Our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: Baylor.
In retrospect, there were three real candidates in the contest for 2010-11's Most Disappointing Team. (Believe it or not, there is no ESPY for this. But there should be.) Those candidates were Michigan State, Kansas State and Baylor. To me, the winner is Baylor, and I'm not sure it's even close.
Michigan State was mediocre, but at least the Spartans rallied in time to keep Tom Izzo's NCAA tournament appearances streak alive. Kansas State was massively disappointing on and off the court, but Jacob Pullen caught fire late in the season, the Wildcats easily secured a tournament bid, and Frank Martin's team fought to a valiant, prideful end in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Loss or no, Pullen and Co. could walk off the floor with heads held high.
Baylor, on the other hand, never got there. For all the expectations and talent -- the Bears were a popular preseason Final Four pick thanks to the arrival of touted recruit Perry Jones and the return of star guard LaceDarius Dunn -- Scott Drew's team just never seemed to sort it out.
Earlier this year, during the glorious height of Bubble Watch -- my body still hasn't recovered from the circadian disruptions -- my editor Brett and I would frequently get on the phone and hash things out. Who deserved to drop off? Who deserved to stay on? Why or why not? Each week, it seemed, brought some measure of discussion about Baylor. Every week, we kept waiting for the Bears to give us a reason -- besides the general softness of the bubble -- to warrant serious bid consideration. Every week, Baylor disappointed.
It was a weird, frustrating experience. I can only imagine how Baylor fans felt. Eventually, the Bears mercifully dropped off The Watch, finishing 18-13 and underperforming even the most bearish (sorry) analysts' preseason predictions.
Why? Why was a team so talented also so very mediocre? The answer is actually pretty simple: point guard play.
For all of the talent at Baylor last season, the Bears never recovered from the loss of former point guard Tweety Carter, who helped lead the team to the 2010 Elite Eight appearance that so inflated 2011's expectations. With Dunn and forward Ekpe Udoh garnering most of the headlines for that run, Carter's excellent point guard play often went unnoticed. With Dunn back, Jones arriving, and forward Quincy Acy preparing to take a larger role, it was assumed that sophomore point guard A.J. Walton would be able to pick up right where Carter left off, that the Bears' vaunted high-flying offense would just keep putting points on the board.
That didn't happen. Oh, did it ever not happen. Walton struggled, and that's putting it nicely. He posted one of the highest turnover percentages in the country in 2011, coughing up the ball on 32.1 percent of his possessions. In 2010, Baylor's turnover rate was 20.2 percent -- not great, not bad, right in the meat of the curve.
In 2011, with Walton at the helm, that team turnover rate jumped to 23.4 percent, one of the highest figures in all of college hoops. (Team rank: No. 322. Ouch.) Walton was, to put it bluntly, a turnover machine, and those turnovers contributed in a big way to Baylor's overall offensive mediocrity. Throw in Walton's shaky shooting, and the Bears' offense lost much of its dynamism, especially on the perimeter.
Per Ken Pomeroy, in 2010, the Bears ranked No. 3 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency. In 2011, they ranked No. 92. More than anything else, turnovers were the reason.
Of course, it would be unfair to lay all of the blame at Walton's feet. For one, Baylor's defense wasn't nearly as good as it had been the previous season. Most assumed Jones would make up for the loss of Udoh; instead, the touted freshman came along slowly, a prototypically gifted athlete who hadn't quite figured out how to turn his talents into dominance. That was especially true on the defensive end, where Udoh's shot-blocking -- not to mention the presence of 7-foot banger Josh Lomers -- was sorely missed. The drop-off in adjusted defensive efficiency wasn't quite as pronounced as the offensive side, but the Bears suffered a major dip all the same.
Now, as 2012 approaches, how does Baylor avoid a similar fate? Dunn is gone, but Jones and Acy are back, and they're joined by another elite talent in incoming freshman Quincy Miller, the No. 3-ranked power forward in the class of 2011. Deuce Bello, a touted small forward prospect, is also arriving this fall. The Bears will have another supremely long and athletic team, one most experts will pick to contend for the Big 12 title and a spot in the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. But can they get the offense back on track?
Again, the answer is point guard play. A major improvement by Walton in his junior season is one option. But there is another: In April, Baylor inked point guard Pierre Jackson, one of the top junior college players in the country. When asked why he chose Baylor, Jackson gave his appraisal of the BU personnel to the Magic Valley Times-News:
"What Baylor has coming back next year - the front line is crazy," said Jackson. "... They got a couple NBA-caliber front-line players and they've got a couple freshmen coming in that are NBA caliber already on a couple mock drafts."
"Baylor needed a point guard pretty bad last year," said Jackson [...]. "I guess I was the perfect guard for that situation."
He's not wrong: Baylor desperately needed a point guard last year. If Jackson is even so-so -- as long as he doesn't cough the ball up too frequently -- he could be the piece that puts Baylor over the top.
Of course, as above, there are other issues. The Bears have to get better defensively. Jones has to turn all that talent -- the dude is 6-foot-11 with silky guard skills, for goodness' sake -- into star-level productivity. Miller and Bello have to be ready to contribute immediately, and Acy has to be even better on the glass.
College hoops is not the place for magic bullets. Things aren't as simple as plugging in one player for the other. There are rarely magic bullets. But Baylor, perhaps more than any team in the country, had a singular, obvious problem in 2011. If Drew can correct it -- whether with Walton or Jackson or some combination therein -- he might have a very scary team on his hands.
If he can't, the Bears are almost sure to improve. But they won't be nearly as good as they should be. Sound familiar?