Last season saw a repeat of a high point of success for both the men's and women's basketball squads. The Bears under Scott Drew got to the Elite Eight for the second time in three seasons before falling to the eventual national champion. The Lady Bears got their 2nd National Championship with an unprecedented 40-0 record. With both squads at a high point, what can us as Baylor fans expect from the two squads?
The Baylor Lady Bears under Coach Kim Mulkey have turned themselves into one of "those" names in college basketball. They are one of the bell-cow programs now, and are led by one of the best coaches in the game right now. Behind two of the best players in the country, is less than a national championship acceptable? Behind a squad that returns every starter and added a McDonalds All-American recruit, is anything other than another perfect record selling this team short?
The Lady Bears return the best player in college basketball, men's or women's in Brittney Griner. She is more than just a great player, she is a force to be reckoned with and will probably change the game the same way some of the great post players in men's history have done. She is a once in a generation type talent who has the chance to leave the college game perfect.
Alongside her is possibly the best point guard in the country in Odyssey Sims, a tough player who plays perfectly off of Griner in that she is a great perimeter defender and is so good at stretching the defense and making them pay for paying too much attention to the post.
Surrounding those two all-Americans are a cast of role players that have played around Brittney Griner for 3 seasons now in Destiny Williams, a terrific rebounder and a nice jump shooting forward; Brooklyn Pope, a tenacious defender and rebounder and excellent athlete; Kimetria Hayden, a good 3-point shooter, ball handler and defender; Jordan Madden, the Bears best on the ball defender and a capable scorer, and a cast of freshman and other players. The list goes on and on with this team.
The main challenge standing in their way of perfection; I believe it is the grind of doing it all again, with that internal push of never having done it. Will the Bears have the same drive to be perfect as last year? Under Coach Mulkey, it is hard to imagine any Lady Bears squad not having the drive, especially one with 5 seniors logging heavy minutes.
There is not a team on paper even close to what the Bears have coming back, though they will have a chance to see most of their toughest competition. They will play preseason at #2 Connecticut in February, #4 Stanford in Hawaii in mid- November, #6 Kentucky in Waco in November, #7 Notre Dame in South Bend in December, #20 Tennessee in Waco and that is before you look at the conference schedule.
While a national championship is a pretty good bet to make, I have my doubts about the Lady Bears being perfect for two straight seasons. I expect 2 losses, but neither of them to come when they matter the most, in March and April.
While the women have the expectations of perfection weighing down on them, the men' squad simply has the weight of their own goals on them. No one is really picking them to win the Big 12, as Kansas has eternal rights to the preseason award until someone actually beats them again. No one is putting the Bears in the Final Four yet, though many expect this to be a Top 25 team.
The Bears do have the talent to do all of those things though. They have the Big 12 pre-season player of the year in Pierre Jackson. They have a top 5 recruiting class bringing in new post players Isaiah Austin and Ricardo Gathers. They have one of the most talented and deep backcourts with Jackson being flanked by Brady Heslip, A.J. Walton, Deuce Bello, Gary Franklin and L.J. Rose.
The Bears lost a lot of talent from the squad last year, including their entire frontcourt to the NBA draft. Coach Drew will have to mix and match a cast of returning players with freshman and try and get the team to gel for one of the tougher and more ambitious schedules during his tenure. The biggest complaint from commentators of the Scott Drew Bears has been his inability to tap into all of the talent and potential on his squads and get them to play to their fullest abilities. Even last year, can any Bear fan say that we played like we really could have? Will this be the year that happens?
I have my hopes that this is the year they put it together. I have hopes that Austin turns into the freshman player of the year has the ability to be with his devastating length causing havoc on the defensive side of the ball and his great skill pouring in the points on offense. I have hope that Deuce Bello takes the next step and turns into that slashing wing player that plays with an edge and can change a games course with one thunderous dunk. I have hope that Pierre Jackson can corral his turnovers and turn into an explosive and efficient player that puts up a Hollis Price type senior season.
There is a lot of hope, but how much of that will come to fruition? Hope can only get you so far. I think Drew will have another very good season, but won't have that program changing Final Four run that he wants so badly. I expect a 2nd place finish in the Big 12 and a Sweet 16 appearance for the Baylor Bears.