It’s never too early to start looking ahead to next season. Over the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and also those outside the Power 5 who could make noise on the national stage. Today: the Baylor Bears.
Here's our latest 30 for 30 promo. Cue the swelling music. What if we told you … that a team shot 46.1 percent from 2-point range and 67 percent from the free throw line? What if this team turned it over on 20.1 percent of their possessions, which made them one of the 100 or so most turnover-prone teams in college basketball? What if nearly 11 percent of their shots were blocked (which is way above average)? What if more than 10 percent of their possessions ended in a steal by the defense (which is also high)?
What if we told you that team was the second-best offense in the Big 12?
That team, of course, was the 2014-15 Baylor Bears, who rose from nondescript preseason expectations to push the top of a loaded league with an offense that ranked among the nation's 20 or so best on a per-possession basis last season -- and who scored more points per trip against that league's defenses than any team not named Iowa State -- despite bad ballhandling and worse interior shooting.
How, exactly, does that happen? Because Baylor was great at exactly two things: rebounding misses and hitting 3s.
Even in a vacuum, those are two awfully handy skills. Threes are worth more than 2s, in case you were still living under that rock with Byron Scott, and Baylor's league-high 40.3 percent from 3 more than made up for their woes around the basket. Offensive rebounds extend possessions, mitigate poor accuracy and create good looks at the rim that Baylor otherwise struggled to see.
The Bears were at their most devastating -- at least in the half court -- when they utilized these two skills in tandem. Rico Gathers was the best, most ferocious offensive rebounder in the country, (freshman Johnathan Motley wasn't far behind), and it was hardly uncommon to see Gathers scrap for a rebound (or two, or three) before finding Kenny Chery or Royce O'Neale standing open at the 3-point line. Re-tee 3s (courtesy Mike Tirico) might be the most devastating offensive play in basketball; they turn ostensible stops (missed shots) into free looks against scrambling, disconnected defenses. In 2014-15, to almost everyone's surprise, nobody did it better than Baylor.
What the immediate future holds:
Can Scott Drew replicate that combination in 2015-16? Does he need to?
After all, no coach enters a season planning to have his team shoot 46.1 percent from 2-point range. But Baylor's strengths sprung from the same personnel weaknesses that deflated preseason expectations in the first place: Gathers' tireless rebounding but shaky finishing, Chery's relatively limited skills as a penetrator, etc. Plan A might look different this time around -- or, then again, it might not. After all, the 2013-14 Bears, even with a better and more balanced offense, still utilized the O-board/3-combo frequently, and to effect.
In any case, Baylor's surprising success wasn't just about hitting on some slightly quirky offensive scheme. It was also, in large part, about the improvement of junior forward Taurean Prince. In his limited minutes as a sophomore, Prince was a decent if mostly unremarkable reserve plug-in. He shot under 50 percent from 2 and hardly at all from 3. As a 6-foot-7 junior, Prince blossomed into a genuine threat from everywhere on the floor, shooting 53 percent from 2 and 40 percent from 3 -- on 152 long-range attempts. He was also the team's best defender, and one of the best in the country in the Willie Cauley-Stein-steals-and-blocks mold. If his junior-to-senior improvement is even a fraction of what it was last offseason, duck.
Gathers is back and as terrifying as ever, while Motley and fellow freshman Allerik Freeman will take on larger roles. The biggest key -- and biggest question -- of the upcoming season is the backcourt, where O'Neale and Chery have left major holes. Lester Medford looks capable enough to take over the point guard duties, but who will take the lion's share of off-ball touches? Freeman? No. 9-ranked incoming shooting guard King McClure?
At some point in the 2014-15 season -- near the start of Big 12 play, say -- it became clear that Baylor was not a fluke -- the Bears were, in fact, one of the toughest outs in the country. And the Bears didn't need to shoot it well to relentlessly punish the opponent's defense. Whatever offensive combination Drew comes up with for 2015-16, odds are it will be at least that: punishing.