By Matthew Soderberg | Sports Writer
No. 16 Baylor men’s basketball kicks off the season Tuesday morning against Central Arkansas. The Bears are looking to build off the success of their fourth-place finish in the Big 12 last year, as well as improve upon their Round of 32 exit in the NCAA tournament.
Baylor was picked by Big 12 coaches to finish second in the conference after Kansas prior to this season. The AP poll has the Bears ranked third in the conference behind both No. 3 Kansas and No. 13 Texas Tech.
The team returns major pieces from last year’s second-half 10-13 run, including sophomore guard Jared Butler and redshirt-junior wing Mark Vital. Baylor also continues their plentiful transfer wealth, bringing in redshirt-junior guard MaCio Teague from UNC Asheville and redshirt-sophomore guard Davion Mitchell from Auburn. Senior guard Devonte Bandoo said the new faces bring another dimension to this year’s squad.
“They’re great guards. Davion is quick as snot, a tough guy to stay in front of,” Bandoo said. “MaCio, a knock-down shooter, he can create his own shot. Just brings a lot of energy to the floor. So, having them come in this year, it’s going to be great to be on the court with them.”
Baylor will be able to go at least 11 deep off the bench this season between their returning faces, incoming transfers and freshman wing Jordan Turner. Head coach Scott Drew said the ability to throw a multitude of guys onto the floor will be a defining factor of this year’s team.
“The starting lineup doesn’t matter. With us, we have a good rotation and a lot of players who are capable of really contributing … I won’t say it’s the deepest team, but if it’s not, it’s right there,” Drew said. “You have a lot of different combinations, a lot of different possibilities.”
The Bears also add back in junior forward Tristan Clark, who missed the second half of last season with a knee injury. After Clark and his nation-leading .737 field goal percentage went down, head coach Scott Drew took the opportunity to experiment with his now guard-heavy squad.
Baylor’s post up percentage dropped precipitously, from an average of 11.8% of the time from 2013-14 to 2017-18 to just 3.7% of the last season according to Synergy. That didn’t sacrifice Drew’s signature offensive rebounding, though.
During conference play, the Bears rebounded 10% more misses on offense than the average D-1 school, ranking them second in the country. Vital was a big part of the success, as the wing-turned-forward-turned-wing was 16th in the country in offensive rebounding.
Due in large part of their offensive rebounding, Baylor’s offense finished first in the Big 12 according to KenPom, but their defense finished seventh. Much of that was due to the Clark injury — losing the defensive anchor will do that to a team.
But also, Baylor’s bigs and depth were young last season, and with another year under that 1-1-3 zone, they should be more prepared this season. Fifth-year forward Freddie Gillespie said the players are aware of the outside expectations for this team.
“I would be lying if I said it was something we weren’t thinking about. But, I think what I like about this team is they have a day-by-day approach. And they’re just trying to win that day,” Gillespie said.
Central Arkansas will be the first trial run of the post-Makai Mason and King McClure Bears this season, but based on last year’s UCA team, it will be more of a tune-up for Friday’s game against Washington. They didn’t beat any of the eight high-major or mid-major squads they faced last season, and their leading scorer did not return.
UCA does return five of their top eight players in minutes played, representing an expected increase in wins as the team builds chemistry and a cohesive style. One thing to watch in Tuesday’s game will be the pace. According to KenPom, Central Arkansas should be around the 32nd fastest team in the country, whereas Baylor should be around the 35th slowest. Drew said they’re a team the Bears can’t just look past.
“They’re picked fairly high in some of their [Southland Conference] polls. Coming off a tour and returning a lot, you’d expect them to be one of the top teams in their league,” Drew said. “We know that was a good league last year. We lost to a team in their league.”
Baylor’s season opener will be against Central Arkansas at 11 a.m. Tuesday in the Ferrell Center. The game can be streamed on Big 12 Now through ESPN+.