There were few college basketball teams in the country more frustrating to watch last season than Baylor. A team with three future NBA draft picks at 6'11 (Perry Jones III), 6'10 (Quincy Miller) and 6'7 (Quincy Acy), they insisted on running their offense through the perimeter and playing a bizarre 1-3-1 zone defense that negated many of their strengths.
On the opening night of the basketball season, they seemed to have learned the right lessons, as the Bears dominated an excellent Lehigh team in a 99-77 home victory.
To his credit, Baylor coach Scott Drew finally abandoned his beloved zone, allowing his athletes to play aggressive man-to-man defense on the Mountain Hawks. Baylor only forced 8 turnovers, but their defense sped up the tempo of the game. Lehigh took a number of contested shots early in the shot clock, which in turn allowed the Bears to get out and run in the open court.
You can see the difference in the point totals from last season. Even when they were winning, Baylor was doing so in 64-60 type games, which shortened the number of possessions and allowed less talented teams to stay in games with them. And make no mistake about it, there aren't many teams with the talent to stay with this group.
Last season, on the offensive side of the floor, Drew allowed Pierre Jackson and AJ Walton to dominate the ball. But against Lehigh, Jackson refashioned himself in to more of a pure PG, and the result was an offensive avalanche the scrappy Patriot League team, coming off a shocking NCAA Tournament upset over Duke, had no chance of matching. Baylor attacked the paint all game long, finishing with an insane 64.5% field goal percentage.
The most encouraging sign for Bears fans had to have been the team's shot distribution. Their starting front-court of Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin combined for 28 shots to only 7 for Jackson. Perhaps realizing that there's little future in the NBA for a 5'10 180 shoot-first PG, Jackson looked to set up his big men, finishing with an impressive double-double of 14 points and 12 assists, many of them on eye-popping alley-oops.
Jefferson and Austin, meanwhile, both looked like big-time NBA prospects.
A redshirt junior, the 6'9 210 Jefferson has had to bide his time the last few seasons, but he exploded on Friday. He finished with 26 points on 12-16 shooting while adding 13 rebounds and 2 blocks. He's still a raw offensive player who can't create his own shot, but he's an extremely hard-working above-the-rim terror on both ends of the floor -- basically a bigger and longer Quincy Acy.
As for Austin, a McDonald's All-American from Arlington Grace Prep who came to Waco with a huge amount of hype? He lived up to every bit of it against the Mountain Hawks. An athletic and bouncy 7'1 225 big man with a 7'5 wingspan, he has "tremendous upside potential" oozing out of every pore. Even more impressively, he's a very skilled player, comfortable out on the perimeter as well as operating on the block.
There's maybe a handful of players in the country with even a chance of matching up with Austin, and none of them are going to be found in the Patriot League. An ankle injury ended his night prematurely, but in only 17 minutes, he finished with 22 points on 10-12 shooting, including 2-4 from beyond the arc, with 4 rebounds and 2 blocks.
Going forward, Austin will need to add some weight to fill out his frame in order to win wrestling matches on the block, but the sky is truly the limit for him. Of course, you could have said the same things about Quincy Miller and Perry Jones III when they came to Waco, but if Drew sticks to his new philosophy, Austin will likely be in the discussion for the No. 1 overall pick in 2013.
The talent doesn't end with Baylor's three stars either.
Brady Heislip is one of the top shooters in the country, and if he had made more than 1-7 from long-range, the Bears final point total would have been jaw-dropping.
Deuce Bello, a highly-touted recruit who didn't play much as a freshman, looks more than capable of contributing this season. An extremely athletic 6'4 190 wing, he chipped in 7 points, 2 assists and 2 rebounds on 3-3 shooting. If he can become a consistent outside shooter, he should take Walton's spot in the line-up.
Drew's other three freshman -- L.J. Rose (6'4 190), Ricardo Gathers (6'8 260) and Taurean Prince (6'7 200) -- all looked capable of contributing immediately while also flashing NBA talent that should serve the program well into the future.
The only real question mark was the play of Walton, the only senior to get big minutes. Unable to stretch the floor or run point without turning it over, his only real asset is his defensive ability, but at 6'1 185, his size makes him ill-suited to be a full-time defensive stopper.
Of course, there are very few college players who will be able to defend Lehigh star CJ McCollum, who single-handedly kept his team in the game with 36 points and 8 rebounds. At 6'3 190, McCollum lacks ideal size for the next level, but his shooting ability, toughness and feel for the game will likely make him an All-American this year. Nevertheless, in an admittedly small sample size, it seemed like Bello's length gave him much more trouble than Walton, whom McCollum could effortlessly shoot over.
The Mountain Hawks, already undersized, came into the game at a huge disadvantage, as Gabe Knutson, their best big man, was unable to play due to a knee injury. However, they are exactly the type of well-coached team who could have beaten the 2011 edition of the Bears by shooting over the top of the 1-3-1 zone and exploiting Baylor's inability to get the ball to their big men.
Drew has done an incredible job turning around the basketball program in Waco, but his tactical mistakes last season really hamstrung his team. On Friday night, his schemes maximized, rather than minimized, his best player's abilities.
If the game against Lehigh is any indication of how he intends to coach this season, the rest of the Big 12 better watch out.