Baylor returns three starters from an NCAA Sweet 16 team, including a playmaking point guard and a senior big man who keeps getting better.
Going into the Big 12 this season, that is good enough for the league coaches to pick the Bears fifth in the preseason poll."I think it's a tribute to what we lost. Also for the other teams, what they returned," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. "But I know coaches never put too much stock in the preseason polls because injuries, chemistry, leadership, that stuff all reveals itself during the course of the season...Your margin of error is so thin in the Big 12."
Fulfill that preseason projection and the Bears will almost certainly make it to their eighth NCAA Tournament in 11 seasons after only one appearance in nearly six decades before that.
Johnathan Motley, last season's top scorer and rebounder, is in the Dallas Mavericks organization after bypassing his senior season for early entry into the NBA. Four-year letterman Ishmail Wainright, who started all 69 games the past two seasons, is now playing tight end on the Baylor football team. Junior guard Al Freeman, a 57-game starter, decided to leave Baylor after graduating last spring.
The Bears still have Belgium-born point guard Manu Lecomte, 7-foot forward Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. and two other senior forwards, Terry Maston and Numi Omot. The returning starters are Lecomte, Acuil and 3-point shooting threat King McClure.
"Like last year, everybody is sleeping on us and I just can't wait to prove everybody wrong," said Lecomte, who averaged 12.2 points and 3.8 assists per game.
"Like last year, everyone is sleeping on us and I just can't wait to prove everyone wrong."— Baylor Basketball (@BaylorMBB) October 26, 2017
Basketball & Beyond: Manu Lecomte pic.twitter.com/cSLCa0qdL6
Baylor was also overlooked last season. All the Bears did then was beat three top-10 teams early in the season, and went from not getting a single vote in the AP preseason poll to shooting up to No. 9 less than a month later. The Bears went on to tie for second in the Big 12 during the regular season.
Some things to know about these Bears, who open the season Nov. 10 against Central Arkansas:
The Bears are excited about Acuil's defense, even as he has improved on his inside scoring, something Motley was so good at. Acuil blocked 81 shots and averaged 6.7 rebounds last season. He scored 9.2 points a game.
"What makes Jo special defensively, he's one of the best in the country," Drew said. "Definitely he will pick up some of scoring slack, but I know what makes him special for us is his defensive prowess."
Drew said one of the reasons Baylor has been so successful with interior scorers through the years is that the returning players always improve. Maston had 19 points in each of Baylor's first two NCAA Tournament games last March.
"The leadership and the young guys going against great players each and every day in the inside has made them better," Drew said. "Iron sharpens iron. I know TJ (Maston) is capable of scoring. Tristan Clark, our freshman, is capable. Joe has improved. So I think we will have that interior scoring."
No current coach has been in the Big 12 longer than Drew, who is going into his 15th season. Bill Self's debut at Kansas was in 2003-04, the season Drew started at Baylor. Half of the Big 12 coaches are going into their third seasons — or less.
Leonard Allen, a 22-year-old sophomore with three seasons of eligibility remaining, enrolled at Baylor in August. He took an indefinite leave of absence last week due to a personal medical issue.
"He's taking care of personal issues and once that's resolved then he will return," Drew said, adding there is no set timetable.
After graduating from Round Rock High School in 2013, Allen initially didn't pursue college basketball. But he later enrolled at San Diego City College, where he averaged 14.6 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game in 2015-16. He sat out last season while taking classes at a community college.