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January 26, 2013

With authority

FORT WORTH -- Baylor punished TCU 82-56, turned Horned Frogs coach Trent Johnson's post-game press conference into a Bears' love fest (he also hammered his own team) and basically made Saturday afternoon's game in Cowtown seem like the easiest Big 12 road win in school history (except for a game in Lubbock a few weeks ago).

And yet things -- I won't say Baylor's season -- just "things" almost came crashing down in a 7-foot-1 heap when Isaiah Austin landed awkwardly on a TCU defender's foot at the end of the first half here at Daniel-Meyer Coliseum.

Austin needed help from Cory Jefferson and A.J. Walton to get off the court and into the locker room. Austin was unable to put weight on his right leg. He didn't come back on the floor with the rest of his team at the start of the second half. Then he finally came out, then went back to the locker room, then came back, reported to the scorer's table and a few minutes later swished a turnaround jumper and nailed a 3-pointer.

(Insert deep breath here).

Austin's fantastic return had the 2,000 or so Baylor fans in the crowd giving him a standing ovation. And athletic trainer David Chandler's name was mentioned a dozen or so times in the post-game press conference for an outstanding tape job.

The moral here -- Saturday reminded us of how good this Baylor team can be, and how important good health is to a team trying to win a Big 12 title --- don't give it to Kansas just yet -- and to a squad playing for an NCAA Tournament berth.

Statistically, Baylor had one of its best games this season. The Bears shot 47 percent against a TCU team with a 41.5 opponent's field goal percentage. Baylor made 11 of 19 3-pointers (you won't lose many shooting like that) and the Bears made 17 of 20 free throws (you won't lose many on the road doing that).

Baylor had 19 assists on 37 made shots. Out-rebounded TCU 39-28. And led by as many as 29 points. That's a very strong effort.

"That's as talented a team as there is in this league from my standpoint," said Johnson, who also lamented the talent on his roster during a seven-minute press conference. "This is as talented a team as there is in the country. They have length, they have size, their quickness to the ball, and Jackson, he's special."

That's pretty lofty praise for the Bears, unranked, while Kansas is No. 3 and the pick here -- on Jan. 26 -- to win the national title. The Jayhawks are spectacular.

But let's analyze what Johnson said about Baylor, starting from the last part of his quote to the beginning.

Yes, Pierre Jackson is special. He scores 20 points a night, he's a great teammate, he has a flare for the dramatic and he's the heart and soul of the team.

Yes, Jackson will have nights when his assists equal his turnovers (5 and 5) but he's definitely a Final Four point guard. He's a great player and a great teammate.

Next. Baylor's quickness to the ball is a big reason why its team defense has been so good lately. The Bears have allowed 48, 40, 62 and 54 points in their last four conference games.

The guards do a good job of closing out on shooters -- TCU made 34.6 of its shots and just two 3-pointers. The Bears are excellent in transition -- they had 15 fast break points to seven for TCU.

Baylor's length and size are reasons one and two why the Bears are an intriguing team to watch for March. Austin had 18 points and six rebounds, and while Jefferson scored only seven points (he took five shots and was in foul trouble), freshman Rico Gathers made up for it with 15 points, 10 rebounds and three or four pancakes.

Gathers even shot 70 percent from the line (7 of 10). He's become Baylor's energy player off the bench, and when you toss in Gary Franklin making all four of his 3-pointers, the Bears' bench had a great day.

Baylor started off the season as a supposed guarded-oriented team and instead the Bears have formed their identity as a physical, big-man oriented team. That's a dramatic change.

This happened because Brady Heslip hasn't shot the 3 well -- he did make 2 of 3 Saturday -- and Jefferson emerged as one of the best post players in college basketball. Austin can play inside and outside. And now Gathers can destroy a team like TCU that prides itself on being a physical team.

"Defensively the guards have done a good job and the bigs have really matured," Bears coach Scott Drew said. "We've made it tougher for teams to score and with that, if you get stops, you can get into transition and we're a pretty good transition team. So the development of the bigs, and a lot of that is our non-conference schedule, 10th toughest in the nation, that's prepared us. (The tough schedule) got us more losses than we might have been used to. But it prepared us more for what we've faced in conference so far."

Baylor showed flash on Saturday, with Gathers rebound and outlet to Jackson and Jackson's pass from midcourt to Austin that resulted in a dunk and a foul. "That was a great play," Drew said. "That gave us momentum."

The Bears had an 18-2 stretch in the first half when they played great defense and had the five-point play with Austin's dunk, two technical foul free throws and Austin's free throw that officially buried TCU (as if there was any doubt).

"Coach Drew emphasized rebounds and stops," Jackson said. "We got a couple of stops in a row and I just did my job."

The Bears had a great tape job by Chandler, which gave Austin the confidence he could get back on the court in the second half. "I know my trainer's going to take care of me," Austin said.

Nothing topped the relief and great feeling of seeing Austin go down and come back in -- something you can't ever take for granted.

"Coaches always get nervous when a player gets injured," Drew said. "Isaiah has a high pain tolerance and he's somebody that if he can play he's going to play. DC and his guys do a good job of getting him rehabbed. I thought he did a good job playing in the second half because he could go but mentally Isaiah's one of those guys that's tough."





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