1. For what seems for the first time in a while, Scott Drew has a team that doesn't have that one guy that has super-star potential, but Baylor seems to have a really well-rounded starting five and terrific player off the bench. Do you like this change in the program or do you prefer having the freshman All-American?
At any level of basketball, it's a general rule that a team's ceiling is directly connected to its best player. That's why people have questions about the "legitimacy" of the Atlanta Hawks as title contenders, or had the same question about a 52-win Denver Nuggets team a couple of years ago, but looked at a struggling Cleveland Cavaliers team with confidence that their talent would figure it out. At the college level, there's a smaller gap between the middle of the road talent and the top talent, partially due to the rules of college basketball and partially because the most talented players are often less experienced and so more prone to lapses and mistakes.
All that to preface this: I would like to have the All-American, but this Baylor team is a good sign of the progress Baylor has made as a program under Scott Drew. In the past, the highly regarded recruits were surrounded mostly by a low level of talent. What Drew has done recently is raise the talent floor of his team, even if there is not an appreciably high talent ceiling. The next step will be to add a high level player into the mix, raising the ceiling starting from an already high floor. I know some Baylor fans have gotten worried that Drew hasn't been able to snag a top 10 recruit, but a good portion of the roster now contains players in the range of 40-70 who now have 2-3 years of experience. This team is capable of making an impact in the postseason, and that's all you can really ask. For now, I am very pleased with the job Drew has done constructing the roster, and I look forward to the addition of greater individual talent in the coming years.
2. It seems that with more workers that this may have had a real positive effect on Baylor's defense, ranking quite a bit higher than in year's past. What's been the difference from last year, 75th in AdjD to this year, 47th in AdjD?
Last season, the defense was designed to make up for a lack of athleticism in the back court by funneling drivers toward the shot blocker in the middle. That lack of athleticism, however, also meant the zone had difficulty contesting the three-point shot, which Baylor's opponents converted at an alarmingly high rate. This season, There is more athleticism in the backcourt and on the wing, allowing the defense to contest shots from beyond the arc and to move side to side to keep drivers in front of them. The increased activity and aggression in the zone has been far more disruptive than the passive zone of the last couple of seasons, and so has been able to affect the quality of shot by the opponent, leading to a more efficient defense and an appreciably higher rating.
3. Since Texas Tech and Baylor haven't played just yet, talk about the two best players for Baylor this year and what they've done to stand out from the rest of the team.
Rico Gathers has obviously been one of if not the best player for Baylor this season. His ability to rebound on both ends and ability to run the floor in transition have been enormously beneficial for the Bears. He also draws plenty of fouls, putting the team in the bonus earlier, and has improved his own free throw shooting, which is partly what has allowed him to be the only Big 12 player averaging a double-double. He's the heart of the team.
It's harder to say who the other player would be. Kenny Chery has been the vocal leader and isn't afraid to take big shots in big moments. I think, though, I would say that Royce O'Neale is probably Baylor's 2nd most important player. He's the ultimate glue guy who does just about everything the team needs, and when he has a down game, the team usually suffers mightily for it. He's an excellent rebounder from the wing, has the ability to make a straight-line drive to the basket to suck in the defense, the vision to find open shooters, and can knock down the corner three at an above average rate. Without O'Neale, I think this team is probably significantly worse, so I'll pick him as the other most important player. A case could perhaps be made for Taurean Prince, but his production is more reliant on O'Neale and Chery than theirs on him.
4. What do you think will be the key to the game for Baylor in beating Texas Tech (HINT: play a zone the entire game)?
Your hint is probably the answer. I expect this to go somewhat like Baylor's games against West Virginia and TCU. Neither of those teams is particularly good at hitting outside shots and don't have the inside talent to bust the zone with big man passing and short corner jumpers. Looking over Tech's roster and having watched a couple of games, I don't think Tech has too much to offer against this active 1-3-1 zone unless they get hot from deep. That aside, I think Baylor focuses on forcing Tech to take jump shots and limiting them to one shot per possession by snagging the rebound. As long as Baylor does that, the offense will come on its own (i.e. Gathers will get plenty of offensive rebounds for extra-chance points).
5. It seems like it has been an odd scheduling quirk in that Baylor and Texas Tech will play each other twice in a two and a half week period (and these two teams play on a Friday night as well on March 6th) and twice in their last six games. Do you prefer that the schedule be one where you play everyone before moving onto the second half of the conference season?
This season's conference schedule has been pretty nice for Baylor. They've had few stretches where they run into three or four of the conferences top teams in a row and have had a good balance of home and away games. The close of their schedule should be particularly nice, with two games against Tech (sorry), home games against Kansas State and West Virginia, and road games in Ames and Austin. All of those games are winnable for Baylor, maybe excepting on the road against Iowa State. Baylor's got a good chance to finish the season on a 5-1 run, which would be excellent for their seeding in the Tournament.
Now, it could have worked out just the opposite, with all the easy games early, long stretches on the road, and a slew of difficult home and road games to close the season, which is sort of what West Virginia's schedule has turned out to be. As a protection against a possible outcome like that, a fully balanced schedule like the one you suggest would probably be nice. However, I do think that playing a team twice in a short amount of time is probably beneficial, as it means scouting reports and special preparation will be fresher in the team's mind. I can see the argument for both sides, but I'm not particularly given to one or the other. In the end, I don't think the win totals would be all that different, and that's what really matters.