’s basketball starters have missed a combined 18 games in the last two months due to injuries, yet the Bears have gone 8-4 during that stretch and sit at third place in the Big 12 Conference standings.

Playing without sophomore center Tristan Clark and senior guard King McClure, Baylor picked up a resumé-building road win over No. 19 Iowa State on Tuesday night in Ames, Iowa.

The Bears were led by freshman guard Jared Butler, who scored 17 points on 5-for-8 shooting from 3-point range and junior forward Freddie Gillespie, who notched his first career double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds while starting at center in place of Clark.

In the 86-61 loss to Texas Tech on Saturday in Lubbock, Butler had a season-high seven turnovers and the Bears turned the ball over 19 times in the blowout loss. Sophomore forward Mark Vital said Butler is still learning, but has the chance to be a really good player for the Bears in the coming years.

“He’s a young player,” Vital said. “Every game he’s learning. He’s a really good point guard now, but I think he’ll be a better point guard [in the future]. He’s learning as he goes.”

Against the Cyclones on Tuesday, Butler took better care of the ball in addition to his scoring outburst. The freshman had five assists and two turnovers in 36 minutes played.

Gillespie, a transfer from Division III Carleton College, played 31 minutes in the win over Iowa State and shot an efficient 7-for-8 from the field. Baylor head coach Scott Drew said Gillespie was vital to the Bears’ road victory.

“Freddie was outstanding,” Drew told the Associated Press. “He really did a good job, really competed and played at a great level tonight. And defensively, he did a very good job as well.”

Without Clark, the Bears have played small for the better part of two months. The 6-foot-8 Gillespie was the tallest player on the court for the Bears for the majority of the game against the Cyclones with the 6-foot-5 Vital occupying the power forward slot.

Despite the small lineups, the Bears have consistently out-rebounded opposing teams. On Tuesday, Baylor dominated the glass, grabbing 44 rebounds to Iowa State’s 28. Vital said the Bears are small, but they outwork their opponents with toughness.

“We got a little lineup that can play fast,” Vital said. “We’re really tough. We might be small but we’re really tough.”

Injuries to Clark, McClure and senior guard Makai Mason altered the season for the Bears, but Drew said the team is able to overcome the adversity because of how closely knit everyone is.

“I think we’ve had good chemistry all year long,” Drew said. “Guys like one another. That’s how we’ve been able to overcome a lot of the stuff we’ve overcome. Everyone faces adversity. Teams that don’t like each other, it’s a little bit easier for them to pull apart rather than come together. We’ve had good leadership and good chemistry and hopefully that’s going to continue for the next couple of weeks.”

Baylor returns home to face West Virginia at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Ferrell Center.