- Ky McKeon
Key Returners: Manu Lecomte, Jo Lual-Acuil, Jake Lindsey
Key Losses: Johnathan Motley, Ishmail Wainwright, Al Freeman
Key Newcomers: Mark Vital (Redshirt), Tyson Jolly (Redshirt), Leonard Allen II (JUCO)
Postseason Projection: 7 - 10 Seed
Not many will recall that the Baylor Bears started the 2016-17 campaign unranked with little to no expectations to emerge as an elite force in the country. In fact, one could argue the most bullish preseason publication on the Bears could be found on none other than the 3MW website, as my fellow writer Jim Root brazenly called for a second place Big 12 finish for Baylor and a coming out party for forward Johnathan Motley (great call Mr. Jim). Scott Drew’s squad gained national attention after upending several formidable non-conference opponents in Oregon, VCU, Michigan State, Louisville, and Xavier on their way to achieving one of their best seasons ever and a Sweet Sixteen berth. Drew loses a considerable amount of talent from last year, but the coffers aren’t all “bear” in Waco this season. A finish at the top of the Big 12 standings plus a high seed in the Tournament remains the goal for Baylor.
With Motley out of the picture, senior point guard Manu Lecomte shifts squarely into focus as the go-to guy on offense. Lecomte has been a solid playmaker throughout his entire career, shooting a career slash of .433/.422/.825 while maintaining a high usage rate both at Baylor and, previously, Miami. Lecomte handles the ball the majority of the Bears’ possessions, and likes to attack off the pick-n-roll and in transition; however, he is most deadly spotting up from behind the line where he has a knack for knocking down threes off post kick-outs following an entry pass or offensive rebound. Baylor ranked 3rd in the country in offensive rebounding percentage last season, which allowed for devastating second chance opportunities by way of the kick-out triple.
The graduation of Ish Wainwright and transfer of Al Freeman (NC State) means plenty of opportunity on the wing and 2-guard spots. A couple of juniors, King McClure and Jake Lindsey, should see the bulk of the minutes there at the start of the season. Lindsey gives Drew a secondary ball handler on the court to complement Lecomte, and will allow Lecomte to play off the ball more if the Bears decide to shift Lindsey to PG duties for certain intervals. Like Lecomte, Lindsey was an efficient shooter last season and performed well in the open floor, off pick-n-rolls, and spotting up from outside (particularly from the left side of the floor where he knocked down 54.5% of his three-point attempts). McClure primarily served as a spot-up shooter last year, but was actually Baylor’s best transition scorer on a PPP basis. Look for him to expand his role this season beyond just a catch-and-shoot threat.
Fighting for time in the backcourt will be a pair of redshirt freshmen, Mark Vital and Tyson Jolly. Vital, a former ESPN Top 100 recruit, is a super athletic wing that figures to fill the Wainwright role quite nicely in his first season on the floor. He is a hard-nosed penetrator with excellent defensive upside who should compete for a starting spot on the wing in November. Jolly is essentially a skinnier version of Vital, a lanky wing with outstanding athleticism and finishing ability. While his recruiting pedigree isn’t quite what Vital’s is, he should still make a splash in the fall. Both “newcomers” and the returners, Lindsey and McClure, would be wise to establish themselves this season, as Yale product Makai Mason and Mississippi State import Mario Kegler join the fold in 2018-19.
Jo Lual-Acuil, one of the best shot blockers in the nation, returns to the frontcourt this season to prove his excellent inaugural year in Waco wasn’t a fluke. Lual-Acuil was a ginormous part of Baylor’s 16th ranked defensive unit last season, anchoring their zone defense with his impressive wingspan. The Australian big man finished well at the basket last year, pouring in 56.9% of his twos (62.1% around the bucket), but shot a ghastly 48.9% from the foul line and only 32.4% on post-up plays. This season, Lual-Acuil will need to become more of an offensive focal point without Motley in the post.
Many Baylor faithful hope Terry Maston, a 6’7” senior forward, can take a similar production leap to what Motley did last season. While a full matching of Motley’s career renaissance is likely out of the cards, Maston does hold substantial potential for a breakout year. Maston’s shooting and rebounding percentages last season are comparable – and in some areas better – than Motley’s numbers during his first two years. He’s a tough finisher who showed flashes of extending his jumper nearly out to the three-point line; plus his back-to-back 19 points / 9 rebounds performances in the NCAA Tourney spark the fire of intrigue.
The bench behind Maston and Lual-Acuil is thin, with only senior Nuni Omot, a stretch forward with a .474/.325/.826 shooting slash, and JUCO transfer Leonard Allen II offering any semblance of frontcourt help off the pine. Though, Tristan Clark, a 3-star Findlay Prep product, could be put to use at the 4-spot if Omot and Allen don’t muster enough support.
Too many people slept on the Bears last season, and as a result we may be overrating them a tad here in our pre-season previews. The core of Lecomte and Lual-Acuil is still good enough to get this team back into the Big Dance, but major leaps must be taken by Maston and Lindsey (among others) if Baylor is to repeat as a top three Big 12 finisher.