The playing field is level. Finally.
For the first time in head coach Scott Drew's four seasons at Baylor, the Bears will take the court in 2006-07 with a full roster and play a complete schedule. After playing three seasons handicapped by depleted roster numbers and last season's abbreviated schedule (continued sanctions brought on by the previous coaching staff), Baylor's program will no longer be competing with one figurative hand tied behind its back.
"We are finally on a level playing field with a full roster that includes players that have had some Big 12 experience now," Drew said. "We're optimistic about that. With the way we finished last year it gives people reason to be excited."
There are plenty of reasons for Drew and Bear fans to be excited in 2006-07. The Baylor roster is stocked with talented, young players - the result of three consecutive national top 20 recruiting classes.
"The good news this year is that we return a lot of players," Drew said, "the downside is that we're still relatively young - one of the youngest teams in the country."
Despite its youth - Baylor's roster includes nine freshmen and sophomores - the Bears return 10 of 12 players from last season's young, overachieving team, including four starters. In 2006-07, Baylor returns more than 87 percent of the previous season's scoring numbers and more than 84 percent of its rebounding.
"This is our deepest, most athletic and most talented team we've had since we've been here," Drew said.
Back for Baylor in 2006-07 is its talented young core - 10 returnees led by junior Aaron Bruce and sophomores Mamadou Diene and Curtis Jerrells - which will be joined by a trio of freshman signees rated by Rivals.com as the nation's No. 17 recruiting class (Tweety Carter, Josh Lomers and Penny Thiam).
Baylor's success in 2006-07 will likely hinge on the development of its frontcourt, where the Bears' youth and inexperience is most evident.
"The strength of our team is our guard play," Drew said. "Our frontline is talented but still young and developing."
The Bears' young frontline players, including Diene, Kevin Rogers, Thiam, Lomers and Jari Vanttaja, will be looked upon to establish an inside presence in order for Baylor to compete in the Big 12 Conference.
The Bears' 2006-07 schedule is complete with a full non-conference slate, including a spot in the NIT Season Tip-Off, where Baylor will face Colorado State and either Gonzaga or Rice in two games at the tournament's West Region in Spokane, Wash. The non-conference schedule includes a trip to the Carrier Dome to face Syracuse.
The schedule also features the annual grueling run through the Big 12 Conference. Games at the Ferrell Center against Kansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech highlight the home schedule.
"We have a non-conference schedule with a mix of home games and challenging road contests that should prepare our young squad for the Big 12," Drew said, "which is a benefit we didn't enjoy last season."
Following is a breakdown by position of the 2006-07 Baylor squad:
The strength of the 2006-07 Baylor squad is clear: its backcourt.
"Our perimeter players can compete with anyone in the country," Drew said.
Baylor returns its starting backcourt of Aaron Bruce and Curtis Jerrells, former freshmen All-Americans in 2004-05 and 2005-06, respectively. The duo finished as the team's top two scorers last season and should again be the team's catalysts.
Bruce's (6-3, Jr.) stat figures dropped slightly in 2005-06 from his sensational freshman season in which he was the team's main offensive weapon. The Australian averaged 13.1 points and 3.2 assists as a sophomore and was named honorable mention All-Big 12 despite playing the season with nagging leg injuries.
"Aaron continues to establish himself in a leadership role for our program," Drew said. "Now that he is healthy we look for him to have a great year."
Jerrells (6-1, So.) is coming off a stellar freshman campaign in which he exceeded all expectations by leading the Bears in points (13.5 ppg), assists (3.3 apg), steals (1.4 spg) and minutes played (33.4 mpg). The lefty was a consensus choice on Big 12 All-Freshman teams and was named to CollegeInsider.com's Freshman All-America squad.
"We look for CJ to continue to build upon a great freshman year," Drew said. "His size and quickness make it tough to defend him - along with his consistent outside jumper. We look for him to take more of a leadership role this season."
Also in the regular rotation is second-year player Henry Dugat (6-0, So.), a lightning-quick guard who gave fans glimpses of scoring prowess as a freshman last season. Dugat averaged 7.2 points and played in 15 of 17 games (missed two due to injury).
"Henry has improved physically and has more confidence," Drew said. "We're looking for him to be more consistent with his offensive game this season. He showed flashes of great offensive production last year and we just look for him to do that on a more consistent basis."
A much-anticipated addition to the backcourt is true freshman Tweety Carter (5-10, Fr.). Carter, arguably the top recruit in Baylor basketball history, is a McDonald's and Parade All-American from Reserve Christian School in Reserve, La. Carter scored 7,457 points in high school, the highest total in U.S. prep history.
"Tweety brings a wealth of experience, having played several years against high-level competition in high school," Drew said. "He will need to get used to stopping players that are as good as he is, offensively, every night."
Carter is expected to see playing time at both guard positions.
"Baylor fans will love his long-range shooting," Drew said of Carter, who set the national single-season 3-point record, hitting 287 3-point field goals as a senior in 2005-06.
Providing depth at guard is sophomore walk-on Carl Sims (5-10, So.), a scholarship football player. Sims, a Waco native, played 10 games and averaged 1.8 points as a true freshman in 2005-06.
Drew points to the inexperience of his frontcourt, and its need for development, as one key to the 2006-07 season. He has several options at the small forward position (including the option to play a three-guard lineup).
Fields (6-6, Sr.) is a third-year wing with a penchant for scoring. He finished third on the squad last season in scoring, averaging 8.3 points and shooting 45 percent from 3-point range off the bench.
"Pat has proven that he can score at the Big 12 level," Drew said. "He makes things happen. We look for Pat to continue to put up numbers."
Bush (6-6, Sr.) has started 41 straight games since becoming eligible at Baylor midway through his sophomore season. The former LSU transfer averaged 3.4 points and 2.8 rebounds last season. Bush is an option at the small or power forward position.
"Tim will be counted on for leadership this season," Drew said. "He is a two-year starter with plenty of experience."
A potential surprise on the Bears' roster is true freshman Thiam (6-9, Fr.) from Stoneridge Prep in California. A Senegal native, Thiam played his final season of high school basketball in the U.S. and was rated a top-100 national recruit.
Baylor's coaching staff is excited about Thiam's potential, due to the fact that he grew seven inches over his final two prep seasons.
"Penny is long and athletic and will make some spectacular plays both offensively and defensively," Drew said. "Baylor fans will appreciate his versatility, he can play anywhere from the 1 to the 4."
Another option on the wing is third-year forward Richard Hurd (6-5, Jr.). Hurd averaged 0.3 points in 10 games played as a sophomore in 2005-06 and is a career 41-percent 3-point shooter.
Kevin Rogers (6-9, So.) is the likely replacement for departed starter Tommy Swanson at power forward. The athletic forward, who averaged 6.1 points and 4.0 rebounds off the bench as a true freshman last season, provided many memorable highlight plays for the fans.
"We look for Kevin to assume a bigger role in his second season," Drew said. "He will continue to improve and being able to play non-conference games will really help him prepare for the Big 12 season - a luxury he wasn't afforded last year."
Also vying for minutes at the 4 are Bush and redshirt freshman Jari Vanttaja.
After a season on the bench, Vanttaja (6-10, RFr.), a native of Finland, will make his Baylor debut this season. Following a redshirt season at Baylor, Vanttaja spent the summer of 2006 playing for the Finnish national team.
"Jari can stretch defenses with his long-distance shooting," Drew said.
Veteran Mark Shepherd (6-9, Jr.) provides an experienced reserve to the frontcourt. The third-year lefty averaged 0.8 points and 0.8 rebounds in 10 games off the bench last season.
Returning to anchor the center position is third-year sophomore Mamadou Diene (7-0, So.). Diene started all 17 games last season and led the Big 12 with 2.2 blocks per game (the nation's second-highest average among freshmen). He averaged 3.2 points and a team-high 5.8 rebounds as a redshirt freshman.
The youngster from Senegal, who turned 19 over the summer, is a Ferrell Center crowd favorite and referred to by Baylor coaches as "The Mayor."
"Mamadou continues to add weight to his frame and we look for him to improve his stats each year," Drew said. "We especially look for him to increase his offensive production as he continues to develop."
Filling the backup role at center is true freshman Josh Lomers (7-0, Fr.) from Boerne (Texas) High School. Lomers is a consensus national top-100 recruit rated No. 56 by Rivals.com.
"Josh is a very physical player who doesn't mind contact and doesn't mind taking a pounding," Drew said. "He brings instant size to the roster. He will improve as he adapts to the speed of the college game."