Waco, we have a problem.
After an up and down start to the season, the Bears’ basketball team took their biggest loss to date when it was announced that star post Tristan Clark would undergo season ending knee surgery. Coach Scott Drew released this statement to announce the news.
Clark was having a fantastic season, averaging career highs across the board before suffering the knee injury early in January. Just a few weeks earlier, Clark was announced as Big 12 player of the week. The expectation at this time remains that Clark will return to action next season as a junior.
This makes for a complicated situation in Waco. In wake of their best player’s absence, the Bears must adjust their playstyle and philosophy on the offensive side of the ball in order to stay afloat in an absolutely brutal Big 12 conference. But what exactly might those changes look like?
The Baylor offense is predicated on primarily two things: Outside shooting, and easy buckets near the rim, the latter of which Tristan Clark was arguably the best in the nation at producing. Before his injury, Clark led the entire country in field goal percentage at a tick over 73% from the floor. This type of number does not come from just any player – only from absolutely elite finishers at the rim.
Look at how he rises up and turns a contested shot at the rim into an easy dunk with his size and bounce. It is opportunities at the rim like these that the Bears thrive on, and always have. From Ekpe Udoh to Johnathan Motley, Scott Drew’s teams primarily center around these sort of easy bucket machines in order to open up the entire offense. So, knowing his value, how do we replace such a player? Well, it’s not easy.
Against the Jayhawks last Saturday, the Bears toyed with simply replacing Clark’s production with other players, such as 6’5 Mark Vital. The experiment proved unsuccessful. Despite shooting 31 more shots than the Jayhawks (primarily because of fantastic offensive rebounding by the Bears), Baylor only made one more basket than their opponent.
The Bears shot 33.3% from the field, whereas the Jayhawks shot 54.5%. This discrepancy proved catastrophic for the Bears, especially when considering the Jayhawks blocked 11 shots in the game. Immediately, one can notice that Tristan Clark’s offensive prowess is missed dearly by seeing these statistics alone.
Another statistic that speaks to Coach Drew’s adjustments is the amount of three point shots taken. In the loss, the Bears shot 31 deep balls, making only 9 in the process. That 29% conversion rate dwindles in comparison to the Jayhawks 9 makes on only 16 attempts from beyond the arc, good for a scorching 56.3%.
The key here is that the Jayhawks took three pointers whenever they found that to be a good shot. The Bears, on the other hand, quite obviously took many of their three-point attempts because they could not get an inside shot. Seemingly every possession would contain a dribble weave at the three-point line, resulting in no action toward the basket. The possessions became long and inefficient, and sometimes without ever setting foot inside the three-point line, the Bears would stumble into a contested shot from deep. This is not a successful recipe for a team that had shooting woes to begin with.
While the Bears looked incapable at times on offense, it’s worth noting that the Jayhawks only won by five points due to an inspired end of the game run. Drew’s team rebounded the ball magnificently, especially on the offensive end. Despite shooting woes and the loss of their best player, the Bears rallied to challenge one of the best teams in the country.
The solution to the loss of Tristan Clark is hard to come by. Coach Drew seemed to be experimenting a lot during the Kansas game. Perhaps the bears will look to become a three-point centric team for the remainder of the season, however this course of action may equate to putting a square peg in a round hole. Perhaps they will continue to pound the ball inside, hoping that Kansas’ inspired performance is the outlier, not standard practice. Instead they may put more trust in newcomers such as Flo Thamba and Freddie Gillespie to carry more of the offensive load in the paint.
As long as Coach Drew can find good ways of utilizing the Bears’ particularly deep bench, they should withstand the hit they suffered with Tristan Clark’s injury. Look for subtle shifts in the offensive shot selection, as well as potential opportunities for young guy at the post positions. At 10-6 on the season, Baylor still has tournament dreams on the mind. And, after convincing performances in the conference thus far, one would be a fool to count them out just yet.