Talented Bears aim to avenge last year's NCAA Tournament early exit
Baylor boasts a potential first-round draft pick in Taurean Prince, one of the nation’s best rebounders in Rico Gathers and a budding star in Jonathan Motley. Still, the main theme surrounding the Bears entering the 2015-16 season doesn’t even involve the players who return. It’s about the players who left.
Along with being two of the best players on last year’s squad, guards Kenny Chery and Royce O’Neale were also the most important. Whether it was with their play, their words or their demeanor, Chery and O’Neale brought a sense of calm and structure to a program long known for its erratic style of play. With Chery and O’Neale setting the tone, Baylor played hard — and the Bears also played smart more often than not en route to a 24-win season.
“We’ve got to find someone to replace their leadership,” Bears coach Scott Drew says. “If we do, I think we could be in store for another great year.”
All Big 12 predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
Gathers, Prince and Motley may not be the best inside trio in the country — but they should at least be in the conversation. Gathers averaged 11.6 rebounds per game last season, a mark that ranked third in the nation. A 6'8", 275-pound bruiser, Gathers is one of the most physically imposing players in college basketball. He knows that a strong senior season is vital if he hopes to be selected in the 2016 NBA Draft.
As promising as Gathers has been, Prince, a senior, is regarded as an even better prospect. He averaged a team-high 13.9 points off the bench as a junior and was one of the top players on a U.S. team that won the bronze medal at the Pan-American Games in Canada over the summer. The 6'7" Prince shot just under 40 percent from 3-point range last season and ranked second on the team in steals with 1.48 per game.
Although he’s still incredibly green, Motley is as skilled as any frontcourt player in the Big 12. The 6'9", 230-pounder has the length, bulk, footwork, ball-handling skills and shooting touch that make NBA scouts drool, but he needs to play with more energy and fire. This could be a breakthrough season for Motley, who helped Baylor finish second in the league in rebounding margin last season and first in points allowed. Motley averaged 7.7 points as a redshirt freshman.
Also, look for 7'0" junior college transfer Jo Acuil to make an immediate impact. Acuil averaged 20.1 points, 11.2 points and 4.7 blocks for Neosho (Kan.) Community College last season.
Baylor Bears Facts & Figures
Last season: 24–10, 11–7 Big 12
Postseason: First round
Consecutive NCAAs: 2
Big 12 Projection: 3
Postseason Projection: Second round
Difficult as the losses of Chery and O’Neale will be to absorb — they combined to average 21.4 points and 7.5 assists — it’s not as if the Bears’ backcourt is totally depleted. Replacing Chery at the point will be Lester Medford, a returning starter who averaged 7.6 points per game as a combo guard last season. Medford can be erratic at times and often floundered in big moments, but Drew notes that Medford led Baylor to a 4–1 record when Chery was out with an injury. Medford is a solid 3-point shooter (38.5 percent) who simply needs to make better decisions.
Two players will vie for quality minutes alongside Medford in the backcourt. Al Freeman was a consensus top-100 recruit out of high school who initially signed with UCLA before switching his pledge to Baylor when Ben Howland was fired. An excellent long-range shooter, Freeman redshirted his first season at Baylor before playing sparingly as a redshirt freshman in 2014-15, when he averaged 4.8 points. Freeman is better suited as shooting guard, although he can handle point guard duties when called upon.
Freeman’s biggest competition for minutes will come from King McClure, the jewel of Baylor’s 2015 recruiting class. The 6'3" McClure operates with a scorer’s mentality and has been compared to former NBA standout Ben Gordon. McClure must make an immediate impact for Baylor to achieve at a high level. Incoming freshman Jake Lindsey, who has good size at 6'5", also will have a chance to contribute.
Key Losses: G Kenny Chery, F Royce O’Neal
Top Players: G Lester Medford, G Al Freeman, F Johnathan Motley, F Johnathan Motley, F Rico Gathers
King McClure is a big-time scorer who can light it up from long range. He’ll be counted on to make an immediate impact in Baylor’s thin backcourt. At least one recruiting service ranked the 7'0" Jo Acuil as the top junior college prospect in the nation. Jake Lindsey’s father, Dennis, is the general manager of the NBA’s Utah Jazz.
Last season’s NCAA Tournament berth marked first time in history that the Bears had appeared in the NCAAs in back-to-back years. Scott Drew’s squad should make it three in a row this season, and it could do some serious damage — both in the Big 12 and the postseason — if players such as Medford, Freeman and McClure step up in the backcourt.