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This year's Baylor Bears have the odd distinction of winning a title they'd like to avoid defending. The defending NIT champions will hope for bigger and better things this season, mainly, an appearance in that other postseason tournament (and no, I'm not talking about the CBI).
Baylor's biggest strength lies in the front court. It's not a reach to say Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson could combine to be the best pair of big men in the nation this season. The two had nearly identical stat lines last year: Austin posted 13.3 points, eight rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game, while Jefferson averaged 13 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks.
Austin is one of the most versatile big men in country, able to put the ball on the deck and shoot from distance. Jefferson broke out last season with his first chance at starter's minutes, averaging a team-high 61 percent FG%, and should continue to improve as a more focal point of the team his senior year. Both could average a double-double.
As if Austin and Jefferson weren't enough, Baylor's opponents will also have to deal with forwards Rico Gathers and Ishmail Wainwright. Both of them are extremely physical, capable of dominating smaller opponents on either side of the court. Gathers averaged 5.7 RPG in just 16.7 minutes per game last season, and should continue to help the Bears control the glass this year. Wainwright can finish at the rim and will provide solid defense on the wing.
The biggest loss for the Bears from last season was their smallest player, 5'10" point guard Pierre Jackson. He led the team in points and assists (averaging 19.8 and 7.1 per game, respectively) and was the engine of the offense, using 30.5% of the team's possessions with him on the floor.
The scoring load can be picked up by Brady Heslip (38.6 3PG% last season), freshman Allerick Freeman, and junior college transfer Kenny Chery. But you have to wonder if this cast can compensate for Jackson's ability to distribute the ball. Heslip is primarily a shooter and Freeman is better suited on the wing. Chery, who will be the starting point guard, averaged 3.7 APG at State Fair Community College last season. That's not encouraging for a team that relied heavily on Jackson's playmaking.
The backcourt could also get a boost if Denver transfer Royce O'Neale is granted eligibility. The Killeen, TX native requested a hardship waiver from the NCAA so he could be closer to his sick grandfather. Having a fourth guard would be especially important for this squad considering they lack the individual brilliance of a guy like Jackson.
Ultimately, this team will go as far as the big men will carry them. There aren't many teams in the country that have one body to match Austin and Jefferson, let alone two to cover both. This goes especially for when the Bears enter Big 12 play. Baylor is a strong pick to finish third behind Kansas and Oklahoma State.
But between those two teams, only Kansas' Joel Embiid has the size and skill to compete with Austin and Jefferson down low. Those two need to perform well to keep Baylor competitive, likely on a nightly basis. Despite the extra pressure, any uptick in production from either one (more likely from Austin) could warrant All-America consideration and success for the Bears.