2011-2012 Record: 30-7, 12-6 (Lost in the Elite 8 to Kentucky)
Key Additions: C Isaiah Austin, F Ricardo Gathers
What do Baylor, Butler, Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas and Florida all have in common? All six of those schools have made it to at least two Elite Eights in the last three NCAA tournaments. That's pretty impressive company for Baylor to be in. Say what you will about Scott Drew, but any time you can be mentioned with the likes of Bill Self, John Calipari, Billy Donovan, Roy Williams and Brad Stephens, you'll take it. Baylor's three tournament appearances since 2008 is nothing short or remarkable considering that the program was hanging by a thread in 2003. Unfortunately, Baylor hasn't been able to string together consecutive tournament appearances during their recent run, and that's something Drew is aiming to change.
On paper, the Bears are easily one of the most talented teams in the league, bolstered by a star-studded freshman class that will join a roster already equipped with a few household names. Baylor will have a legitimate chance to overthrow the Jayhawk Dynasty and as I see it, it's back to the Dance for Baylor.
Baylor suffered some heavy frontcourt losses as Quincy Acy, Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller all moved on to the NBA. Replacing that type of talent and production is never easy, but that blow was softened by the arrival of 7'1" freshman, Isaiah Austin. He was a consensus top-five national recruit that will likely have a short stay in Waco, but should have little trouble wreaking havoc in what could be the lone season he spends inside the Ferrell Center. Austin won't have to do it alone though. Fellow freshman Ricardo Gathers was also highly sought after and at 6'8" 260 pounds, he shouldn't have much trouble adjusting to the physicality of Big 12 basketball. Cory Jefferson was a key reserve on last year's team and should split minutes with Gathers. J'Mison Morgan returns to action after redshirting last season. The 6'11" Morgan started his career at UCLA as a heavily recruited center, but has yet to really put it all together and make good on that potential. At any rate, the Bears look like they'll have a strong frontcourt rotation and again will cause match up problems with their length and size.
With Missouri's exit to the SEC, Baylor has hands down the best backcourt in the conference. Not only do the Bears have the best point guard and potentially the league's top player, but they also have the best shooter and best overall guard depth. Senior Pierre Jackson was named the pre-season Big 12 Player of the Year by the league's coaches and for good reason. Jackson's 13.8 PPG led Baylor last year and he also dished out 5.8 assists. The dynamic point guard will be joined by sharpshooter Brady Heslip, who drained 45.5% of his three-point attempts last year, good for third in the conference. A.J. Walton is a defensive ace and senior leader that may also start in what figures to be a three-guard lineup. Gary Franklin and Deuce Bello could also be in the hunt for a starting nod. Franklin and Bello never really developed an offensive rhythm last season, but Franklin only became eligible in January while Bello was a true freshman, so with an entire off-season, look for both to play more prominent roles. Then again, freshman L.J. Rose is a talented off-guard that could steal minutes from both. In case you haven't noticed, the Bears are deep in the backcourt and competition to play will be fierce.
Why They'll Finish 2nd
It may come down to the wire between Baylor and Kansas for the league crown, but at this point, how can anyone really pick against Kansas to win this conference? Thus, a predicted second place finish for the Bears. As you can see, Baylor is loaded in the backcourt and if Austin and Gathers play to their potential, few teams in the conference will have the depth, size and versatility to contain this Baylor team. Baylor was loaded two years ago, but limped to an 18-13 finish and failed to get an invite to the tournament. The difference between that team and this year's team? The 2010-2011 team didn't have Pierre Jackson.
Why I Don't Know Shit
There are a few similarities between this team and the 2010-2011 team that was coming off an Elite Eight. That team was bringing in a top five player in Perry Jones III that possessed that coveted inside-outside game that had NBA scouts drooling. Well, Isaiah Austin is a very similar player. If there's one knock on him, it's that he might be too finesse. Also, the heart and soul of last year's Baylor team was without question Quincy Acy. He was the emotional leader and the one guy the Bears could count on to do the dirty work inside. That type of fearlessness and tenacity isn't easily replaced. If this Baylor team turns out to be soft inside, then what should be a decided advantage, might become a chink in the Bear's armor.
Scott Drew has earned his fair share of criticism, both for what he's done on and off the court and hell, I've even lobbed a few jabs his way. The biggest gripe I have with Drew though, is his insistence on playing a zone defense. In theory, with the length Baylor has had recently, it would work great. Certain schools have been very successful playing a zone defense, Syracuse obviously coming to mind. The problem is that we've seen Baylor's zone get torn apart time and time again. With the 4th best defensive scoring average, Baylor certainly wasn't a bad defensive basketball team last season, but I always feel that they're leaving something on the table defensively when they retreat into that zone. Drew has employed more man-to-man in recent years, but with this year's roster, I think it should become their base defense.