Head coach Scott Drew returns the most experienced Baylor basketball squad in more than a decade and has assembled the most talented roster in recent memory heading into the 2007-08 season. Now it is time for the Bears to translate that talent and experience into more success on the court -- and the Bears appear poised to do just that.
Drew enters his fifth season of what some consider the most daunting rebuilding project in college basketball history - he took over a program decimated by tragedy, player departures, depleted rosters and NCAA restrictions - and he has recruited a solid foundation of high school players that have earned valuable playing experience and showed steady progress.
"Our program took a step forward this past year and hopefully we are ready to take another major step forward this year," Drew said.
Baylor finished the 2006-07 season playing its best basketball over the last five or six games. The Bears won two of their final four regular-season contests before running away from six seed Missouri in a 97-83 upset in the first round of the Big 12 Championship. Baylor led three seed Texas by 18 at the half the following night in the quarterfinals before falling by five (74-69) to end its season.
The good news is that all eight players that left the court after playing Texas to the wire in Oklahoma City are back for Baylor in 2007-08. The Bears return all five starters and nine lettermen from last season's young squad. In fact, seven players on Baylor's roster are multiple-year lettermen - further evidence of Drew's rebuilding strategy of signing talented high school players and laying a foundation for a long-term successful program.
The 2007-08 season will mark a transition period of sorts for Baylor basketball as Drew's early recruiting classes evolve from underclassmen to upperclassmen, as the youthful Bears of the past few years become a veteran, experienced team.
"With young players, we've experienced performances that were extremes, lots of ups and downs," Drew said. "Hopefully as they mature into juniors and seniors we'll see more consistent and steady performances."
For the first time in years, Baylor will take to the court in 2007-08 with a roster made up predominantly of upperclassmen. The roster includes three seniors, five juniors, two sophomores and two freshmen. Veteran guard Aaron Bruce is the just the fourth four-year senior to play at Baylor over the last eight seasons. Baylor's '07-08 returnees have a combined 246 career starts under their collective belts, the highest such number at the school in well over a decade.
The veteran Bears return nearly all of last season's statistical output, including 90.6 percent of points, 86.9 percent of rebounds and 94.5 percent of assists.
Baylor's nucleus of returnees is headlined by senior Bruce, a quartet of juniors dubbed the "Freshman Four" back in 2005-06 (Mamadou Diene, Henry Dugat, Curtis Jerrells and Kevin Rogers, who combined for 57 percent of the team's scoring and 61 percent of rebounding last season) and sophomores Tweety Carter and Josh Lomers.
Drew will supplement his core with a three-member recruiting class that includes the highest-rated signee in school history, LaceDarius Dunn.
It is no secret that Baylor's strength lies in its deep pool of talented guards, the returning foursome of Bruce (three-time All-Big 12, 11.3 ppg in 2006-07), Carter (former McDonald's All-American, 8.7 ppg), Dugat (11.7 ppg) and Jerrells (All-Big 12 & Big 12 all-tournament team, 15.0 ppg). The foursome becomes an even more talented quintet with the addition of Dunn, rated the nation's No. 24 recruit in the class of 2007 by Scout.com."Our backcourt has been our strength the last two years," Drew said. "The only difference this year is that we have more experience in the backcourt and depth."
Drew adds that a big key to the season will be the continued development of the frontline. With little depth in the frontcourt, staying injury-free will be crucial to the Bears success in 2007-08.
"The great thing about this year is that we finally have experience at just about every position, which we hope allows us to win those close games," Drew said. "On paper we're more experienced than a lot of teams. The bad news is that in the Big 12, we're all very good at reloading talent."
The Bears benefitted from some extra off-season work held previous to and during a foreign tour to Cancun, Mexico over Labor Day weekend.
The Bears mettle will be tested against their most challenging schedule in years in 2007-08. Drew's staff has put together easily the strongest non-conference schedule in its five seasons in Waco, and likely Baylor's toughest schedule in 12 seasons since joining the Big 12 Conference.
In addition to the annual grueling slate of Big 12 opponents, the schedule includes non-conference marquee matchups vs. Arkansas (in Dallas at American Airlines Center), at South Carolina, at home vs. Washington State (part of the new Big 12/Pac 10 Hardwood Series) and vs. Wichita State (opening game at 2007 Paradise Jam), as well as two additional contests against a challenging Paradise Jam field that includes Georgia Tech and Notre Dame.
"This season we'll have the toughest non-conference schedule that we have put together since our staff has been here," Drew said. "We wanted to do that for various reasons, foremost being to prepare us for the Big 12 season. In addition to that we have some attractive games that I know our fans will enjoy."
Baylor fans in Central Texas can look forward to an attractive home schedule that features games in the Ferrell Center against the likes of Kansas State, Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Washington State. Fans outside of Waco can see the Bears in Austin, College Station, Dallas (Arkansas) and Lubbock, as well as at out-of-state games.
Following is a breakdown by position of the 2007-08 Baylor squad:
Baylor boasts one of the strongest backcourts in the Big 12 Conference, stocked with capable veterans and talented youngsters.
Fourth-year starter Bruce (6-3, Sr.) is back to lead the Bears after going through the NBA pre-draft process during the off-season. The Australian has seen his scoring numbers drop since his sensational freshman season (a decrease inversely proportional with the amount of talent added to Baylor's roster), but not his productivity. The three-time All-Big 12 honoree, who finished among the league leaders in assists, 3-point shooting percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio last season, joined Baylor's 1,000-point scoring club as a junior.
"We continue to expect great leadership from Aaron," Drew said. "We look for him to be a more efficient player this season, by that we want his assist-to-turnover ratio up and his shooting percentages to increase."
The coaching staff is optimistic about the fact that, for the first time since arriving at Baylor in 2004, Bruce did not spend the summer playing international basketball for his national basketball team. They are confident he will be a more healthy and energetic player and that his teammates benefitted from playing with him over the summer in Waco.
Jerrells (6-1, Jr.), widely considered to be on the verge of stardom, returns to power the Baylor offense as a third-year starter. Despite putting up impressive numbers in his first two seasons, Jerrells' name and game have relatively flown under the radar compared to other players in regards to media attention. The powerful lefty turned heads toward the end of his sophomore season with an offensive outburst over the final half-dozen games, including two games in the Big 12 Championship in which he averaged 25.0 points and shot 46 percent from 3-point distance and was named to the all-tournament team.
"We look for CJ to improve on the little things of his game, such as creating a little more for his teammates and becoming more of a defensive stopper," Drew said. "We've relied on him playing lots of minutes, and we hope that his increased experience and conditioning will allow him to improve his defensive efficiency to match the level of his offense."
Jerrells, who will play both the 2 and the point in Baylor's two and three-guard sets, increased his scoring average from 13.5 as a freshman to 15.0 last season. He has led Baylor in scoring, assists and minutes played in each of his first two seasons.
Penciled in as the starter at point guard is returnee Carter (5-10, So.), who broke into the starting lineup 19 games into his true freshman season last year. The former McDonald's All-American finished second among Big 12 freshmen with 57 3-pointers made and was third with 2.7 assists-per-game. Carter led Baylor in steals (37) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.18).
"We'd like Tweety to be more aggressive and to penetrate more and create more shots for his teammates," Drew said. "We want him to do more - not necessarily to shoot more, but to create more."
Carter made a splash by scoring 31 points at Syracuse in his eighth collegiate game last season. The personable Carter is the all-time leading high school scorer in U.S. history (7,457 points).
Not to be forgotten amidst the deep backcourt talent is junior Dugat (6-0, Jr.), who finished third on the team in scoring last season and fourth in minutes played. The swift guard started 20 games as a sophomore and provided huge offensive bursts both in the starting role and off the bench.
"Henry is a great defensive stopper who we look for more consistency out of as a junior," Drew said. "The games that he was good he was really good, but other games he was quiet. We want Henry to stay aggressive."
Dugat will challenge for a starting spot and see plenty of minutes at the 2 guard. An established 3-point shooting threat (career 39.3 percentage ranks fourth all-time at Baylor), Dugat is arguably the team's most athletic player. He finished last season strong, averaging 16.0 points, 4.3 rebounds and shooting 48.9 percent on 3-pointers over the final eight games.
The newcomer at guard just happens to be the highest-rated recruit in school history, true freshman LaceDarius Dunn (6-4, Fr.) from Excelsior Christian School in Monroe, La. The coaching staff raves about Dunn's scoring prowess and his offensive repertoire, comparing his playing style to former Bear Terrance Thomas. Dunn will immediately enter the rotation at guard, getting substantial minutes at the 3 and 2 positions.
"LaceDarius is a big, tough, guard, who brings us a big-time scorer's mentality," Drew said. "He can score inside and out, and he can rebound."
The power forward position will be locked down by returning starter Kevin Rogers (6-9, Jr.), clearly Baylor's most improved player from 2005-06 to last season (named to 2007 Big 12 All-Improved team), when he led the Bears in rebounding and was second in scoring. The athletic southpaw had a breakout sophomore season, his first as a starter, when he finished among the Big 12 leaders in scoring (12.8 ppg, 18th), rebounding (7.6 rpg, fifth), offensive rebounds (2.53 orpg, seventh) and field goal shooting (52.5%, fourth).
Rogers' scoring and rebounding averages jumped from 6-and-4 as a freshman to 13-and-8 last season, and the coaches would like to see those numbers increase dramatically again during his junior season.
"Kevin left his mark on the Big 12 last year and now we look for him to be a more consistent staple," Drew said."He has a tremendous amount of ability and potential and we look for him to keep improving each year."
Simpson (6-8, Jr.) comes to Baylor from Tyler (Texas) Junior College, where he played two seasons over three years and averaged 10.4 points and 5.1 rebounds as a sophomore in 2006-07.
"Delbert adds an older, more experienced post player to our roster," Drew said. "He's long, athletic and he can finish."
Shepherd (6-9, Sr.) is a fifth-year senior walk-on who has worked his way into playing time with his hard play and hustle. The lefty averaged 2.4 points and 2.2 rebounds in 18 games off the bench as a junior last season. Shepherd, who adds invaluable experience to the frontcourt, has played in 58 career games and earned three starts in three seasons.
"Mark played well at the end of last year," Drew said, "well enough that he'll have a chance to contribute. He plays hard. He gets after it."
Providing depth to both the power forward and 3 position is Thiam (6-9, RFr.), who enters the season as a redshirt freshman after having received a medical hardship following an injury in the fourth game of his true freshman season last year (1.8 points and 1.3 rebounds in four games). He is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and should be fully healed by the start of the season.
"Penny is a versatile player with lots of upside," Drew said. "He is still developing and there is always uncertainty following an ACL injury."
Ellis (6-6, Fr.) averaged 17 points per game as a senior at Sacramento (Calif.) High School in 2006-07 en route to earning third-team all-state recognition.
"Fred is young and in transition," Drew said. "He's an explosive athlete but he has played inside most of his high school career. Now he'll have to continue to adjust to playing both the perimeter and the post."
Hurd (6-5, Sr.) averaged 0.3 points in 16 games played as a junior in 2006-07 and was used primarily in situational substitutions for defensive purposes.
Diene (7-0, Jr.), a fourth-year junior, is coming off an injury-riddled sophomore season in which he was slowed for a dozen games (missed five games). The Senegalese big-man is a prolific shot-blocker whose 1.84 blocks-per-game average ranks second all-time at Baylor. "The Mayor" averaged 2.9 points and 4.7 rebounds last season.
"Mamadou is a big presence on defense and he continues to develop," Drew said. "The biggest factor for Mamadou is injuries; if he stays injury free he can really help this team."
Lomers (7-0, So.) is coming off a true freshman season in which he averaged 12.3 minutes in reserve of Diene, with five starting assignments. Lomers averaged 4.0 points and 2.6 rebounds off the bench despite being hampered throughout the season with tendonitis in his knees and shoulders. His 62.5 field goal percentage as a freshman led the team.
"We hope that athletically Josh can take a major step forward next season and increase his productivity," Drew said. "His body should be much more healthy."