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November 9, 2012

Un-guardable: Baylor hoops is back

There are no guarantees that Baylor men's basketball team will be back in the Elite Eight this season.

Preseason rankings have been all over the map. I picked up Sports Illustrated on Thursday and SI had the Bears outside the Top 20 at No. 23. The Bears are No. 19 in the AP poll and No. 18 in the USA Today Coaches Poll. That has the Bears looking outside the Sweet 16.

Wherever Scott Drew's team falls in your preseason rankings, one thing is certain -for my money, this has a chance to be one of his most exciting teams.

Bear with me, if you will (no pun intended). I'm a guard-guy. I love guard-oriented teams and this Baylor team is loaded at the position.

It's a little like the Curtis Jerrells-Henry Dugat-Tweety Carter-Lace Dunn team, loaded in the backcourt. That team won 24 games and lost in the NIT Final to Penn State. The 2008-09 Bears put Baylor basketball on the road the relevance on the national state.

Baylor has followed up that season with two Elite Eight appearances in 2010 and '12 NCAA Tournaments.

So the Bears have come full circle leaning on veterans at guard this season - Pierre Jackson, Brady Heslip, A.J. Walton, Deuce Bello and Gary Franklin. That's one of heckuva a group.

There's a point guard who plays with a chip on his should while being a scorer - Jackson. A shooting guard who can go off for double digits in made 3-pointers in a game - Heslip.

Walton the defender. Bello the dunker and the potential scorer. Franklin a combo guy who adds depth.

It has the potential to a special group. An explosive group. And for me, any time a college basketball team is guard-oriented, it has you on the edge of your seat for 40 minutes. Baylor has the ability to be that explosive.

"As far as our team goes, experience in the back court, which is a little bit different," Drew said. "In the last few years, we've been a taller team and more experienced on the front line. But when you lose three guys to the NBA and return a lot of people in the back court, it kind of changes some of the things you can do."

Baylor doesn't have the firepower in the post - at least not right at the start of the season. The Bears lost a trio of players - Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller and Quincy Acy -that are in the NBA.

There are big losses. But Jones was the guy that you always wanted more from and didn't get it. Acy will be missed, a great emotional leader, but Jackson can fill that role and it's even better since he's the point guard.

Miller was an explosive scorer, and it aggravates that he made the decision not to come to college. But the Bears feel like they can move on.

They'll rely on an important freshman, 7-foot-1 freshman Isaiah Austin, who has looked great in preseason scrimmages. Austin, out of Grace Prep, needs room to grow, but heck so did PJ3 when he arrived in Baylor.

"He brings a lot of height, a lot of length and a great skill set," Drew said. "The biggest thing you look at right now is you know he can get stronger. At the same time offensively, he can shoot 3s and handle the ball."

There's no reason Austin can't match the level of play PJ3 brought in his first season (I'm almost willing to say second too). He can stretch the defense like PJ3 could and he has the same versatility. He also arrives as a guy who has always been the man on his team (PJ3 wasn't).

Fresman forward Rico Gathers at 6-8 is a potential double-double guy every night, a perfect fit on this guard oriented team. There are enough guards for freshman L.J. Rose to blend in. How will 6-11 Chad Rykhoek and 6-7 Taurean Prince fill in? What will their roles be?

Baylor went with a three-guard starting lineup in its scrimmage with Jackson-Heslip-Walton. That means big guys Cory Jefferson and J'Mison will be depth guys off the bench.

It's a loaded roster, which is nothing new for a Drew-coached team in the second half of his 10-year tenure at Baylor.

We'll find out early about the Bears. Five games in 10 days to start the season. Dec. 1 at Kentucky. A Big 12 slate that again has Kansas as a favorite and Texas expected to be a top team.

By the time they hit the new year, I see a Baylor team that will not only contend for the Big 12 title this year, but win it.

That's the potential I see in this guard-oriented, edge-of-your seats Baylor team in 2012-13.




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