Team Preview: 2014 Baylor Bears
By: Dan Illika
Coach: Scott Drew, 177-133 at Baylor (2013 NIT Championship)
2012-13 Record: 23-14, 9-9 in the Big 12
Here’s the thing about the Baylor Bears basketball program: it’s not great.
In a conference that includes elite squads like the Kansas Jayhawks and the Oklahoma State Cowboys, Baylor is on the cusp of greatness but is often lost in the shuffle of one of the top groups in the nation.
Good? Sure. The Bears have made tournament appearances in two of the last four years, including trips to the Elite Eight both times. But great? That’s a big jump, and one coach Scott Drew’s squad has yet to take.
Big man Isaiah Austin is looking to change all that.
With an NIT Championship on the books last year, Austin and his fellow Bears have tasted success on the good-but-not-great stage that is the NIT Tournament and are now looking to take Baylor back to the Big Dance after a year off. That’s why the 7’1” Austin decided to forgo a projected spot in the first round of this year’s NBA draft for his sophomore year in Waco and a shot at tournament glory.
Strongside: Baylor’s prowess starts in the paint and works its way out beyond the arc. Joining Austin down low are fellow big men Cory Jefferson and Ricardo Gathers, who together make up a daunting frontcourt for the Bears.
Though slight at 225 pounds, Austin has a decent post game and great defensive instincts that help him hang with the best in college ball when it comes to blocking shots. Where Austin comes up short in the weight department, Gathers more than makes up for it. At 6’8” and 270 pounds, Gathers is a bruising forward who knows how to throw his weight around to make up for his lack of height in the post.
If the Baylor big men do their job down low, the Bears have a few outside threats that can fill it up in a hurry. Looking to bounce back from a shaky junior year is guard Brady Heslip, whose sweet stroke from long range makes him one of the most dangerous deep threats in the country. Joining Heslip on the perimeter are fellow upperclassmen Gary Franklin and Royce O’Neale, who are accurate from deep.
Weakside: Losing Pierre Jackson—who led the Big 12 in scoring (19.8 ppg) and assists (7.1 apg)—hurts, and it will take a Herculean effort to fill the holes left in his wake. Trying to make up for what the team lost in Jackson will be JuCo transfer Kenny Chery, who is tasked with dishing the rock and directing traffic for the Bears. If Chery falters, the Bears won’t have another true passer to turn to at the point, spelling trouble for a team that lacks many players with the ability to create their own shots.
Baylor’s defensive struggles are also well documented, which could cause further problems down the stretch for the Bears.
All Told: It’s not that Baylor doesn’t have the chops to perform well early in the season, but it’s the ability to finish strong that’s lacking.
Between Kansas and Oklahoma State running the Big 12 at will and Iowa State surging this season, Baylor has an uphill battle if it wants to make the short trip up the I-35 to Arlington in March.