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No. 24 Baylor opens against Central Arkansas

WACO, Texas -- Baylor began last season a bit under the radar with no national ranking despite proven and versatile veteran players and a couple promising newcomers.

The Bears didn't stay anonymous for long as they defeated No. 4 Oregon, No. 24 Michigan State and No. 10 Louisville in November and No. 7 Xavier in December. By the time Big 12 play started, Baylor was ranked fourth in the nation.

So it's no surprise the voters gave Baylor a ranking (24th) to start this season. But the Bears will have a challenge in proving they belong in the Top 25.

Baylor, which opens the season versus Central Arkansas on Friday afternoon, begins a new campaign without star forward Johnathan Motley, who left school early for the NBA, or on-court vocal leader Ishmail Wainright, who is currently playing tight end for the Baylor football team.

Baylor will also be trying to replace guards Al Freeman and Wendell Mitchell, both of whom transferred out of the program after last season.

However, there's a reason Top 25 voters can still see Baylor as one of the country's best teams. The Bears return their second-leading scorer in guard Manu Lecomte, who averaged 12.2 points and 3.8 assists, and second-leading rebounder and leading shot-blocker in center Jo Lual-Acuil Jr.

Motley paced Baylor in scoring and rebounding last season. Lual-Acuil said the points will be more easily made up than Motley's rebounds.

"I think the biggest part is just everybody collectively rebounding," Lual-Acuil said. "As far as scoring, everybody can make up for it by averaging a point more."

Along with Lecomte and Lual-Acuil, returning guards King McClure and Jake Lindsey, and forward Terry Maston figure to play key roles for Baylor.

Additionally, freshman Tristan Clark, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound forward, figures to play significant minutes from the start of his career.

"Tristan is different from most freshmen," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. "He comes in with a physical frame that allows him to play younger. Tristan can score inside, he also can knock down the jumper."

On the surface, Central Arkansas seems like a long shot to threaten Baylor on its home court to start the season. While Baylor advanced to the Sweet 16 in March, Central Arkansas' season ended with an 8-24 record.

However, Central Arkansas comes in with an experienced team and promising freshman guard Deandre Jones.

"We know Central Arkansas returns four starters from last year," Drew said. "Early in the year, whenever you return four starters, that gives you an advantage. We definitely have to be ready to go Friday at noon."

Point guard Jordan Howard led Central Arkansas with 19.5 points per game last season. He'll be joined in the backcourt by Jones and freshman Matthew Mondesir.

"Deandre Jones is the real deal," Central Arkansas coach Russ Pennell said after a preseason scrimmage in late October. "He's just a true point guard and I thought he was outstanding. I thought Mondesir gave us a big lift when he came in the first half."

This season, the NCAA allowed men's basketball programs to play two scrimmages along with an exhibition game. Baylor took advantage, hosting a charity scrimmage versus Houston in which the schools raised more than $20,000 for Hurricane Harvey relief.

"The great thing is having three opportunities -- two scrimmages and one exhibition game -- to get your team better," Drew said. "Our guys are excited to finally put on the game uniforms."

Updated November 8, 2017

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