9:50 p.m., WEDNESDAY, March 28, 2012
I'm sure he wasn't thinking about it on Sunday, when his team had just fallen to top-ranked Kentucky, 82-70. But Baylor coach Scott Drew was in pretty elite company.
The other three coaches that lost in the region finals: Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, Roy Williams of North Carolina and Billy Donovan of Florida. That trio of Hall of Fame coaches - Boeheim and Williams are already in it, and Donovan will be - have combined to win five of the last nine national championships.
"Hopefully we'll be cutting down the nets sooner rather than later," Drew said of a future that will include returning starters Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip in the backcourt. Senior forward Quincy Acy is gone for sure, and the Bears could lose sophomore Perry Jones III and freshman Quincy Miller to the NBA Draft.
Drew said he will sit down with both of the potential NBA first-round draft picks in "the next couple of days."
"You want to give them some time. There's no rush," he said. "The (NBA filing) deadline is not for a little bit, so I want to give them time to relax and let this flush out. You never want to make a decision when you're emotional."
Sunday was an emotional day for seniors Acy, Fred Ellis and Anthony Jones, who realized, "This is it, I'll never put on this uniform again."
But Jones followed that up by saying, "I've had a lot of memories." Finishing as the winningest senior class in program history, they were part of 100 career victories and a four-year postseason record of 16-7 (Big 12, NCAA/NIT).
"It's tough right now," Drew said. "But in a couple days . . . and for the rest of their lives, they get to come back knowing that they accomplished so many firsts and had a great career at Baylor and were able to do so many things. They're always going to be able to come back and hold their heads high, because they're better people than they are players."
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - After starting 48 consecutive games and helping Baylor get off to a 17-0 start this year, junior point guard A.J. Walton admits that there times when he "got a little down on myself" when he got benched in favor of junior college transfer Pierre Jackson.
But even during a stretch when he saw limited minutes and scored just 13 points in 11 games, the 6-foot-1 junior from Little Rock, Ark., just knew his time would come again.
"Just sticking with these guys, sticking with my family," said Walton, when asked how he got through that tough patch. "They all have my back. They know what I can do. And coach (Scott) Drew didn't recruit me just because I look good. I can play. I can do all the little things to help our team get over the hump. And that's what I'm going to continue to do."
Through the first 27 games this season, Walton was averaging 3.4 points and had reached double digits just once with 10 points in a win over Texas A&M in the Big 12 opener on Jan. 2.
But his minutes started increasing when the Bears utilized more of the three-guard lineup in a 77-72 road win at Texas on Feb. 20. And then in a 77-48 rout of Texas Tech on "Senior Night," Walton was a career-best 5-of-6 from the floor and scored a season-high 13 points.
"A.J.'s been putting in extra time in the gym," Drew said after the game. "And as a coach, you hope success follows after, because you know they're doing the right thing. It was good to see him get some of that confidence back. He's played well, but he hasn't shot as well. Tonight, he was shooting like he does in practice."
That blip-on-the-radar success was followed by an impressive three-game run in last week's Big 12 Championship in Kansas City, Mo., where Walton hit 10-of-22 from the floor and 10-of-13 from the line as he posted double-digit efforts in wins over Kansas State and third-ranked Kansas.
"We know he can do that," said senior forward Quincy Acy. "He works on his game all the time, and he took shots that he knows he's capable of making. He didn't force anything. He did a lot of pump-fake, one dribbles. That's a great shot for him. And he defended his behind off. He played his role really well."
While his 3-point shooting has fallen off this year - seven treys and a 20.6 shooting percentage beyond the arc - Walton's resurgence of late is because of his ability to knock down the mid-range jumpers from 12 to 17 feet. That's where the extra gym time has paid off.
"(Assistant coach Jerome Tang) always stresses inside-out first," said Walton, who's averaging 4.0 points, 2.8 assists and 2.6 rebounds going into Thursday's NCAA tournament matchup against South Dakota State. "So once I get (the mid-range jumper) going, I can work my way out. But for right now, that's kind of my money thing."
Actually, Walton's "money thing" is his on-ball pressure on defense. Like Odyssey Sims on the top-ranked women's team, he's like an annoying gnat that never goes away.
"I take pride on defense first," said Walton, who ranks fourth in steals on Baylor's all-time list with 157 and ninth in assists with 309. "That's what I bring to the table for our team. And that's what we have to do. Coach Drew stresses defense. So whatever I can do to help the team, that's what I'm going to do."
That's what he did two years ago as a defensive specialist and point guard Tweety Carter's backup for an Elite Eight team that finished with a school-record 28 wins. In his only double-digit effort, he was 4-of-5 from the floor and 6-of-7 from the line, finishing with 14 points and six steals in a win at Texas.
But it's his NCAA tournament experience that could prove the most valuable. Acy is the only player on Baylor's roster with more of an NCAA pedigree than Walton, who averaged 3.5 points, 2.8 assists and 19 minutes in the Bears' 2010 playoff run. The ninth-ranked Bears (27-7) are seeded third in the NCAA South Region and will face 14th-seeded South Dakota State (27-7) at 6:27 p.m. CDT Thursday at The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M.
"That helps a lot," he said. "The scene, the crowd in the tournament is way different from the conference tournament or regular-season games. I've just got to be able to help and teach the young fellas what the atmosphere is going to be like, how the refs are going to be and to keep their heads and just play."
As a surrogate "big brother" for Deuce Bello, Walton has helped the talented freshman to not get down and stay patient. That led to Bello scoring a season-high 13 points in the Bears' 90-75 loss to Missouri in the Big 12 championship game.
"I'm always telling him that we're going to need him, and coach Drew always says that we're going to need someone else off the bench to up and win games for us," Walton said. "I'm just trying to teach him, because I'm the vet and I've been there."
At times, though, it was tough for Walton to listen to his own advice. "Any player who starts off the year 17-0 and loses his spot, he's going to be . . . he can't jump right back into it quick," said Walton, who's averaged 19.9 minutes this season compared to 33.0 a year ago, when he ranked third on the team.
His place of solitude has always been and remains the gym.
"Just staying in the gym, being all for the team, not worrying about what's happening or who's playing more. Just working hard," he said. "I pray about it every night before the games. I come to the gym. I try to sleep here, eat here, whatever I have to do to make sure my game is where it needs to be for my team, I do it."