Baylor is ready to make history — not in the same way Kansas is trying to with a 13th consecutive Big 12 title, but the Bears are on the cusp of making a fourth straight NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history.
For outsiders, that might come as a surprise considering the level of talent the Bears lost to graduation this year. Big 12 all-time offensive rebound leader Rico Gathers is gone. Leading scorer Taurean Prince was drafted 12th overall by the Atlanta Hawks. For the third straight season, there’s a new point guard now that Lester Medford graduated.
This is a relatively inexperienced team with Ishmail Wainright as the only senior on hand, but don’t confuse that inexperience with inability. Plenty of talent has patiently waited in the wings thanks to both the redshirt and transfer programs.
For coach Scott Drew, that all starts with Johnathan Motley, a redshirt junior aiming to follow in the footsteps of previous forwards who sat out a year, Cory Jefferson and Ekpe Udoh.
“So [Motley has] gotten better every year, now we’re looking for more consistency out of him,” Drew said. “And I think he’ll have that opportunity, playing-time-wise, because he’s the man now as far as experience-wise goes. He’s had some great games. But now we just need him each and every night.”
Despite playing just 20.9 minutes per game — sixth on the team last season — Motley played well enough to earn third-team All-Big 12 honors last season. This season he was voted to the Preseason All-Big 12 Team, putting him on track to turn from sixth man to bona fide star in a year as Prince did last season. He wasn’t alone in recognition; Miami transfer point guard Manu Lecomte was named the Preseason Newcomer of the Year.
In his two years in the ACC, Lecomte averaged 12.4 points per 40 minutes and was shooting 43 percent behind the arc, an area of weakness Baylor has recently endured. This will be his first year as a true point guard, so spreading the ball around more often will be an adjustment, but he’ll have help running the court from Wainright, whom Drew called a “special teammate and leader,” and fellow guards Al Freeman and Jake Lindsey.
Few teams playing in a league as competitive as the Big 12 could survive losing three key starters, but Baylor looks more than ready to take on that challenge.
Coach: Scott Drew
Last season: 22-12, 10-8 in Big 12, 5th
NCAA Tournament: Lost in first round
Key departures: F Rico Gathers, F Taurean Prince, G Lester Medford
Starters returning: F/G Ish Wainright, G Al Freeman
Top returnees: F Johnathan Motley, F Terry Maston, G Manu Lecomte, G King McClure
Miami transfer Lecomte appears to be a good floor general. His three-point percentage at Miami trumps anything Baylor put together last season by more than five percent, but how well he can spread the ball to Freeman and Motley will be even more important.
The protegé to Prince, Motley has the makings of a first-team All-Big 12 selection with his high-percentage shooting and ability to control the glass. Maston will be his right-hand man after stringing together a couple of solid games as a sophomore with Gathers on the bench.
Limited to just 13 minutes last season behind four other guards, there are high expectations for McClure, who should get over 20 minutes a game this season, mostly as a perimeter player on both sides of the court. Good expectations exist for Jake Lindsey too. He has keen court awareness, having averaged two assists in just 12 minutes per game. The biggest problem might be finding enough court time for everyone, including top newcomer forwards Jo Acuil and Mark Vital.
Two things must change this season to make Baylor a true threat to the rest of the Big 12: better perimeter offense and defense. Last season was a big drop-off from the 2014-2015 season, in which the Bears ranked first in the conference in both offensive and defensive three-point percentage. As long as Lecomte and Freeman stand tall in the backcourt, the frontcourt should work without a hitch… as per usual for Baylor in recent years.