This preview and more on Baylor and the Big 12 are available in the Athlon Sports 2013-14 College Basketball Preseason Annual. The magazine is available online or on newsstands everywhere.
No. 24 Baylor Facts & Figures
Last season: 23-14 (9-9 Big 12)
Postseason: NIT champion
Coach: Scott Drew (180-138 at Baylor)
Big 12 projection: Third
Postseason projection: NCAA Round of 32
Ten years after inheriting one of the most difficult situations in college basketball history, Scott Drew and his Baylor basketball team will kick off the 2013-14 season by hanging a championship banner in the Ferrell Center rafters.
Granted, an NIT title hardly compares to a NCAA trophy — or even a Big 12 championship. Still, for a program that nearly received the death penalty following the Patrick Dennehy murder scandal in 2003, winning any sort of trophy is considered a monumental feat in Waco.
“We were disappointed we didn’t make the NCAA Tournament,” Drew says. “But what happened in the NIT was great for this program. It brought a lot of pride to our school and our community. Now we’re ready to take that next step.”
Even with the loss of Big 12 scoring and assists leader Pierre Jackson, Drew and his players are optimistic about the upcoming season. Kansas may be the clear-cut favorite to win its 10th straight conference title, but sleeping on the Bears would be a mistake.
Not many teams in the country will be as strong in the paint as Baylor. The Bears caught a break when 7-foot-1 center Isaiah Austin was forced to return for his sophomore season after tearing his right labrum in April. Austin was projected as a mid-to-late-first-round NBA Draft pick and had all but decided to leave school after one season, but the injury would’ve kept him from conducting individual workouts with prospective teams and would’ve hurt his draft stock. Austin averaged 13.0 points and a team-high 8.3 rebounds as a freshman, but he was often manhandled on the defensive end. He needs to add some bulk to his wiry, 225-pound frame.
Joining Austin down low is senior Cory Jefferson, a freakishly athletic forward who keyed the Bears’ postseason success. The 6-9 Jefferson averaged 21.2 points in five NIT games and enhanced his skills during the summer as a member of the United States squad that competed in the World University Games in Russia.
Also figuring prominently into the rotation will be Ricardo Gathers, a 270-pound bruiser who averaged 5.7 points and 5.7 boards last season despite playing just 17 minutes a game.
The Bears took a massive hit with the graduation of Jackson, a second-round NBA Draft pick who led the Big 12 in scoring (19.8 ppg) and assists (7.1 apg). His likely replacement will be Kenny Chery, who averaged 16.4 points and shot 45 percent from 3-point range in junior college last season. Chery is known as a “scoring guard,” but Drew wants to make sure he also focuses on feeding the Bears’ standout post players as well as long-range specialist Brady Heslip, a senior shooting guard who is looking to bounce back from a mediocre junior year.
Combo guard Gary Franklin, who has been a staple in the Bears’ backcourt rotation the past two seasons, could challenge Heslip for a starting spot. Also contending for minutes will be freshman Allerick Freeman, a top-100 recruit who signed with the Bears in the spring after decommitting from UCLA. Freeman is a shooting guard, but he’s told Drew that he wants to play point guard as well.
The biggest area of improvement for Baylor in 2013-14 will likely be on the wing, where the Bears have three “inside-outside” players who are capable of playing both on the perimeter and in the paint. Freshman Ishmael Wainwright was the highest-ranked member of the program’s 2013 recruiting class and should contend for a starting spot with the versatile Royce O’Neale, who averaged 11.4 points and 5.5 rebounds for the University of Denver last season. Sophomore Taurean Prince will also be in the mix for playing time.
Although they are both natural small forwards, Ishmael Wainwright and Royce O’Neale can play any position except center. The long and athletic Wainwright is known for his leadership and defensive fire — two things Baylor has lacked. O’Neale was one of the better players in the WAC last season for Denver. His experience may give him an edge. Allerick Freeman is a highly ranked combo guard who initially committed to UCLA.
Factoid: 15–4. Scott Drew since has an 15–4 record in the postseason at Baylor. Under Drew, the Bears have earned three NCAA Tournament bids and made two appearances in the NIT.
Most teams that lose a player of Jackson’s ilk tend to take a step back the following season — especially considering he played the most important position on the court. Baylor, though, returns virtually every other key piece of its roster. The keys for Baylor will be how quickly Chery adapts to the Division I level, the improvement Austin makes on the defensive end and the impact on the wing from Wainwright and/or O’Neale. If those things turn into positives for Baylor, the Bears will be contending for championships much more prestigious than the one they won in 2013.
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