The Bears are proving doubters wrong and earning a spot as one of the nation’s best teams.
The Baylor Bears started the season unranked and were given no consideration for a chance at the Big 12 title. But, one month into the season, the Bears have defeated three top-25 teams, pocketed a tournament championship, are currently undefeated at 7-0, sit in the No. 9 spot in the latest AP poll, and have even garnered one first place vote. It seems almost unbelievable, but the fact of the matter is that Baylor slipped through the cracks. For some reason, no one gave the Waco, Texas-based team any consideration.
True, the Bears lost Rico Gathers and Taurean Prince, who were major parts to the team. Gathers averaged nearly a double-double with 11.2 points and nine rebounds. He recorded 18.8% of Baylor’s offensive rebounds, the highest percentage in the nation. Prince contributed on 76.2% of the Bears’ possessions, playing 76.2% of the time, and led the team in scoring with 15.9 points while having 2.3 assists a game.
But Al Freeman and Ish Wainright, who both started all 34 games, as well as Johnathan Motley, who averaged at least 20 minutes of playing time last season, are back this year. Early on, Motley, who made the Naismith Watchlist, has been the heart and soul of Baylor’s squad. He averaged 11.1 points and 5.1 rebounds last year. So far, Motley has improved those numbers to 16.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per contest after missing the first game of the season after violating NCAA rules by playing in a summer league game. This includes a 26-point performance against Michigan State, who was ranked 24th at the time, and 15 points in a comeback win against then No. 10-ranked Louisville during the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament.
The junior forward led the Bears to the tournament title, and earned some extra hardware as the tournament MVP. He was further rewarded for his 20-point, 7.3-rebound tournament performance by being named the Big 12 Conference Player of the Week on Monday.
Wainright and Freeman offer experience in the backcourt as returning starters with both shooting at least 40% from the field to start the season. Wainright has assisted on 26.7% of Baylor’s made and has contributed a team-leading 13 steals in the team’s seven games. Meanwhile, Freeman is averaging 11.9 points per contest, shooting .414 from the 3-point line and .813 at the free throw line.
Miami transfer Manu Lecomte has also been a welcomed addition to this Bears roster. He sat out last season due to NCAA redshirt transfer rules, and has recorded a team-high 37 assists, to go along with nine steals and 87 points in 217 minutes of playing time this season. On Nov. 14, Lecomte was named Phillips 66 Big 12 Conference Co-Newcomer of the Week after a double-double performance against Oral Roberts. He scored 13 points with 11 assists, adding three steals and no turnovers in the 76-71 win.
The 5‘11” point guard has continued to prove why he was the Newcomer of the Week with an impressive performance against Oregon (who played without Dillon Brooks), but was the fourth-ranked team in the country at the time. Lecomte led the team in scoring (18), assists (7), and steals (2) in the game.
In that very same game, Neosho Community College transfer Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. rejected a game-high seven shots to complement 14 rebounds and eight points. This is his first year playing for Baylor after sitting out last year due to a heart condition. Lual-Acuil’s 7-foot frame has been an advantage for Baylor, filling the vacancy left by Gathers. He has blocked 15.6% of opponent’s shots, which is the third-best blocking percentage in the country. Between him and the 6-foot-10-inch Motley, the two have combined for a whopping 35 blocks, 108 rebounds, and 162 points in the first six games.
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As a whole, the Bears have a balanced effort on both sides of the ball. With two strong post players and two guards shooting at least 40 percent from outside the three-point arc in Freeman and Jake Lindsey, Baylor has scored 113.5 points per 100 offensive possessions, 15th in the nation. Baylor’s defensive performances have also been solid as the team holds opponents to 92 points per 100 possessions, ranking 19th in defensive efficiency. With a 7-0 record, the Bears have won their games by a +14.4 margin and have beaten their competition in just about every way. Baylor is out-rebounding the competition (36.3-29.7), blocking more shots (43-25), and getting more steals (46-31) all while winning the turnover battle (85-89).
Not only are the Bears in the top-10 of the AP poll, they have placed themselves in the Big 12 title conversation. The Bears have the most difficult schedule in the conference so far this season and sit on top as one of two undefeated Big 12 teams left with, surprisingly, TCU being the other.
Can we take moment to acknowledge that #9 Baylor and TCU are the only undefeated men’s basketball teams in the Big 12.— Enrique™ (@Enriquevoice) November 28, 2016
Baylor’s next biggest test comes when the Bears host Xavier on Saturday. The Musketeers are 7-0 and have three players averaging double-digit scoring. For now, though, Xavier has the edge, ranked two spots ahead of the Bears on the AP poll (7).
The next time the Bears will face a team that is ranked in the most recent AP top-25 is when the team plays No. 19 Iowa State on Jan. 4 in Waco. By that time, the Bears could be 13-0 if they beat Xavier and take one from Oklahoma on Dec. 30 in Norman.
With three top-25 wins and success on both sides of the floor, the Bears have gone from unranked to a top-10 team in a month. It’s still early on in the season, but the team’s balanced effort of post and guard players puts them in good position as one of the nation’s best teams.
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