Oct. 23, 2013
By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Like the ball dropping at Times Square tipping off the New Year's celebration, Big 12 Basketball Media Day signals that the season is just around the corner.
"Just being around other players and being back in this arena, you get that tournament environment," said Baylor senior guard Brady Heslip, one of five BU players who participated in Tuesday's Media Day at the Sprint Center, site of this year's Big 12 Championship. "It lets you know the season is just a couple weeks away. Just thinking about it, you get eager to play games."
While Kansas and Oklahoma State are the preseason co-favorites to win the league and the only teams in the USA Today coaches' poll that was released last Thursday, the Bears are a solid third-place pick with the return of their talented front line of 7-foot-1 sophomore center Isaiah Austin and 6-9 senior forward Cory Jefferson.
"I love having those guys back," said Baylor coach Scott Drew, answering a question from 6-5 freshman forward Ish Wainright, who traveled back to his hometown of Kansas City and served as a behind-the-scenes reporter for Sic `Em Sports Productions. "They're great leaders, great players, and I know everybody on the team enjoys having them there every day."
Both turned down chances to enter the 2013 NBA Draft, with Austin being a possible lottery pick after an outstanding freshman season that saw him average 13 points and a team-high 8.3 rebounds.
"I know his family thought that another year in college would serve him well and allow him to gain some strength and keep maturing on and off the court," Drew said of Austin, "because you're able to see more growth (from your freshman to sophomore year) than any other time. . . . I think it's a tribute to Baylor University and Baylor Nation that they'd want to come back."
After playing behind NBA players like Ekpe Udoh, Perry Jones III, Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller, Jefferson got his shot last year and averaged 13.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game.
"It was the first time that Cory had played those kinds of minutes and was expected to do what he did," Drew said. "And it carried over to the USA team (for the World University Games). He played tremendous this summer with the USA team. But I think he's someone that's just starting to realize how good he can be and that we want him to want the ball and want him to be more dominant, which he's capable of."
On and off the court, Drew has seen both of Baylor's front line pieces develop as stronger leaders.
"A lot of the freshmen come to me and ask me questions on the sideline, so I try to give them my best advice," Austin said. "If they don't know a play, they've got to come and ask, because if you're afraid to ask, you're not going to learn it."
While Baylor's front line is loaded - Wainright and fellow freshman Johnathan Motley join Jefferson, Austin, 6-11 redshirt freshman Chad Rykhoek and sophomores Taurean Prince and Rico Gathers - the Bears have to replace point guard Pierre Jackson in the back court.
Jackson was an All-Big 12 pick and honorable mention All-American who averaged 19.8 points and 7.1 assists per game last season.
Junior college transfer Kenny Chery has all but anointed as Jackson's replacement, but Drew said he's had as many as six different players running the point during practice. That includes the 6-5 Wainright, who can basically play any position on the floor.
"I think we have multiple people that are capable of handling the ball and distributing the ball," Drew said. "I think instead of maybe being so dominant with the ball in one person's hand, we'll share it a little bit more this year."
That could include some lineups with senior guards Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin sharing the backcourt duties. When they transferred and had to sit out three years ago, they were a deadly scout-team duo.
"We love playing with each other, because we know each other's game," said Heslip, whose numbers dropped significantly last season, when he hit 83 3-pointers and averaged 8.6 points. "People label us as shooters, and that's fine. But you wouldn't be playing at this level if you can only do one thing. So, we can do other things. We can get past people and shoot floaters and make the right pass. But most of all, we make the right play. And I think our basketball IQ combined, with both of us on the court at the same time, can make a huge difference."
The Bears turned around what had been a mostly disappointing season by shocking fourth-ranked Kansas, 81-58, and going on a memorable NIT run that culminated with a 74-54 win over Iowa in the championship game at Madison Square Garden.
"Cutting down the nets in Madison Square Garden, there are only two teams that finish with a win, and that's just a great feeling going into the summer," Drew said. "Having postseason experience and being successful is very helpful, especially to the young players who get a chance to extend practice time, too, and that postseason feeling of win-or-go-home mentality. Hopefully that pays off for us this year. I know it was a great experience for us."
On their last trip to the Sprint Center seven months ago, the Bears watched as Jackson's buzzer-beating 3-pointer rimmed out in a 74-72 loss to Oklahoma City in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals. They had erased almost all of a 20-point second-half deficit only to come up just short.
The year before, Baylor lost to Missouri in the Big 12 championship game en route to its second NCAA Tournament Elite Eight appearance in three years.
"It stings. Last year was just a down year," Heslip said of the Bears' Big 12 Tournament results. "The year before, it's a tough memory losing in the championship game. But it's also good memories, beating Kansas in here. Not many people can say they've done that. It's just a great venue. The Big 12 is a great conference. I'm just looking forward to making good memories this year."
Baylor opens the 2013-14 season on Nov. 8 with a matchup against former Big 12 rival Colorado in the final game of a tripleheader at Dallas' American Airlines. That game will tip off at 9 p.m. and will be televised on FOX Sports Southwest.
The Bears' home opener against South Carolina will tip at 2 p.m. on Nov. 12 and will be televised by ESPN as part of the network's Tip-Off Marathon. For season tickets, call the Baylor Athletics Ticket Office at 254-710-1000 or go online at www.baylorbears.com/tickets.