- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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In the buildup to Midnight Madness, Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that "Three Big Things." (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Baylor.
1. Just a few years ago, it would have been unfathomable to start a Baylor analysis by discussing the steady influx of NBA prospects into Waco, Texas. For decades -- particularly 10 years ago, after the horrific Dave Bliss scandal nearly resulted in the NCAA death penalty -- Baylor was a hoops non-entity. But thanks to a variety of factors, including an increased athletics-wide investment in success by the university and coach Scott Drew's relentless ability to land top prospects, Waco has been transformed into a hub of elite NBA talent.
That's why, just one season after losing Perry Jones, Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller -- who formed a gifted, long, athletic frontcourt -- the Bears are still in the Big 12 title hunt. Drew is bringing yet another NBA scout-drool-worthy talent to the program this season: Isaiah Austin. The center is a likely lottery pick in the coming NBA draft, should he choose to leave school, because of his unique skill set. Even at 7 feet, Austin is, according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, a "freak" who runs the floor, has range out to the perimeter, can capably handle the ball and is, basically, a "matchup nightmare." Does that sound like the kind of player you'll enjoy watching? Yes, yes it does.
And that's not all: Drew also landed No. 10-ranked power forward Ricardo Gathers -- who surely will be asked to fill in the frontcourt right away -- as well as No. 9-ranked point guard L.J. Rose, who fills out an already deep backcourt. Most programs that suffer the kind of talent attrition Baylor went through after its 30-win 2011-12 season typically take a step back, wait for players to develop and reload over time. Only elite recruiters can complete this process in a matter of months. Drew is, without question, now among that number.
2. One thing we know for sure about the 2012-13 Baylor Bears: The backcourt is in very good shape. Baylor returns nearly every guard of note from last season, including senior point guard Pierre Jackson, junior shooting guard Brady Heslip, senior point guard A.J. Walton, sophomore reserve Deuce Bello and former Cal transfer Gary Franklin. Jackson and Heslip will retain much of the backcourt duties in 2012-13, but without Miller playing the swingman/small forward role, there should be more minutes for a three-guard lineup, which any of those guards -- particularly Franklin -- could fill out capably.
And if the Bears are smart, they'll find Heslip when he's open. No player in the country -- I'll repeat it: no player in the country -- posted a higher offensive rating in 2011-12 than Heslip's 138.6. He finished among the top 15 players in the country in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage, made 45.5 percent of his 3s, and had the fourth-lowest turnover rate in the nation (7.5 percent). A couple of those figures are inflated, thanks to Heslip's role as a straight catch-and-shoot assassin, but even so, there's no denying how lethal the guard was last season. Unfortunately, he was also the second least-used Baylor player during his minutes, finishing with a usage rate of just 13.1 percent. That number needs to be much higher this season. When Heslip shoots, the ball usually goes in.
3. The backcourt is set, and so the biggest question about this team is whether the front line can not only fill in for Jones and the Quincys, but whether it can actually exceed last season's occasionally questionable interior work, particularly on the defensive end. Despite having so much talent on the front line, the 2011-12 Bears allowed opponents to grab 32.3 percent of their misses, which ranked them No. 177 in the country. On the offensive glass, Baylor ranked No. 16. That is a big disparity, even for a team that plays Drew's matchup zone defense, and it has to improve. Simply put, you can't take Kansas' throne if you can't keep the Jayhawks off the offensive glass.
To be sure, Drew has plenty of big men to throw at the problem. There's Austin, Gathers, Cory Jefferson (who, Drew told Jason King, will be the biggest surprise in 2012-13) and even former UCLA transfer J'Mison Morgan, a 6-foot-11, 275-pound center. But there are questions about all these players. We haven't seen Austin and Gathers do it, and besides, Austin is described -- much as Perry Jones was described -- as less of a dominant, old-school forward and more of a new-age, rather-be-shooting-jumpers type. His shot blocking could alleviate some of this issue, but how much? And will the rest of the Bears' forwards tighten things up on the low block?
We know what we're going to get from Baylor's backcourt, and we can expect great things from Austin on his way to NBA riches. Whether that's enough to get Baylor over the hump -- to knock off Kansas at the top of the Big 12, to push into the Final Four, to do all the things Drew has been working toward in his rather incredible tenure at the school -- is a much different story.