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March 18, 2014

Baylor ready to dance after impressive turnaround

Scott Drew barely had a voice left when he got on the phone to participate in a media teleconference on Sunday night just a couple hours after learning his Baylor squad had made the NCAA Tournament as a No. 6 seed.

"Sorry about my voice," Drew said to open his interview session. "It's been a long couple days."

Given the ride the Bears had been on to get to that point, it's understandable that Drew and his players might not have had a lot left in the tank. Having once been ranked as high as No. 7 in the country during non-conference play, Baylor fell apart to open the Big 12 schedule and started off 2-8 in the league. Just when it seemed like the season was doomed, though, BU bounced back and won seven of its final eight regular-season games, and then won three more in the Big 12 Tournament to advance to the championship game before finally falling to Iowa State.

The strong end to the year was enough to resurrect the Bears' NCAA Tournament dreams that had seemed all but lost back in early February. The berth marks Baylor's fourth trip to the Big Dance under Drew, including its third in in the past five seasons. But considering all of what his team had to overcome to make it this time around, Drew said this season feels a little more special.

"I think any time that you go through adversity and you struggle like we did in the middle of the year, you're even that much more appreciative," Drew said. "Obviously we're excited for everybody to have an opportunity in the NCAA Tournament, because there are years when you're never on the bubble or you're always in the top 25, but then there's years like this year for us where we got up to No. 7 in the nation and then everybody had kind of written us off. We dug ourselves a pretty big hole at 2-8, and really kind of put together a great run to finish off the year to have a chance to be in the NCAA Tournament."

The star on Baylor's roster is senior forward Cory Jefferson, who averages team highs with 13.4 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. But just as big of a part in BU's turnaround has been 7-foot-1 sophomore center Isaiah Austin, whose 114 blocks this season were the sixth-most ever by a Big 12 player and who last week broke the Big 12 Tournament record with 13 blocks in four games. Austin was also one of four BU starters who scored in double figures with 11.0 points per game, but Drew said his play on the defensive end of the floor has been a catalyst for the Bears digging out of their 2-8 hole.

"Since we were 2-8 and then we tried to turn things around, a big reason is because defensively we've been much better, and that starts with Isaiah, because he protects the rim for us," Drew said. "He's been such a dominant shot blocker and altered so many shots that it's allowed us to get stops and get some easy (points) in transition. His defensive plays have had a direct correlation on our success. As far as him playing well, it started with the whole team when we were 2-8 and kind of turned it around from there. Everyone has picked up their game.

"I think before that we'd have flashes where Isaiah played a great game, or Cory would play a great game, or someone else would play a great game, but we didn't have the consistency from everybody. I think since that time everyone's been consistent on the defensive end and we've taken better care of the basketball on the offensive end, and thus been able to play a lot better basketball."

The other factor in Baylor's resurgence has been the steadily improving play of two first-year players in guard Kenny Chery and forward Royce O'Neale. A juco transfer who averaged 11.6 ppg and ranked fourth in the Big 12 with 5.0 assists per game, Chery missed most of January with an injury but returned to the starting lineup and the Bears went on to win 10 of their next 12 games. O'Neale also got going at the perfect time, as he averaged 10.2 points and 8.3 rebounds over the last 12 outings.

"Chery is a first-year player with the team, and Royce O'Neale's a first-year player with the team, so both of those guys have taken a little bit of time to gel with Corey and Isaiah, who have been in the program," Drew said. "So they know where to go with the ball, when they want it, and are better in the pick-and-roll. I think the chemistry has gotten better as people have gotten used to playing with one another too."

As for their first opponent in the NCAA Tournament on Friday, Drew said he hadn't seen much of Nebraska this season, but had definitely heard about the Huskers' own impressive turnaround.

"What I have seen of Nebraska on the highlights is that I know Coach (Tim) Miles does a tremendous job with the excitement for Nebraska basketball," Drew said. "I know the fan support has been tremendous from what I've seen from the highlights. I know defensively they've been very good, because I know he's a very good coach. Offensively they've found a way to out-score their opponents… We have a long history with Nebraska from when they were in the (Big 12) conference, so we have a great deal of respect for them. We knew whoever we played would be a great team."

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