Mar 23, 2012; Atlanta, GA, USA; Baylor Bears guard Brady Heslip (5) and Pierre Jackson (55) reacts after winning their game against the Xavier Musketeers in the semifinals of the south region of the 2012 NCAA men

Baylor Bears Basketball Season Preview

The college hoops season is right around the corner, and Busting Brackets is here to whet your basketball-starved appetite. Over the next five weeks, we are publishing season previews team by team, conference by conference, to offer a glimpse into the upcoming season. Busting Brackets is giving you the lowdown on the biggest storylines, offseason changes and x-factors for each team and each league as we roll into the 2012-13 season. Our complete season preview archive can be accessed here. Buckle up, peeps.

Baylor Bears

Last Season 30-8 (12-6 Big 12)
Lost to Missouri in Big 12 championship game
Lost to Kentucky in Elite Eight of NCAA tournament
Key Returning Players: Pierre Jackson, G
Brady Heslip, G
A.J. Walton, G
Deuce Bello, G
Cory Jefferson, F
Gary Franklin, G
Key Additions: Isaiah Austin, C (Grace Preparatory Academy)
Ricardo Gathers, F (Riverside Academy)
L.J. Rose, G (Westbury Christian High School)
Chad Rykhoek, C (Fort Worth Christian HS)
Taurean Waller-Prince, F (Earl Warren HS)
Key Losses: Perry Jones III, F (Left early for NBA draft)
Quincy Acy, F
Quincy Miller, F (Left early for NBA draft)
Anthony Jones, F
Top Non-Conference Games: Nov. 9 vs. Lehigh
Nov. 15 vs. Boston College (Charleston Classic)
Nov. 16 vs. Colorado or Dayton (Charleston Classic)
Nov. 18 vs. TBD (Charleston Classic)
Dec. 1 @ Kentucky
Dec. 4 vs. Northwestern
Dec. 21 vs. BYU
Dec. 28 @ Gonzaga
Top Conference Games: Jan. 5 vs. Texas
Jan. 14 @ Kansas
Jan. 21 vs. Oklahoma State
Feb. 6 @ Oklahoma State
Feb. 16 @ Kansas State
Mar. 2 vs. Kansas State
Mar. 4 @ Texas
Mar. 9 vs. Kansas
Breakout Player: Isaiah Austin. The 7-foot shot-swatting savant could end up being the most valuable freshman in college this season. Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel arrives at Lexington with all the bells and whistles, but Austin, not Noel, was consistently the best high school center in one of the deepest classes of pivots ever. A gangly, athletic specimen, Austin’s shot-blocking ability alone is enough to make him an instant-impact player at the college level. But it’s his peerless versatility—he handles the ball like a guard, can shoot from outside and has unusually good hands for a post prospect—that has rival Big 12 coaches sweating bullets already. Austin is the closest thing to Anthony Davis in college this year; that includes the flat-top-toting 7-footer tabbed as his replacement. No team in America—Kentucky and North Carolina included—endured more attrition in the frontcourt than Baylor, which lost its top three frontcourt assets on top of the team’s best frontcourt player off the bench. As a result, the Arlington TX native will have a bevy of opportunity to make a splash from day one.
X-Factor: Isaiah Austin…again.  For Baylor to contend for a Big 12 title, Austin may have to be the best freshman in the land. The Bears graduate two key bigs (Quincy Acy and high-energy reserve Anthony Jones) while two more (Perry Jones III, who departed a year too late, and Quincy Miller, who departed a year too soon) left school early for the NBA. The Bears return the top backcourt in the Big 12, led by Big 12 Player of the Year candidate Pierre Jackson. Jackson, one of the top point guards in America, will be flanked by the nation’s deadliest 3-point assassin in Brady Heslip. Figuring on an uptick in productivity from highly prized sophomore guard Deuce Bello and contributions from blue chip point guard L.J. Rose, this will be one of Baylor’s best backcourts to date, rivaling the 2009-10 combination of Tweety Carter (i.e., the original Pierre Jackson) and LaceDarius Dunn. The frontcourt is where the Bears will either sink or swim. Senior big man and former UCLA transfer J’mison Morgan will see an expanded role down low, whether he’s ready for it or not. And the heralded freshman class will get major burn right away. In addition to Austin, the Bears usher in 4-star forward Rico Gathers, a late signee who should see lots of action in his rookie season. Chad Rykhoek and Taurean Waller-Prince are works in progress, but they too could see floor time out of necessity in 2012-13. Still, the fate of the Bears will foremost hinge on just how good Austin is manning the post. With an All-American-caliber season out of the freshman phenom, Baylor can win the Big 12 and could make noise in the Big Dance. But if Austin is just a run-of-the-mill freshman, the Bears are just another top-heavy, one-dimensional team highly susceptible to bad matchups.
Best Case: Who said there would never again be another Anthony Davis? While not quite as good as the reigning national player of the year, Isaiah Austin is the closet possible copycat. Between his extraordinary shot-blocking ability, the game-changing impact he has on defense and his unmatched offensive versatility, Austin is not only the best freshman in America, but firmly in the discussion for best overall player. The losses of Acy and Jones III inside, once thought to be irreplaceable (Acy for his all-around game, Jones III for his scoring and rebounding), are in fact replaceable after all. J’mison Morgan is a solid filler piece to go along side Austin, outperforming national expectations. Morgan shows flashes of why he was one of the top centers in the class of 2008, second only to B.J. Mullins coming out of high school. Rico Gathers provides positive contributions in 20 minutes of action per game thanks to his strength and finishing ability. While the Bears are better than expected inside, the backcourt meets lofty expectations. Pierre Jackson is the best guard in the league, outshining Kansas State’s Rodney McGruder as the top backcourt player in the league. Heslip is lights out from 3, Bello is an improved player as a sophomore and L.J. Rose is an above average backup point guard to Jackson. There’s no shortage of talent or depth in the Bears’ backcourt rotation, and the foursome proves why in bombastic style. With Missouri out of the picture and Kansas more vulnerable relative to last year, Baylor wins the Big 12 and notches a top-three seed in March. The talent has been there for Coach Drew during the latter half of his tenure in Waco. This year, with some pundits writing his team off because of the frontcourt attrition, that talent is finally validated by a deep NCAA tournament run.
Worst Case: This isn’t the first time Scott Drew is armed with elite-level talent. And this wouldn’t be the first time he fumbled it either. Despite a balanced, talent-loaded backcourt with a mix of experience and hungry youth, the Bears underachieve in 2012-13 even relative to lighter expectations (they were the Big 12 favorites heading into last season, after all). Heslip can shoot among the best of them, but that’s all he brings to the table. Jackson is good, but guilty of trying to do too much. With the keys now to the Baylor car, Jackson tries to be “the guy,” shirking his point guard responsibilities and becoming more of a jack-em-up Joe. Minus the array of talent inside, Jackson sees his assist numbers dip and his efficiency plunge. Lightning doesn’t strike in Waco the same way he struck in Lexington. Despite Austin’s massive billing, he is nowhere near the two-way superstar Anthony Davis was in college. Austin is not as dominant on the defensive end, lacking the same pronounced length as Davis and the timing instincts that made Davis one of college basketball’s best ever shot blockers. On the offensive end, Austin is more raw, as his ball-handling and dominance inside (keep in mind he’s not as long as Davis) don’t translate in the same fashion. Gathers is not ready to contribute at a highly level immediately, as he’ll be called upon to do in 2012-13. Morgan shows why he hardly saw the floor at UCLA. And the Bears, one year removed from owning the most complete frontcourt in school history, are undone because of their suspect, inexperienced frontcourt. The Bears slack on defense, toting a defense worse than last year’s bunch, which ranked 40th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. Youth, inexperience and more underachieving talent doom Drew’s squad, which is leapt by Kansas, K-State and Oklahoma State in conference and settles for a middling seed in the Big Dance. The worst case scenario for this year’s group is not 2010-11 bad, when a hyped squad led by a senior Dunn, junior Acy and freshman Jones missed the tournament entirely. But this year’s bunch does have a fairly wide range of where it can end up, including a relatively low floor thanks to the abundance of so many meaningful freshmen.
Projected Finish: Regular Season: 22-9 (12-6 Big 12), 2nd place Big 12
Lose in Big 12 tournament championship game
NCAA tournament No. 3 seed

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