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TOURNEY TIME: Bears Hoping to Keep Momentum Rolling at Big 12

March 12, 2014

By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - You can make a case that the Baylor Bears are the hottest team in the league - and one of the hottest in the nation - going into the Big 12 Championship that starts Wednesday at the Sprint Center.

"We're definitely more excited than when we were 2-8," said Baylor head coach Scott Drew, whose seventh-seeded Bears (21-10) will face 10th-seeded TCU (9-21) at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday. "You definitely want to be peaking at this time of the year. We're playing much better statistically and efficiently, and hopefully that continues."

Drew calls this as wide open a Big 12 tournament as it's ever been - "and it's not even close." Top-seeded and 10th-ranked Kansas is playing without 7-0 freshman center Joel Embid, eighth-seeded Oklahoma State is 4-1 since Marcus Smart returned from a suspension, and a total of seven teams are receiving votes in the national polls.

"More teams can win it this year," he said. "Normally, there are two or three that everybody thinks are hands-down favorites. This year, it's truly wide open."

And while no team has done it before, Baylor has the type of team and depth it would take to win four games in four days. The Bears have eight players averaging at least 15 minutes and 5.8 points per game.

"Depth definitely helps," Drew said. "I remember the year we lost to Missouri in the championship game (2012), they were playing 10 guys that year. That depth definitely helps you in Game 3, but I think everybody worries about Game 1."

That's certainly the case for Drew, even though the Bears draw a TCU team that was winless in conference play and got swept by Baylor by an average margin of 29.5 points. Battered by injuries - they have six players out for the year - the Horned Frogs were 0-18 in their second year in the Big 12 and lost 14 of them by double digits.

"Coach (Trent) Johnson has done a great job keeping those guys playing hard and keeping them in games and giving them a chance to win," Drew said. "We know that if we don't play well, we can get beat by anybody, let alone a well-coached team and a team that plays together. Coaches are always going to find things to worry about. So, anytime you're playing in the Big 12, you better bring your 'A' game."

With a front line of 7-1 sophomore center Isaiah Austin (10.6 ppg, 5.5 rebounds, 3.1 blocks), 6-9 senior forward Cory Jefferson (13.4 ppg, 8.1 rebounds) and 6-6 junior Royce O'Neale, the Bears are a matchup nightmare for TCU.

Junior forward Amric Fields has missed the last two games with an injury, leaving 6-10 freshman center Karviar Shephered (8.8 ppg, 6.8 rebounds) as the Horned Frogs' only available player taller than 6-6. They go with a three-guard lineup that has 6-6 freshman Brandon Parrish as the other inside starter.

In the two previous matchups - an 88-62 win at home and 91-58 rout in Fort Worth - the Bears have dominated the boards, 99-43, and the bench scoring, 82-15.

"If we could do the exact same game plan and have things work out the same way, you would have a happy coach right here," Drew said.

Rico Gathers, a 6-foot-8 sophomore forward, has flourished against TCU. He has posted three of his seven career double-doubles against the Horned Frogs and averaged 10.8 points and 10.3 rebounds in four games.

"That's where the depth helps," Drew said. "People get tired, you get a fresh body in there, and he's active. Rico is not the easiest guy to box out when you're fresh or tired."

Baylor's late-season surge has coincided with the healthy return of junior point guard Kenny Chery, who missed or was limited in three games with a turf toe injury. During the Bears' 7-1 run, Chery has averaged 15.8 points and 6.1 assists while shooting 42 percent from the field (40-of-96) and a sizzling 88 percent from the line (38-of-43).

Chery (11.7 ppg) said he is "100 percent and ready to go" for the Big 12 tournament.

"I've got to credit my teammates for finding me and our bigs for setting good screens," he said. "I'm just being aggressive, and it's working out pretty well."

Hindsight being 20-20, Drew said he should have just shut Chery down for two weeks and let him get the toe fully healthy before trying to play him.

"We're better coaches when all of our players are healthy," Drew said. "What Kenny does is he gives us somebody that breaks down the defense and creates for other people. He gets a lot of 50-50 balls, gets to a lot of long rebounds for us. Those things all help you win close games, and he's very efficient at the free-throw line."

While Pierre Jackson had a speed and burst "that you don't coach very often," Drew said the common thread between his last two point guards is that "both of them played better in bigger moments . . . played better against better competition."

A year ago, Baylor was actually seeded higher at No. 6. But the Bears had lost four of their last six games and ended up winning the NIT Championship after a 74-72 heartbreaking loss to Oklahoma State at the Big 12 tournament.

This time, they're considered a lock for the NCAA tournament and are just playing for a higher seed. Most bracketologists have the Bears as a No. 8 or 9 seed and playing in either Buffalo, N.Y., or Orlando, Fla.

"Going to the (NCAA) tournament is main thing that everybody wants to do at the beginning of the year," Jefferson said. "That's what everybody practices for and what everybody aims for. Now, our goal is just to add on to that and maybe get a higher seed and win this tournament. . . . Last year, we were fighting to get into the NCAA tournament, and obviously we didn't make it. This year, we know we're in. But doing well in this tournament - winning it - would just add that much more (to our resume)."

Drew said that a good sign for him is that he was actually able to sleep the night before coming to Kansas City.

"When you're winning, you want to keep playing," he said. "Winning seven of our last eight, we're excited to get back on the court and keep this string going and keep this momentum going. At the same time, everyone's really excited because it's such a great year in the Big 12. No matter who you're playing, you've got great players, great teams, so it's easy to motivate your guys."

The Baylor-TCU winner advances to face second-seeded and 17th-ranked Oklahoma (23-8) at 6 p.m. Thursday in the quarterfinals. Texas and West Virginia are also in the Bears' half of the bracket, with the semifinals at 6 and 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday's championship at 8 p.m.

"We've been feeling this way since Day 1," Chery said. "Our goal is to win it."

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