Bears Have Teeth This Season

The Baylor Bears are coming to town today in a 7 p.m. showdown against Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. This is not your daddy's Baylor squad. A preview of today's game, inside.

When you think of Baylor basketball over the years, you’re not exactly overcome by fear. After all, the Bears haven’t exactly been taking college hoops by storm. Baylor has gone just 45-131 in conference play since joining the Big 12 in 1997, and except for the 1997-98 season (fifth place in Big 12), the Bears have finished no higher than eighth place in the league.

When Scott Drew became head coach in 2003, the program was in shambles. Former head coach Dave Bliss resigned in August of that year after he tried to cover up tuition payments he made to junior center Patrick Dennehy and a teammate. Dennehy had been killed by teammate Carlton Dotson the previous month.

Baylor was eventually hit with a five-year probation and not allowed to compete in non-conference games in 2005-06. The Bears went 21-53 in Drew’s first three seasons, and finished just 1-15 in conference play in 2005.

However, after turning the corner last season (15-16), Baylor has been the talk of college basketball this year. The Bears (17-4, 5-2) are off to their best start in 62 years, were previously ranked for the first time since 1969, and now tied for second place in the Big 12. BU has also won the most games since going 19-12 in 2000.

“I really believe we’re in the final stages of one of the greatest turnarounds in college basketball history,” Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw told Sports Illustrated.

After coming off a victory against Texas Tech on Wednesday, Drew brings his Bears into Allen Fieldhouse to face the Jayhawks. KU has won the last six games in the series and 12 of 13 overall.

KU coach Bill Self has the utmost respect for Baylor and the job Drew has done since arriving at Baylor.

“It’s been a great turnaround,” Self said at his press conference on Thursday. “I thought Baylor was good last year. I think the turnaround’s been occurring over the last two or three years (with the signings of Aaron Bruce, Curtis Jerrells, and Kevin Rogers). I don’t think it’s something that just happened this year. ...Coaches could see this coming for a long time. It’s a good story.”

"When he took over, (the program) was rock-bottom,” Self added. “They didn't even get a chance to play non-conference games. To see the program come from where it was to winning games like they are now is a very good testimony to the job that their staff has done. You don't win games without good players, and their talent level is very good."

Indeed, it is. Baylor has the deepest backcourt in the conference and a super junior forward in Rogers, who leads the team in rebounding (7.8 rpg) and ranks second in scoring at 12.6 points per game. The 6-1 junior Jerrells tops BU in scoring (14.4 ppg), while freshman guard LaceDarius Dunn (11.9 ppg), junior guard Henry Dugat (11.4 ppg), and senior guard Bruce (10.7 ppg) round out the double-digit scorers.

KU will be severely tested by Baylor’s guard play.

"They are probably the best collection of guards that we've faced so far this year,” Self said. “Baylor is probably as deep at the guard position as anybody in the country. Bruce has been there forever and he is hard to guard. Jerrells is a pro and he's hard to guard. Dugat is as athletic as anybody in the league, and then you bring in Tweety Carter and Dunn is fabulous. They have five really good guards."

The ‘Hawks have some pretty good guards as well, though they’ve struggled defensively of late.

“It's a bad combination when your don't force any turnovers and you still get beat (off the dribble),” Self said. “We still have the best defensive guards around. We just have to tighten some things up.”

Self hopes to see some improvement on Saturday. The Jayhawks are heading into the second half of Big 12 play and have just four home games remaining. The clock is definitely ticking for seniors Russell Robinson, Rodrick Stewart, Sasha Kaun, Darnell Jackson, and Jeremy Case.

“These guys only get to run out of the tunnel four more times,” Self said. “The reality for the seniors is, `Hey, it is coming to an end' and there should be more of a sense of urgency. I hope that's the case. I don't know if I feel it every day in practice yet, but it's going to get to that point soon."

The clock is also likely winding down for junior Brandon Rush, who most observers predict will leave KU for the NBA after this season. Rush has scored in double figures in eight straight games and leads the team in scoring during Big 12 play at 15.6 points per game. He’s shooting an impressive 50 percent from three-point range in conference games.

Rush is going to attempt and play without his knee brace, which he’s worn the entire season after undergoing ACL surgery last summer.

"He is being more aggressive,” Self said. “He's more confident with his knee. The play he made against Colorado (Feb. 2) in transition is the first time he's jumped off one foot all year. That's the first time all year he has jumped off one leg because that is how he got hurt. Now we’re starting to make positive, positive strides. We said this all along, Februray 1...is when he should really kick it in. I think he's ready to kick it in. A lot of it is him being more aggressive, but a lot of it is that he feels better about himself physically to put himself in those aggressive positions."

Rush has become more aggressive on both offense and defense. Self said he’s definitely matured after battling back from his knee injury.

“Nobody has even talked about the job he did on Matt Lawrence (Missouri guard, who went 0 for 6 from the field) the other night,” Self said. “It wasn’t that he didn’t make a shot, it was that he only got six up and only like three of them were on Brandon, and that’s in a 30-minute game when he was guarding him. He did some good things. When he was guarding Budinger (Arizona star, Chase, on Nov. 25), he wasn’t ready to do that. Budinger got off more looks, although he defended him OK. Now he’s become a lock-down defender and a guy you can trust to put on anybody.”

Rush and the Jayhawks now hope for a commanding performance on Saturday night against a much improved Baylor team. The game should be especially meaningful for sophomore forward Darrell Arthur, a Dallas native who picked KU over Baylor.

"It is going to be a fun game,” Arthur said. “I'm going to be hyped up about it. It's just another game that we have in front of us, a tough game. They are playing really well right now. Hopefully, we can pull out a win.”

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Self said during his presser that freshman walk-on Chase Buford has made great strides this season.

“He’s one of our most improved guys,” Self said. “He’s a great teammate and he’s very, very bright and he understands the game from obvious reasons. (Buford’s dad, R.C,. is the general manager of the San Antonio Spurs and a former KU assistant coach.) He’s not going to impact the game as far as putting him in in critical times or anything like that right now, but he’s become a very good practice player and a guy who certainly makes the guys better.”

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