It is early, but after watching Baylor men's basketball play its first few games the prospects for a great season look very bright.
I said before the season that this Baylor team has the potential to be a top 25 defensive team- which would be a first for Coach Drew. Drew has always been vastly underrated for his ability to produce efficient offenses. He is a coach that designs great offensive sets and is able to take advantage of opponent weaknesses with match-ups. This has resulted in offensive efficiency (according to Ken Pomeroy) that has been top 15 in the nation for four out of the last five years.
This team should be strong offensively with four players who have the skill to deliver consistent scoring in Pierre Jackson, Brady Heslip, Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin. But the defense is what has me excited about the potential for this year's Baylor Bears to be a Final 4 caliber team.
Defense starts with mindset, effort and desire. This has the look of a team that really wants to make its mark on the defensive end. The defensive stats are solid- holding Lehigh and Jackson State to under 38% from the field and forcing 29 turnovers in the first two games. Baylor has also controlled the boards- +28 in rebounding through the first two games. But this is more of a seeing is believing thing.
The tenacity and desire for Baylor to get after it on the defensive end has been encouraging. Senior AJ Walton sets the tone. He is one of the top perimeter defending guards in college basketball. He had his hands full with preseason All-American CJ McCollum for Lehigh in the opener. McCollum scored 36 points being guarded by Walton and Deuce Bello. But he needed 32 shots to get there (making 14). Many of McCollum's shots were Kobe like- with great defensive pressure. McCollum is just a fantastic basketball player. The rest of the Lehigh basketball team was 14-47 from the field- under 30%.
This was a Lehigh team that was 27-8 last year- returning 4 starters on a very good offensive basketball team in 2011-12. Jackson State is not as efficient on offense as Lehigh. But Baylor played suffocating defense en route to building a 71-37 lead with around 8 minutes left. Pierre Jackson and most of the Baylor starters sat on the bench as the game got a little sloppy late.
Why this team is different from past Baylor teams
1. Perimeter defense
I thought coming into the season that Baylor would have three good perimeter defenders in Jackson, Walton and Bello. What has been surprising to me is to watch the effort that guys like Brady Heslip, Gary Franklin and LJ Rose are putting into defense. Rose is probably further behind than the other two just because he lacks experience, but the guards are really getting after it- contesting passes and making it difficult to move the ball effectively. What has been encouraging is to watch the tenacity and effort that freshmen- Ricardo Gathers and Taurean Prince are giving on perimeter defense. When you have guys that are over 6-7 just digging in hard 30 feet from the basket, you have the potential for something special.
2. Rim protection
Isaiah Austin has a 7-5 wingspan and just affects everything in the paint with his length. But Cory Jefferson is not far behind. Jefferson has 8 blocks through the two games. Gathers and Prince also give maximum effort in the paint- on the glass and altering shots. Jackson State attempted an alley oop. As much as I appreciated the contributions of guys like Anthony Jones, Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller last year, there were times when alley oops would be thrown and Baylor defenders would appear to be stuck in cement as they watched it converted. Tonight Ricardo Gathers made a spectacular play to thwart an alley oop attempt that ignited a Baylor fast break on the other end.
3. Desire and basketball IQ
Gathers and Prince give effort that is rare for an experienced player- but especially rare for freshmen. This Baylor team is a smart basketball team it appears. Prince has a great feel for the game. Isaiah Austin does as well. Baylor fans already know that Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip have high basketball IQs. Cory Jefferson's decision making and patience has been really impressive. Also Deuce Bello deserves special recognition here. He made so many smart basketball plays in the Jackson State game offensively- an extra pass; a tip to keep a possession alive; passing up shot opportunities to make the better basketball play. Very impressive effort by Deuce. He should have had 4-5 assists if his passes were converted by his teammates.
The season is off to a bright start- the Charleston Classic will be a great test for this Baylor Bear team. We will have a pretty good assessment of where this team stands after next weekend. Hopefully, Baylor will have the services of a healthy Isaiah Austin who sat out the Jackson State game with an ankle sprain. Is this the best overall basketball team that Scott Drew has had to work with? If the team stays healthy, I say yes.