Three weeks later Mississippi State's own Marco Polo is safely on campus and getting a head-start on his sophomore season. The 6-8 center returned to Starkville after a brief stop-over in his New Orleans home, started the first summer semester Tuesday, and Wednesday began the so-called ‘off' season with a team meeting, 90 minute weight workout, and evening playing ball in Humphrey Coliseum with most of the MSU varsity and even incoming freshmen Twany Beckham and Romero Osby.
"I'm taking three hours this semester, speech and drivers ed-one. I'm trying to get my transcript built-up while I come here to work, I didn't just want to be at home sitting back. It wasn't time for a break, I'm trying to get better and elevate my game."
Playing five games with Sports Reach in China was another step in Bailey elevating his 2008-09 status, too, from backup to hopeful starter on the baseline. He averaged 9.0 points and 6.6 rebounds and shot 44% from the field, working at either true center or power forward.
"I played real well. I did well facing up and mainly rebounding, scoring and finishing around the basket. I shot the way I wanted to, besides on my free throws. That was horrible." True enough, as he made just five of 13 tries at the stripe…unfortunately familiar to fans who watched Bailey clanking charity chips this past winter. Though, he adds, "The ones I did make counted! It didn't satisfy me, but it was good."
The tour didn't go the scheduled distance, though, with two games cancelled by the national mourning period. And Sports Reach won just once, though the schedule included opponents ranked in China's version of the top-ten. Despite the impact NBA star Yao Ming has made, there are inevitable impressions about the country's basketball stature that Bailey found were 180-degrees and a lot of inches wrong. He'd even been warned by Bulldog teammate Brian Johnson who played on the same sort of China tour with Sports Reach himself.
"When you go to China everybody thinks people are supposed to be short. They're not, I had to learn that. Their game is good, people overseas play just as good as us. Some are better than us." And most teams were better than a hastily-assembled squad of college underclassmen, most of them freshmen or sophomores like Bailey and the largest portion from the SEC. Bailey played with Georgia's Zach Swansey, Michael Sanchez of Arkansas, and Jermaine Beal of Vanderbilt.
"We played in some good places and some not-so-good places. And the environment, in their gyms they could smoke! So it was like you had to get used to the smoke when running up and down the court." Bad breathing wasn't the only issue when playing really-road games in such cities as Chongqin, Fuling, Bi Shan, and Nan Chuan.
"The officiating was horrible, they didn't know what we were saying and we didn't know what they were saying. Other than that everybody really enjoyed ourselves and the people in China really enjoyed us, even the other team. Some of them spoke English and talked with us." And other than the zebras, the Americans were treated as truly welcome guests by the local fans…something that would never happen on the SEC road of course.
Bailey said Coach Jerrance Howard, of Southern Illinois, divided the minutes as evenly as possible so nobody compiled huge numbers. The Bulldog started one game, at center. "And they really just let us play, we had sets and when we ran them we were successful. But they really just let us go out and have fun and enjoy ourselves."
The Americans did that when not on the court, too, though Bailey had to get used to the free massages ("one guy called them me-sages!") provided visiting athletes. If trips to a shopping mall in Beijing felt something like home, sightseeing in the fabled Forbidden City of the old Empire and viewing the Great Wall reminded this wasn't SEC country.
"We interacted with the people real good, but it was controlled too with the security. But they know American basketball and treated us like stars over there. Like the guys we were playing, they thought we were in the NBA! Nah, we're just college kids and most of us are just freshmen. The guy I was talking to was like 25."
Elder Dog Johnson asked Bailey upon return to compare China notes. "He asked if I liked it, I said yeah it was good. But I just couldn't get adjusted to the food." Ah, yes, the dining. Experts in the field claim classic Chinese cuisine is on-par with anything the French produce, and certainly a boy raised in south Louisiana has partaken of some interesting fare. But Bailey still isn't convinced what he was presented was, well, edible. Especially the bullfrog.
"It's not the kind of Chinese food you get in America, but real Chinese food! I looked at it real careful and the only things I really at were the chicken and the rice, that was safe. Some stuff I looked at, said I ain't about to eat that and I didn't want to know what it was!
"It was fun, though. It was real fun, I got to enjoy the experience and the coaching and different things." But then nothing could have been as different as the aftershocks Bailey and squad felt. They did not experience the main quake which struck while they were still over the Pacific, en route from Chicago to Tokyo. Still the national tragedy cast an unavoidable pall over the entire trip.
"I'm not going to say we went at the wrong time," Bailey said. "But when we got there they were more focused on trying to get their people out and stuff like that. But everything still went on as planned and everybody had a great time and did what we came to do."
Now Bailey is doing what he has to do if he wishes a larger role as a SEC sophomore. The five games in China emphasized some expected game-aspects, such as improving how he ‘finishes' plays around the basket on offense and holds his ground defensively. Though a big guy, Bailey was more of a face-the-basket player in high school than a classic post-pounder. This certainly helps his prospects for playing time in college as long as league defensive player of the year Jarvis Varnado lines up at center. State needs someone to replace what Charles Rhodes provided on each end of the floor and Bailey figures he can fill that bill.
"I can be that guy. The experience that I had last year, I can pick up from that and just keep raising it up, stacking it up, keep adding on to that. This summer is when you get better at it so that's all I'm going to be doing, just working out and getting better." As well as getting in more mature shape; he's already shed a dozen pounds from his freshman 260 and as for what remains… ‘It's muscles now!"
If Bailey sounds confident about his prospects next season, you ain't heard nothing yet. Asked for his personal goals as a State soph, he smiles. "What do I want to accomplish? Being All-SEC." No joking, either. Bailey seriously believes he has all-conference capability. "It just takes work and being dedicated to the gym, to the weights, to practice."
Which is the sort of talk that should shake-up the rest of a league expects the Bulldogs to drop-off with the loss of starters Rhodes, Ben Hansbrough, and (presumably) Jamont Gordon. Bailey doesn't see it that way for a program he insists remains on solid ground.
"As long as we're one team we can get the chemistry we need to be good. The expectations are still the same."