This was a unique year for the Baylor Bears. You could cut this season into thirds and see a completely different team, from their results to how they played. In the end though, the Baylor Bears finished 21-10 and 9-9 in Big 12 play.
The Baylor season started off with the Bears ranked 25th in the AP Poll and 26th in the Coaches Poll. They were coming off of a disappointing year that resulted in a run to an NIT championship, but not the NCAA tournament appearance that most expected. With the loss of star point guard Pierre Jackson, expectations were tempered.
However, the season started off perfectly for the Bears. The opened with a good win against Colorado on a neutral court in Dallas, TX against a team that was ranked slightly ahead of them in the polls, and one with postseason expectations as well. The Bears new point guard, Kenny Chery, displayed a steady game and scored 14 points to go along with 4 assists and just 2 turnovers in the season opening win.
Next up for the Bears was a rebuilding but promising South Carolina squad coming to Waco. The Bears squeaked out a 2-point win against a young team with some potential, though it would go unfulfilled in a 12-19 run under Coach Frank Martin. The Bears then easily dispatched a few overmatched opponents before heading out to Hawaii for the EA Sports Maui Invitational. There, the Bears displayed some of the toughness and late game heroics that would eventually define their season. With wins over host Chaminade, a comeback win against Dayton and a tough showing against the #1 team in the country for most of the year in Syracuse, the Bears came back to the states confident and excited for the rest of the year.
With a blowout win of Hardin-Simmons, the game that most fans had circled on their calendars had finally arrived. The Bears were going to travel up to the DFW area for the second time, this time to play at Cowboy Stadium, home of the Final Four this year, against Kentucky. The Wildcats were one of the favorites to win it all, and showcased one of the most tantalizingly talented freshman classes in recent history.
The Bears took it to the young Wildcats, and got a huge 67-62 win in front of a sparse crowd due to an ice storm the day of the game. With the Bears off to a 12-1 start and a top 10 ranking in the polls, the season looked bright as ever as they entered conference play. However, the lights would quickly dim and then almost completely turn off for the Bears.
Their first Big 12 game of the year was against fellow Top 10 ranked team Iowa State. No shame in losing on the road at Iowa State, especially with them being undefeated heading into the game. Baylor played tough for most of the game, but let the game slip completely away late in a 87-72 loss. Coming home though, the Bears licked their wounds and the Horned Frogs in a dominating 88-62 game that might have been the best 20 minutes of basketball from the Bears so far.
However, the season took a turn for the worse on January 15th in Lubbock, a place that has been unkind to pretty much every Baylor sports team. Against Texas Tech, the Bears were dominated from the opening tip, being outscored by 21 points in the first half. They were flat out embarrassed, and it was only the beginning. In that game, starting point guard Kenny Chery would injure his foot and ankle, which would hamper him for almost a month. During that stretch, the Bears went 1-6, with Chery missing 1 game completely, and being severely limited in 2 others.
Baylor would lose in heartbreaking fashion to Oklahoma, as Royce O'Neale's game tying basket was shot after the final buzzer sounded. As painful as that was, the same thing would happen against West Virginia, with Kenny Chery's game winning 3-pointer leaving his hand after the final buzzer. The Bears were just 2-8 in conference play, and were in complete disarray.
However, the team seemed to still be confident in each other, and was at least saying the right things. The ever optimist Coach Scott Drew kept pumping the sunshine, much to dismay of many Baylor fans. "We really like these guys and we really want to see them win and be successful. We'll keep plugging away and try to get better each and every day," said Coach Drew after the West Virginia loss.
With the Bears going on the road to play one of the favorites in the Big 12, Oklahoma State, the mood was rather sour. The news of Kenny Chery not being available for the game right before tip though, sent Baylor fans to the exits. The season was over, after such a promising start. But something strange happened in Stillwater, another place that Baylor fans would rather not speak about. They were down their starting (and maybe only) point guard, but they were not out. Despite bus trouble and major issues simply getting to the arena in time for the game, the Bears came out with a passion and fire not seen since the debacle in Lubbock. Led by Rico Gathers, and possibly the play of the year for the Bears, Baylor secured a huge win on the road over Oklahoma State, 76-70.
Gary Franklin played the best game of his Baylor career, scoring 11 points including 9 during three straight possessions with less than 3 minutes left in a tight game. The senior stepped into the starting lineup again, and controlled the offense with maturity and poise with 5 assists and just 2 turnovers against the pressure defense of Oklahoma State.
While the Bears would lose their next two games to Kansas and Oklahoma, you could tell they were starting to get back into playing their style of basketball. Besides, losing to two of the top teams in the Big 12 is nothing to get too upset about. Besides, the Bears had the cure-all of the TCU Horned Frogs to welcome the stretch run of the year.
But even more importantly than TCU being on the schedule, the Bears would welcome back a healthy and hungry Kenny Chery to the lineup. The Bears would easily dispatch of TCU, 91-58 to secure another Big 12 road win. Then it was time to go home for two games against Kansas State and Oklahoma State. In both of these games, the Bears would show the potential as well as the crippling faults that led them to such an interesting campaign.
It took 3 overtimes in total, but the Bears secured two necessary wins to keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive. In fact at this point, the Bears were just fighting to even get into the NIT conversation after that 2-8 start in Big 12 play. At 5-8, a pulse could be heard and the Bears knew that their season was possibly off of life support. With their next two games on the road, the Baylor faithful knew that a split was necessary to at least keep that hope alive. With the first game against West Virginia, the Bears played one of their best games of the year in an 88-75 victory.
The Bears had found their identity on offense, and kept getting the ball down low to Cory Jefferson, and were doing a tremendous job of getting the shots that they wanted. Run Brady Heslip a few times around some baseline screens for a wide open corner 3-pointer? SURE! How about a pick and roll resulting in an elbow jumper from Kenny Chery? Why not! Okay then, what about Royce O'Neale as the weak-side shooter to help out on double teams of Isaiah Austin? Of course! The Bears spacing improved dramatically and their ability to make opponents pay for the choices they chose started to pay off.
However, it did not pay off in Austin against a Texas team that seemed to be peaking. With Cameron Ridley simply bullying the Bears in the paint with Rico Gathers in foul trouble all night, Baylor had no answer down low. The loss ended a 4-game winning streak, but it did not end the Bears hopes. There were 3 games left in the season, and winning two of them would put the Bears firmly back in the NCAA tournament
The first was a home game against Texas Tech, and hopefully pay-back for the early season loss that seemed to derail the Bears for a month. In spite of shooting barely over 30% from the field, the Bears got the win they needed due excellent defense and a 40-26 rebounding edge over the smaller Red Raiders. It wasn't a pretty win, but it was one that started to show an improving defense, led by Chery and O'Neale up top and the excellent rim protection of Isaiah Austin.
With one win out of the way, the Bears had two games left against two of the better teams in the Big 12 conference. Up first was senior night for three special Bears against Iowa State. In a game that was back and forth for the first 35 minutes of action, the Bears finally pushed ahead for good on a Brady Heslip 3-pointer and then extended the lead by attacking the Iowa State defense. Chery would score 8 points in the last 90 seconds of action and Baylor would send one of its most successful senior classes out in style.
But there was still one more game left on the schedule, a trip to Manhattan, Kansas to take on Kansas State. The Wildcats lost their home opener this year, but had been perfect at home ever since. This is one of the toughest environments to play at in the Big 12, and made worse on a Senior Day against a team coming off of a tough loss earlier in the week. With a chance to finish at .500 in conference play, the Bears came out slow and unsteady. They again were down at halftime, and again had to overcome a double digit deficit in the second half to get a big time win. Behind the remarkable free throw shooting of Kenny Chery, the Bears hit 17 straight shots from the charity strip to escape Bramlage Coliseum with their 21st win on the year. With the win, the Bears finish 9-9 in conference play and tied for 6th in the conference.
The next game up is TCU in the first round of the Big 12 tournament. Barring a shocking upset by the winless in Big 12 play Horned Frogs, the Bears will face Oklahoma in the second round on Thursday. Even without another win though, the goal for the Bears was to get to the big Dance and not defend their NIT championship. Consider that goal achieved.