The Baylor Bears are one of the most difficult teams to judge where they belong in the preseason national pecking order.
Baylor is due for another Elite Eight run. Scott Drew's team has a run of Elite Eights every other year and a case could be made that this particular team has a great shot to keep the trend going. The Bears are talented enough to be a player in the Big 12 and nationally.
Reason No. 1 is the return of Isaiah Austin.
Austin opted to come back to school instead of declaring for the draft because of a torn posterior labrum, which would have prevented him from working out for NBA teams. Austin had surgery May 6 and Drew told Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com that the big man's recovery is on pace.
"It'll probably be another two or three weeks before he's cleared to shoot 3-pointers," Drew said. "But he's been doing well. When they tell you [four-to-six months], you're always shooting for [four]. And he's still ahead of that schedule. So he's good."
Austin tweeted when he found out about his injury that it was the "worst day of his life,"—he was eyeing that NBA contract—but his return for one more year to school could be good for him and good for Baylor.
The Bears were the most talented team in the country not to make the NCAA tournament—they proved as much steamrolling through the NIT—and at the center of their underachieving was Austin.
One night he could look like the second coming of Dirk Nowitzki. Austin has the kind of range of Nowitzki, can knock down the mid-range turnaround and has good touch and footwork around the rim. At 7'1", his game should have been a model of efficiency. But Austin had too many nights late in the season where he went cold. He shot below 30 percent six times in the final 15 games.
It started with Austin's approach and how the Bears used him. He approached the game from the outside-in instead of the inside-out, meaning he'd rather float on the perimeter hunting for shots than bang in the paint.
Baylor also didn't make it enough of an emphasis of getting Austin to the blocks and feeding him the ball. When you look at him—he's prepubescent-teenager skinny—it's easy to understand the hesitation to mix it up on the blocks.
The offseason would have been a good time for Austin to change his mentality and work on his body. That's the one major negative from Baylor's perspective of this injury. It's hard to hit the weight room with one arm. The recovery time for Austin's injury is typically four to six months, and the four-month mark would be Sept. 6.
But even if Austin is similar to last year's version—sometimes good, sometimes disappearing—Baylor could still be really good. The Bears have a great option off the bench in Rico Gathers and the summer months have gone well for the team.
Cory Jefferson made the U.S. team for the World University Games, and although the team struggled, it's a good sign for Baylor that Jefferson beat out other accomplished big men Adreian Payne of Michigan State and Alex Kirk of New Mexico for minutes inside.
Senior guard Brady Heslip also benefited from the World University Games. Heslip didn't exactly have a bad junior year. He averaged. 8.6 points and shot 38.9 percent from three. But when compared with his sophomore season—10.2 points and 45.5 percent—his junior season was slightly disappointing. Heslip had stretches where his jumper was inconsistent.
Will Baylor make the NCAA tournament in 2014?
Heslip may have regained his form this summer. He led Canada in scoring, made 25 threes, shot 44.6 percent from deep and his team finished fourth in the tournament.
Drew also has added three wings with good size to his roster. The Bears will have 6'5" freshman Ishmail Wainright, 6'3" freshman Allerik Freeman and possibly 6'6" Denver transfer Royce O'Neale. O'Neale, who averaged 11.2 points per game last season for Denver, is awaiting word from the NCAA whether he'll be allowed to play right away.
The presence of the bigger wings will give Drew the option to play a bigger lineup and mix in some zone defense. He was not able to do that much last season because Baylor had to play small at the 3 spot.
The one big question mark is how junior college transfer Kenny Cherry will do as the replacement for Pierre Jackson. Baylor's offense was built around Jackson, who led the Big 12 in scoring (19.8 per game) assists (7.1 per game).
Building the offense around Austin this year would make sense. Whether the Bears make another deep tourney run or end up back in the NIT could depend on Austin's progression. The good news is that all signs point to his health not being an issue.