How Baylor has emerged as this season's biggest early surprise

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Johnathan Motley has helped Baylor rise from unranked in the preseason to No. 4 today. (Getty Images)
Johnathan Motley has helped Baylor rise from unranked in the preseason to No. 4 today. (Getty Images)

Having lost his leading scorer to the NBA, leading rebounder to the NFL and starting point guard to graduation, Baylor coach Scott Drew wasn’t sure how good his team would be this season.

Only after the Bears began stacking quality wins like pancakes the past few weeks did Drew gain confidence that this year’s team could be special.

“We felt good about our group, but some teams play better when the lights come on and some teams don’t play as well when the lights come on,” Drew said. “We’ve had a group that has showed great maturity when the lights have come on. Normally with a lot of newcomers and underclassmen, you get a lot more inconsistency, turnovers and bad plays. We haven’t had that, so I’ve been very pleased so far.”

Baylor is on pace to surpass the accomplishments of last year’s 22-win team despite the departures of Taurean Prince, Rico Gathers and Lester Medford. The unbeaten Bears (8-0) have climbed from unranked before the season to No. 4 in the latest AP poll by defeating five opponents in the top 50 of Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, an achievement no other team in the country has come close to matching.

They pounded preseason top-five Oregon by 17 points in Waco on Nov. 15. They won the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament just 10 days later with impressive victories over VCU, Michigan State and Louisville. And then on Saturday, they handled previously unbeaten Xavier 76-61 in the weekend’s only matchup of top 10 teams.

“When you lose a lottery pick in Taurean Prince, you lose a senior point guard Lester Medford and you lose the school’s all-time leading rebounder in Rico Gathers, that means you have a lot of unproven pieces,” Drew said. “Our guys deserve all the credit for how they’ve responded. They’ve practiced well and played well in games.”

Whereas Drew landed at least one McDonald’s All-American in his 2010, 2011 and 2012 recruiting classes, he has won more recently by developing less heralded prospects. There’s not a single Rivals top 50 prospect on Baylor’s current roster. Most of the Bears’ best players are guys who went unnoticed by the nation’s elite programs.

Junior forward Johnathan Motley, Baylor’s leading scorer and rebounder this season, was best known as an AAU teammate of the highly touted Harrison twins when he chose the Bears over Clemson, SMU and Houston early in his senior year of high school. Junior point guard Manu Lecomte, the Bears’ second leading scorer and starting point guard, is a Belgium native thought of primarily as a spot-up shooter when he transferred from Miami two years ago. Seven-foot senior Jo Lual-Acuil, the nation’s second leading shot blocker, is a junior college transfer who chose the Bears over LSU.

The formula for Baylor’s success has changed a bit this year even though the Bears still favor a traditional two big man lineup, still play at a glacial pace and still rely heavily on zone defense.

No longer is bludgeoning opposing teams on the offensive glass the backbone of their offense. They make up for slippage in that area by taking better care of the ball, scoring efficiently at the rim and getting to the foul line more frequently.

Baylor’s most potent weapon is Motley, an athletic, powerfully built forward who has performed with the consistency he lacked in previous years. Motley is averaging 16.3 points and 8.1 rebounds, signs he is becoming more comfortable in a go-to role after years of deferring to Gathers and Prince at Baylor and to the Harrisons and Wesley Iwundu on his star-studded AAU team.

“He’s always been a really good player, but he was just inconsistent,” Drew said. “He had a talented team around him in AAU, so he didn’t have to be a consistent scorer. He didn’t have to perform night in, night out. When he had good games here, then people would key on him a little bit. He had to learn how to handle double teams and to learn how to be a marked man.”

Lecomte’s transition from shooting guard to point guard has also been key for Baylor. Not only is the 5-foot-11 Miami transfer averaging 13.9 points per game and hitting 39.5 percent of his 3-pointers, he’s also attacking opposing defenses off the bounce, making good decisions with the ball in his hands and tallying nearly three times as many assists as turnovers.

Maybe the most unexpected difference maker for Baylor has been Lual-Acuil, who sat out last season due to a heart issue but has since been cleared by doctors.

Lual-Acuil’s presence as the anchor of Baylor’s trademark zone is the biggest reason the Bears so far have a top 15 defense for the first time in Drew’s tenure. In addition to averaging 4.4 blocks per game, Lual-Acuil allows the Bears’ perimeter players to trap more often and to contest shooters more aggressively because they have an elite rim protector lurking in the paint.

“He gives us that presence inside that he erases mistakes,” Drew said. “Whenever you have somebody getting as many blocks and altered shots as he does, that really improves your defense.”

Baylor’s early success has raised some high-stakes questions. Can the Bears remain a top 10 team all season? Can they threaten Kansas’ 12-year reign atop the Big 12?

Drew isn’t making any promises, nor is he putting any limits on what this team can achieve.

“We can accomplish everything we’ve set out to accomplish,” Drew said. “At the same time we might not win another game too. We’ve just got to stick with the recipe that’s allowed us to be successful up until this point.”

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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