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Added talent, depth offer Bears hope

Nov. 9, 2006

Melea Burke/Lariat staff
Junior guard Aaron Bruce drives past a Texas A&M-Commerce defender Saturday at the Ferrell Special Events Center. Bruce should be back to his freshman form after battling a variety of injuries last season.

Sports editor

While no one at this point would mistake Baylor for a basketball school, there's little doubt the Bears are headed in the right direction.

You wouldn't notice by looking at his 21-53 record as Baylor's head coach, but Scott Drew has built a foundation for a program that seems poised to begin its ascension of the college basketball ranks.

Coming into his fourth season as the Bears' coach, Drew has had unprecedented success on the recruiting trail, bringing in nationally rated recruiting classes each of the past three seasons. Due to a lack of depth, the season records haven't mirrored the team's recruiting success, but it appears that may be ready to change.

After having seven scholarship players during the 2003-04 season, six two years ago and 10 last season, the Bears will have 11 scholarship players to work with this season.

After adding three highly rated freshmen to the team, including a 6-foot-8 swingman in Djibril Thiam, a 7-foot post-player in Josh Lomers and a McDonald's All-American guard in Tweety Carter, the Bears have high hopes for this season.

Senior forward Tim Bush said the Bears' talent level and added depth should make them a player in the Big 12 race. He said the advantage of depth can best be seen in the team's practices.

"In practice, now we have all scholarship players against scholarship players, so practices are much more intense and much more competitive," Bush said. "The younger guys push the older guys to reach our full potential, and we're also helping the younger guys reach theirs."

One advantage this freshman class will have is a nonconference schedule. After receiving an unprecedented penalty by the NCAA last season which allowed the Bears just 16 regular season games, the Bears will play at least 29 regular season games this year. Rather than having to wait until January to begin its season, the Bears will get things started in mid-November this year.

Drew said having a nonconference slate of games is a huge advantage.

"It allows you to keep improving your team, and you find out what areas you need to improve on and get better," Drew said. "Last year at this time, you're just doing guess work and going through a grind without really knowing what areas need to be improved in.

"From our first scrimmage to our first exhibition to hopefully our first game on Saturday, there have been major strides of improvement taken."

Bush said after having to wait until the spring semester to play games last season, the team is excited to get this season started.

"It's exciting to know that you're practicing to prepare for games instead of practicing to prepare for the next practice," Bush said.

This year's Baylor team has generated plenty excitement of its own.

Drew has received praise from numerous national publications, and the Big 12 coaches picked Baylor to finish seventh in the conference this season, which marked the Bears' highest preseason projection in the 11 years that they've been in the Big 12.

Part of reason for that projection is the talent the Bears have returning.

With Carter joining junior standout Aaron Bruce and sophomores Curtis Jerrells and Henry Dugat in the backcourt, the Bears' guards will be among the best in the conference. With such a talent surplus at guard, the Bears are expected to play a lot of three-guard lineups in order to utilize this strength.

The guard play, which was pretty good last season, should be even better this season because Bruce will no longer be battling the nagging foot injury that caused his production to dip last season after a stellar freshman year. After a summer of healing, he's healthy and big things are expected out of him.

"We enjoy watching him when he's healthy," Drew said. "It's amazing to see a healthy Aaron Bruce compared to an injured Aaron Bruce. It's not just from the standpoint that he's making shots, but he's moving much quicker now compared to what he had to labor through last year."

Along with improved guard play, the Bears should also be deeper in the front quart.

With much-improved sophomores Mamadou Diene and Kevin Rogers being joined by redshirt freshman Jari Vanttaja, Thiam and Lomers, the Bears will have five scholarship players over 6-foot-8.

Dugat said improved play in the post will take some pressure off the guards.

"It will open up a lot opportunities for us," he said. "We need to get them the ball and help them get us more involved."

The Bears will get their first chance to show what they can do at 7 p.m. Saturday at home against Angelo State University.

"Everybody's excited," Jerrells said. "We have a lot of energy going all throughout here, and we're just ready to get things started."