By Jessika Harkay | Sports Writer
Baylor men’s basketball spent nine days in Italy over the summer, which allowed the team to gain four extra games of experience before its official practice schedule began this month.
More importantly though, the Bears took steps toward creating a “brotherhood” for the new season, according to junior guard MaCio Teague, who said the best part of the trip was the team bonding.
“We have a lot of guys on the team who respect each other and love each other,” Teague said. “That’s the main thing, just being a brotherhood and a family at Baylor University.”
With 11 of the 14-man roster returning, the Bears come into the 2019-20 season with a bulk of experience and chemistry. A part of that 11 veterans, Teague and redshirt sophomore Davion Mitchell will begin their journey at Baylor after sitting out last season to meet NCAA transfer eligibility requirements.
The Bears will be led by six upperclassmen with redshirt junior guard Mark Vital, redshirt senior forward Freddie Gillespie and junior forward Tristan Clark, who returns to the court after suffering a season-ending injury. The team welcomes one freshman and two transfers. Sophomores Adam Flagler and Johnathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua will have to sit out the season for the same transfer eligibility reasons that Teague and Mitchell did last year, however.
Even with an experienced team, Baylor also lost some leadership as former guard Makai Mason now plays professionally overseas and redshirt sophomore guard Mario Kegler was indefinitely suspended earlier in the week to pursue a professional career.
Head coach Scott Drew said that there may be some uncertainty around how the chemistry will play out this season after losing some key players from last year.
“Hopefully this year’s group gets along and they like one another,” Drew said. “But until you face adversity, and until you’re under the fire, are they willing to sacrifice for one another? Are they willing to love one another? Or will they become selfish? That’s the beauty of sports, you never know until you know.”
Drew’s team will open the season at home against Central Arkansas in early November. The Bears’ will then have a quick turnaround traveling to Anchorage, Ala. three days later.
With the regular season quickly coming around the corner, Drew said he’s confident of the opportunities a challenging schedule will bring to “show people what kind of team we can be.”
“We have a lot of goals like every other team out there each and every year to achieve,” Drew said. “But we have a lot more guys that know what it’s going it take to be successful in the Big 12 conference and the NCAA tournament with the experience remaining from last year.”
One of the biggest returning assets is Clark. The Texas native played 33 games with 30 starts his freshman year, leading the Bears’ with a .608 field goal percentage.
Into his sophomore year, the 6’10 forward looked to be on the trail to an impressive season, with a .737 field goal percentage, 88 rebounds and 34 blocks. Yet, only 14 games in, Clark went down with a season-ending knee injury.
Gillespie said that having Clark back will bring some challenges to opposing teams.
“[He] brings a lot to the table,” Gillespie said. “It gives us more options. He brings things I can’t bring. I bring things he can’t bring. It just allows us to attack in a different way.”
On a similar note, Clark’s return will open opportunity for the other forwards, including Gillespie, Drew said.
“Freddie, that experience he was able to gain, and then the confidence will definitely show up this year,” Drew said. “Playing alongside someone like Tristan allows him now to be a recipient. Last year he was the only big in. Spacing was different. But, with Tristan in, it requires so many double teams that allows someone like Freddie opportunities.”
As the Bears open fall practice this week, the team will have a little over a month to prepare for the official season. The men’s basketball season will tip-off on Nov. 5.