Baylor is the perennial enigma in the Big 12. Usually loaded with solid talent, and always playing hard every possession, the Bears usually win a bunch of games, but drop some that they probably shouldn't...which leads to the "Odd Year Curse", where they don't make the NCAA Tourney in odd years.
I want to extend a thank you to PocketChange and dfank_BU of the SBNation community Our Daily Bears, for joining in on the Q&A session. Here at Bring On The Cats, we strive for top notch journalism, so we ask the tough questions. We got some truth out on the table, but both see a sub-optimal outcome in the MHK today You can find Our Daily Bears' questions of me, and answers, here.
BOTC: No bones about it, Baylor is a good basketball team. Good scoring, efficient offense, high-level defense, great rebounding. It appears Baylor's significant weak spot is from the charity stripe (64.7% on the season), and that's about it. They've had a solid level of success against good teams, but have gone 1-2 against teams that are "elite" (top-25 in Kenpom ratings), all of which are Big 12 opponents. Loss at Oklahoma, loss at home to KU, OT win at TCU, and just about coughed it up at home to Iowa State. What is the general reaction to how Baylor's season has progressed? How has conference play tempered expectations - has the manner of the last two wins raised concern?
ODB: Thus far, I’ve been pretty satisfied with this team. It’s all been said before, but with Isaiah Austin, Cory Jefferson, and Brady Heslip all gone, there was a huge (perceived) talent drop off. Add to that Baylor’s Odd Year Curse (we only make the NCAA Tourney on even numbered years) and a lack of a player taller than 6’ 9", and it was hard to tell from where both offense and defense would come. Turns out, Scott Drew’s a better coach than most gave him credit, and there’s more talent on the roster than most saw coming. Taurean Prince has been a go-to scoring option, Johnathan Motley is killing it on the inside, and Rico Gathers is, well, he’s Rico, and that’s mostly a good thing.
So far, Baylor has won the conference games it was supposed to win and lost the conference games it was probably supposed to lose. Oklahoma and Kansas have both looked to be better teams than Baylor for most of the season, TCU is still growing as a program, and Baylor beat a good Iowa State team in Waco. The Kansas loss was upsetting, but it’s not killer unless the expectation for this team was to win the Big 12. The TCU game was certainly unsettling — Baylor shot under 30% (!!!) from the field — but the ISU game was better. That team has so many shooters, and Baylor’s offense is so inconsistent, that it was inevitable that one would come down to the wire. I’m pretty comfortable with Baylor’s conference play right now.
Due to the resurgence in post play, Oklahoma can now play inside out providing balanced scoring. The style of play makes the lot a tough group to defend on any given night. But, it's the defensive improvements that have this program on the up swing. Instead of relying on outscoring an opponent like last year, the Sooners can force a few stops and get out in transition.
BOTC: In all honesty - how does Baylor, with a coach in Scott Drew who doesn't seem to be a spectacular X & O coach, and the absolute destruction of the program in the early 2000s under Dave Bliss, get the talent you do to Waco? How has this program been turned into a perennial stalwart so quickly? We make jokes, but we need real answers.
ODB: Alright, so let’s real talk. Scott Drew is a good in most facets of college coaching. Firstly, he’s been pretty successful. He’s won 20+ games in 6 of the last 7 seasons, made two Elite Eights and one Sweet Sixteen, and has had Baylor ranked in 4 of the last 5 AP Preseason Polls. Secondly, he has shown, particularly this season, the ability to adapt to his personnel. He’s implemented a 1-3-1 zone, rather than his traditional 2-3 zone, because he has a glut of wing players and no true rim protector. Thirdly, he’s pretty boss at ATO plays. At the end of that Kansas game, he drew (hehe, puns) up a beautiful play that freed Motley up for the lob, but Kenny Chery just didn’t pull the trigger.
Lastly, he has recruited sufficient talent to compete at the high major level. I’m not too sure about how exactly he got the likes of Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller, and Isaiah Austin to Waco, except the fact that he’s just a really friendly dude and he can connect with college kids. I mean, he told his players to mess with Craig Sager’s hair just after they creamed Creighton. What he’s done an even better job at recently, though, is raising the talent floor, even if he’s missed out on the star talent the last couple of years. The 2014 class was the first since before 2007 to lack an ESPN top 100 player, most of those players being ranked in 50-100 range. He’s supplemented that with a steady stream of top ranked JUCO players, and has developed the 3-star players well. By getting those players that will stay two, three, and four years, he’s been able to implement a consistent culture and style of play so that when one class leaves, there are still talented sophomores and juniors who can take their turn as leaders.
Drew has flaws, sure, and his teams can lose focus for stretches, but that’s just college basketball. Duke has dropped two games in a row to clearly inferior teams and has had some first round exits despite the talent level. When it’s a bunch of kids on the court, sometimes things get weird. This season, however, Drew is proving himself to have matured as a coach, and it’s showing.
BOTC: Baylor's got some great players (Kenny Chery, Johnathan Motley, and others), but Rico Gathers is an absolute stud. I love his workboot and hardhat game. He's also statistically one of the best in the country on the inside. Why is he not garnering more national attention for awards and press? Talking about further players, is there a level of disappointment with the perceived lack of development of Ish Wainwright?
ODB: Baylor came into this season unranked, so there wasn’t a whole lot of media buzz around this team to start the year. That win against ISU, the high quality of the Big 12 overall this season, and another week or two in the rankings should increase the amount of attention Gathers receives as the season goes on. Part of the problem for Gathers, though, is that his game isn’t that aesthetically pleasing. He’s not a graceful or skilled scorer, but he gets the job done the way he can. He is currently the only player in the Big 12 averaging a double-double. That’s dang impressive. The recognition will come with time.
I might be the wrong person to ask about Ish. I am among his foremost fans. I’ll admit he had a disappointing freshman campaign. This season, however, has been much better. For starters, he’s actually getting on the floor. He’s also started to contribute some key plays to the team. He had a massive offensive rebound late in the TCU game that helped seal the victory, and he’s been a solid wing defender in the 1-3-1 zone. He knows where to be, and he’s been good at using his long arms to disrupt passing lanes. He’s still a bit troubled on offense and his jumper is still missing, apparently, but he’s also cut out killer mistakes that would otherwise keep him on the bench. He’s improved himself to a useful defensive player and a minimally negative offensive player, which is definitely a positive development from last season.
BOTC: What parts of Baylor's game can be exploited against them? What tendencies or shortcomings that concern you?
ODB: Baylor’s greatest strength this season has been offensive rebounding (Don’t think that Drew doesn’t know that OReb% is one of Dean Oliver’s Four Factors. It’s no accident that Baylor has been aggressive on the offensive glass for the last few years.), but one of the dangers of that aggression is that the three forwards will occasionally get caught under the basket, the other team will snag the rebound, and they’ll have an easy transition opportunity. It’s just a risk that comes with the way Baylor wants to play, and for the most part it’s a risk that has paid off this season. If Baylor is to be had, though, it’s in transition.
BOTC: As always, how do you think the game turns out? The Octagon of Doom hasn't been so doom-ish this year, but there's a bit of a stir in the fanbase that should provide for a good home crowd on our end.
ODB: I think this is a winnable game for Baylor. Kansas State has done a very good job of turning teams over without fouling in conference play, but their offense still isn’t too scary, and they’ve demonstrated this season that they’re capable of dropping a game at home. Baylor has been pretty good on the road against teams of comparable quality to Kansas State. The Wildcats are currently 124th in RPI, and Baylor has already beaten two top 100 RPI teams (SCar, Vandy) on the road. Baylor and KState are the two slowest teams in the Big 12 by tempo, so I expect an ugly, grinding game that Baylor wins close on the back of Gathers, Prince, and whoever else is grabbing offensive rebounds that day. Final: Baylor 62, Kansas State 58.