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BIG MAN IN THE MIDDLE: Austin Swatting Away Shots For Surging Bears

March 26, 2014

By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider

Imagine driving by Baylor point guard Kenny Chery, backcourt mate Brady Heslip or even Royce O'Neale, and seeing a clear path to an easy layup. Your eyes light up like the brightest stars in the sky.

And then there he is - 7-foot-1 sophomore center Isaiah Austin - waiting to send your shot into the cheap shots or start a fast break the other way. The welcome mat is suddenly replaced by a stop sign.

"I love it," said Austin, who has more than doubled his blocks this season with 117, the second-most ever in a season at Baylor and the sixth-most in the Big 12. "It starts with our guards. They have so much ball-pressure out there, it makes it difficult for the other guards to get in the paint. And when they do, they're so tired that their legs are gone, and it makes it easier for me and Cory (Jefferson) and Rico (Gathers) to block shots. I just want to be there for them and let them know I've got their back, just like they've got mine."

While his scoring (13.0 to 11.2) and rebounding averages (8.3 to 5.5) have actually gone down, Austin has become a much better force on the defensive end. In the Bears' zone defense, he cleans up and helps "erase some of our team's mistakes," Jefferson said.

"It's not like we want guys to go around us," said senior guard Gary Franklin. "But we're able to pressure more, knowing that OK, if this guy goes by me, Isaiah and Cory are back there to clean it up. And we're getting the rebound and going the other way."

Baylor coach Scott Drew said Austin's ability to not only block, but alter and rush shots, is akin to a gifted pass-rusher in football.

"If they can get to the quarterback, and hurry and rush him, it saves a lot of easy touchdowns," Drew said. "It's the same thing with us. If someone gets by us - we look at the blocks, but there's a lot of times that he's altered shots, rushed shots, hurried shots. And it's the same thing with Cory and Rico."

Certainly more polished offensively coming in as a freshman, Austin averaged 13 points, knocked down 33 3-pointers and shot 45.9 percent overall last year in earning second-team All-Big 12 and first-team All-District VII honors.

"In Isaiah's case, he had the offensive game when he got here," Jefferson said. "He is a unique player in that way. And he also had the defensive game with him being a 7-footer. I think it actually helps him, him being so lean, because people think, 'Oh, he's not going to block my shot. I can get this off.' So, they want to test him."

The doubts and criticism have followed Austin from his days as a McDonald's All-American at Grace Prep Academy in Arlington, Texas, through his first two seasons at Baylor. He's not tough enough, plays too much outside and shoots too many 3-pointers for a 7-1 player.

"I've been trying to change my game a little bit this year," he said. "A lot of people have been criticizing me, saying I shoot too many 3's. But it's part of my game. I'm going to keep it in there. I'm not going to change for anybody else. But I have developed my low-post game a lot more, and it's something that I'm learning to love. And that's just making me a better player overall."

Baylor's late-season surge, winning 12 of 14 and advancing to the Sweet 16 for the third time in five years, has been largely attributed to the effectiveness of the Bears' zone defense.

Over this last stretch, they have held eight of their last 14 opponents to less than 70 points and punctuated that by holding National Player of the Year Doug McDermott to 15 points in an 85-55 rout of third-seeded Creighton in Sunday's third-round game in San Antonio.

And while Austin says it "starts with the guards," it's a smothering defense that typically ends with him. After blocking 58 shots last year, he's already swatted away 117 in 37 games this season and is 16 shy of the school record set by Ekpe Udoh (133) four years ago.

"You've really got to credit him for putting an emphasis on the defensive end. He really takes pride in making sure people don't get easies around the rim," Drew said. "I think Rico and Cory and Isaiah have really done a great job with protecting that charge circle area for us.

"Isaiah is somebody that I think as he's had more and more success blocking shots, and he's gotten used to how the officials were calling it, he's been able to stay out of foul trouble for most of the year, which is a testament to him being an intelligent player and being able to adapt."

While the officials buckling down on the hand-checking fouls has affected the guards more than the inside players, Austin said the tighter foul calls have also affected shot-blockers like himself.

"They're really emphasizing the body," he said. "You can't have any body contact in the air, and your hands can't go forward. But as a shot-blocker, it's hard to go up straight if somebody's coming into your body. It's just a natural reflect that your hands go forward. So, I've had to adjust to that a little bit. But other than that, I've just been trying to stay active around the rim. Whenever I can, I try to at least adjust a shot, so that we can get a miss or a block."

On Thursday, when the sixth-seeded Bears (26-11) face second-seeded and 12th-ranked Wisconsin (28-7), Austin will get the rare chance to go up against another 7-footer. The Badgers' Frank Kaminsky is a 7-0 junior who is averaging a team-best 13.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game.

"We know their big man is really good; he's a great multi-move guy," Austin said. "It's always fun to play against tough competition. I love it. That's why you play the game, to compete against good people."

Much like last year, when he opted to return instead of going pro after his freshman season, Austin will have a decision to make when Baylor's season ends. Three different analysts from CBSSports.com have Jefferson projected to go in the middle of the second round, somewhere between the 37th and 51st pick.

"I haven't even thought about it," he said. "My feeling is the NBA is always going to be there. That's how I always look at it. Right now, I'm enjoying my time in college with my teammates and I'm enjoying the run we're making. I really haven't been thinking about the NBA like that."

Drew said the main things he's missing from his game are a "year in the weight room and putting on size and strength."

"As far as everything else, he's very skilled. He's somebody that defensively has really made his presence known and really improved on that level. That is a big reason why we've been able to be successful, too, is the way he's able to protect the rim for us."

After the season, which Austin and the Bears hope to end with hoisting a national championship trophy at the Final Four in Arlington, Drew said he will meet with Austin "see what's best for him and see what his thoughts are; and try to make sure that we're giving him whatever information he might want."

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