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Today’s U Top 25 Countdown: No. 21 Baylor Bears

Matt Garnett/Icon Sportswire

The Baylor Bears may not have been expected to be an elite team last year, but they were projected to be competitive in the conference and nationally. For the most part, those expectations proved accurate as Baylor played well, but never could reach that top level.

Non-conference play went splendidly with an 12-1 record and though the Bears lost seven games in conference play, the team’s fourth-place finish in a stacked Big 12 said a lot about Baylor. After all, the media only projected Baylor to finish sixth in the conference before the season, so the Bears easily exceed preseason expectations.

Unfortunately, the final five games of the season left a sour taste for Bears fans. The team went just 2-3 with an overtime loss to an inconsistent Texas team, a loss to Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament, and a shocking loss to Georgia State in the Round of 64 of the NCAA Tournament that was perhaps the biggest upset of the entire NCAA Tournament.

Fair or not, the lasting image for Baylor’s 2014-15 season will be Georgia State and the team’s coach celebrating its win over the Bears. That’s just reality.

However, despite perception, this was still a quality Baylor that featured a lot of talent. Now with the return of frontcourt duo of Rico Gathers and Taurean Price, some talented young players looking for bigger roles, and a really nice 2015 recruiting class, the Bears look ready to move forward from last season and take the next step as a program.

Key Offseason Departures: Kenny Chery (guard), Royce O’Neale (forward)

Baylor is losing a total of four players this offseason, but the only significant departures come from Kenny Chery and Royce O’Neale. These two players were both in the top four on Baylor’s roster in minutes, points, assists, three point field goals, and overall win shares.

From purely a statistical perspective, these departures are pretty significant.

The two areas where the losses of Chery and O’Neale will be felt the most is in Baylor’s passing and perimeter shooting game. In fact, these two players led the team in assist rate and finished at second and fourth on the roster in three point percentage.

Chery had a larger role in the offense in general last season – not surprising considering that he played at point guard – but it’s O’Neale’s efficiency that was really remarkable. Despite O’Neale being sixth on Baylor’s roster in percentage of shots taken while on the floor, he still finished at third on the roster in scoring. With this, it’s no surprise that he led the roster in offensive rating.

All told, Baylor is going to have to find a way to replace arguably the team’s best passer in Chery, a highly efficient player on the wing that didn’t eat up possessions in O’Neale, and two good perimeter shooters in both players. This certainly won’t be an easy challenge, but it will be reality for the Bears next year.

Key Additions: Jake Lindsey (guard), King McClure (guard)

The Bears are set to bring in a small, but very talented recruiting class this season. Baylor’s 2015 recruiting class is rated No. 40 nationally by 247Sports and features several prospects with the potential to see early playing time.

The most heralded recruit in the class is ESPN100 prospect King McClure. He comes out of Ovilla, Texas and is listed at 6’3″ and 200 lbs. McClure is also rated as the No. 9 shooting guard in the recruiting class and as the No. 5 player in the state of Texas. He dealt with some health concerns over the offseason, but is certainly still in contention for a starting role this season.

Lindsey does not have the recruiting hype of McClure, but should also be a player looking to get minutes this season. With Chery graduating, there should be minutes available in the backcourt and McClure could be an option. Lester Medford is certainly set to take a large role, but McClure could at least provide valuable bench minutes for the Bears.

Schedule Analysis

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via Baylor Athletics

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baylor will have its challenges this season, but overall, this is a pretty manageable slate for the Bears. There are some challenging games, but none look like sure losses on paper.

The highlights of non-conference play should be the home games against Vanderbilt, Georgia, and New Mexico State and the road games at Oregon and Texas A&M. All five games should be challenges and particularly Texas A&M and Vanderbilt, who were both also ranked in the Today’s U preseason top 25 rankings.

Nonetheless, Baylor has a pretty good chance to match its 12-1 non-conference record or possibly even run the table if it can go on the road and beat Texas A&M.

Of course, conference play will be a different animal.

The Big 12 looks to be deep and talented again this season and Baylor’s schedule reflects that. Of Baylor’s 18 conference games, 12 will be against teams that made last year’s NCAA Tournament and six will be against teams in the Today’s U preseason top 25 rankings.

Preview and Prediction

This is set to be a really good Baylor team that relies on one of the nation’s toughest and most talented frontcourts. There are some questions in the backcourt and wing with the losses of Kenny Chery and Royce O’Neale, but the return of Rico Gathers and Taurean Prince should make up for many of those concerns.

The biggest two questions for this Baylor team will be whether the Bears can finally take that next step and contend with Kansas for the Big 12 title and whether the team can make up for last year’s rough NCAA Tournament loss to Georgia State. It won’t be easy, but if some of the newcomers can mesh in with the backcourt, these goals are certainly on the table.

Baylor will have to overcome some key offseason departures and battle some major challenges in non-conference and Big 12 play, but with talented pieces returning, this still looks like a solid seed in the NCAA Tournament. Making a deep run could be tough given the backcourt questions, but if the Bears can get a favorable matchup, the frontcourt gives the team a chance in virtually any game.

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