Key Returners: Tristan Clark (injured), Jared Butler, Mark Vital, Mario Kegler, Devonte Bandoo, Freddie Gillespie
Key Losses: Makai Mason, King McClure
Key Newcomers: MaCio Teague (UNC Asheville), Davion Mitchell (Auburn), Jordan Turner
Outlook: Rewind to January 12th, 2019, and things were looking extremely bleak in Waco. The Bears had just come up short in a spirited comeback attempt against Kansas, a game in which they trailed by 18 with just 3 minutes remaining. The Bears had already lost at home to SWAC titan Texas Southern and an injury-ravaged Stephen F. Austin squad, survived a scare from Prairie View A&M at home, and had just lost their best big man, Tristan Clark, to a season-ending injury. Avoiding the Big 12’s basement seemed the most pressing goal from an outsider’s view (again, they came dangerously close to losing at home to the SWAC twice in a season), and the college basketball masses were asking one of their favorite questions: is Scott Drew a good coach?!
Drew, however, wasn’t about to wave any white flags on the season. He adapted to the roster that remained, switching gears to a much smaller lineup: he shifted burly forwards Mario Kegler and Mark Vital down a spot to the 4/5 rather than 3/4, inserted freshman guard Jared Butler into the starting lineup, and suddenly the Bears caught fire. They won six straight and 10 of 13, including marquee wins against Texas Tech, at Oklahoma, and at Iowa St., and suddenly Baylor seemed all but a lock for the tournament.
Drew’s embrace of small-ball approach and handing the keys to his guards was a massive departure from the past, lending further credence to the fact that Drew is indeed a good coach. Faced with a smaller, more skilled lineup, he made sweeping changes to his offense, putting the ball in his guards’ hands and giving them opportunities to create via isolation and pick-and-roll. After years of feeding post men like Jo Lual-Acuil, Jonathan Motley, and Rico Gathers, Baylor nearly banished the post up from its offense altogether:
That opened up more chances for Makai Mason and Butler to attack against a more spread-out defense, and the offense took off despite losing Clark’s absurdly efficient 76% shooting from the field.
Last year’s Bears didn’t completely abandon the identity of previous Drew teams, though. The Bears still absolutely owned the offensive glass, hurling aggressive bodies like Vital (16th in the entire country in offensive rebound rate), Freddie Gillespie, and Flo Thamba into the paint for second chances. Baylor grabbed O-boards at the country’s second highest-rate, and that proficiency propped them up to the Big 12’s best offense, despite not being elite in any other of the Four Factors:
Of course, multiple factors contributed to Baylor’s bounce-back from early season struggles. Mason got healthy after missing the first three games, and Kegler became eligible following a six-game suspension to start the year. But the biggest reason for the change, personnel-wise, might have been Butler’s emergence into a reliable starter and potential all-conference player this year. His splits between the two “sections” of the year mirror the upswing for the Bears themselves:
Butler added another creator and shooter to the lineup alongside Mason and McClure, and his confidence clearly soared with the added responsibility and security in his role. Drew will have an important decision to make this year with Clark’s return: revert to the “big” lineup with two guards plus Clark, Kegler, and Vital, or relegate one of those three big guys – each of whom started every game he played in – to a bench role and start two of Devonte Bandoo, UNC Asheville transfer MaCio Teague, and Auburn transfer Davion Mitchell in another three-guard alignment. It’s a good problem to have, though! Teague was one of my personal favorites while at Asheville, an efficiency darling who took the league by storm from the second he set foot on campus. He likely becomes more of a role player with the step up to the Big 12, but he (along with Bandoo and Mitchell) can complement Butler with a mix of shooting and creation similar to what Mason and McClure offered last year.
Now, you might have noticed in that “Four Factors” screenshot above that the Bear defense struggled in some key areas. Gillespie and Thamba were massive hacks while getting their first real minutes in a Baylor uniform, and Drew’s distinctive 1-1-3 zone didn’t force turnovers (typically, it does). Drew’s best defenses don’t give opponents such frequent trips to the line, and with Clark’s return plus another year of experience for Gillespie and Thamba, that should correct somewhat. It’s also worth noting that when Clark, Kegler, and Vital all shared the court (eight-game stretch including games against Arizona, Wichita St., Oregon, Iowa St., and TCU), the Bears surrendered a miniscule 0.89 points per possession (Hoop Lens); that bigger lineup can strangle opponents. Additionally, Mitchell is a dogged on-ball defender and will create havoc for opposing ball-handlers, single-handedly boosting the defense’s potency.
Bottom Line: The more I research this team, the more I like it. The Bears can go 10 deep without much drop-off in talent, and Drew will have nearly limitless lineup flexibility: big, small, more shooting, defense-first, etc. He’s finished in the KenPom top 15 four times in his tenure (2010, 2012, 2015, 2017), amassing two Elite Eights and a Sweet 16 in those years, and this Bears squad has that E8 kind of ceiling. As long as Drew pushes the right buttons (repeats to self: he’s a good coach, he’s a good coach, he’s a good coach…), it could be one heck of a year in Waco.