Baylor hopes to break pattern after Sweet 16 again

Baylor has gotten into quite a pattern over the past few seasons, with deep NCAA tournament runs every other year.

So what happens after the Bears lose more than half of their scoring and half of their rebounding from another Sweet 16 team? They are about to find out.

”I think with our team this year, the great thing is we have a lot of versatility and a lot of depth,” coach Scott Drew said. ”This year’s team, they compete, they work hard every day, and at the same time, really all of them enjoy seeing their teammates score. There’s not a ball stopper or someone that really demands the ball.”

Senior point guard Kenny Chery returns, but the Bears lost three other starters who averaged double-figure scoring last season – big men Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin, along with 3-point shooting threat Brady Heslip.

”Our plan is to play faster,” said Chery, who averaged 11.5 points and 4.7 assists a game last season after transferring from junior college. ”We’re going to have to play faster … and just push the ball.”

Senior small forward Royce O’Neale started the final 31 games last season, his first for the Bears after transferring from Denver. Baylor also returns bruising forward Rico Gathers, along with versatile players Taurean Prince and Ishmail Wainright.

The Bears also add a pair of redshirt freshmen who were part of the program last season without playing. Physical guard Al Freeman missed eight weeks with a wrist injury last season before taking the redshirt, and athletic 6-foot-9 forward Johnathan Motley added 20 pounds of muscle while waiting his time behind Jefferson, Austin and Gathers.

”Definitely this year he’ll be able to show all the hard work he’s put in,” Drew said of Motley, who bulked up to 237 pounds.

Here are a few other things to watch when the Bears open their 12th season under coach Drew on Nov. 14 at home against McNeese State:

TRANSFER TRIO: Deng Deng – yes, the same name twice for the 6-8 forward – has gone from Sudan to Egypt to Australia to Lee College in Baytown, Texas, and now Baylor. The Bears also have two other transfers. Guard Lester Medford was a two-time junior college All-American, once at each of his two stops. Austin Mills was a reserve guard at Pepperdine the past two seasons, but is eligible to play immediately since he was a non-recruited student-athlete for the Waves.

POSTSEASON SUCCESS: Baylor was 17-4 in postseason games the past six seasons while making three NCAA tournament appearances and going to the NIT twice. Only Kentucky (20) and North Carolina (18) have more postseason wins during that span. Baylor was the NIT runner-up in 2009, made it to the NCAA Elite Eight in 2010 and 2012, then was the NIT champion in 2013 before another Sweet 16 appearance last season, when the Bears finished strong after starting 2-8 in Big 12 play.

FRESH PLAYERS: Baylor has two true freshmen: Dee Durham is a volume shooter who scored 2,720 points over four high school seasons and was also a six-man quarterback, while T.J. Maston is a 6-foot-7 forward who has two uncles who played Division I basketball.

DRAFTED BEARS: Five Baylor players have been taken in the NBA draft the past three years. That likely would have been six players since the 7-foor-1 Austin was expected to be a high pick as an early entry last year. But he was diagnosed a week before the draft with a rare genetic disorder that affects the heart and ended his playing career.

TEXAS STRONG: The Bears are 23-4 against in-state teams since the start of the 2011-12 season, and none of the other 20 Division teams in Texas has advanced deeper into postseason play than the Bears the past three years. The Bears are 37-8 against Lone Star State teams the last five seasons, after going 10-27 in Drew’s first six seasons.