No. 18 Baylor returns to the hardwood

No. 14 guard Deuce Bello leap frogs over No. 21 center Isaiah Austin to dunk the ball in the dunking competition during Moonlight Madness in the Ferrell Center on Friday, Oct. 12, 2012. Moonlight Madness marked the beginning basketball season for Baylor University.Matt Hellman | Lariat Photo Editor
No. 14 guard Deuce Bello leap frogs over No. 21 center Isaiah Austin to dunk the ball in the dunking competition during Moonlight Madness in the Ferrell Center on Friday, Oct. 12, 2012. Moonlight Madness marked the beginning basketball season for Baylor University.Matt Hellman | Lariat Photo Editor

By Krista Pirtle
Sports Editor

Elite Eight rings are set aside, Adidas shoes are laced up and neon is put on as the No. 18 Baylor men’s basketball team takes the floor at the Ferrell tonight against Abilene Christian in its only exhibition game before the start of the 2012-2013 season.

“You can beat up on each other for so long but then, you know, eventually want to take it out on somebody else,” junior guard Brady Heslip said. “I think we’re all ready to do that, so we’re really looking forward to the opportunity to just play.”

After the Bears’ game against ACU, the team has a two-week break before the season officially begins Nov. 9.

“Yeah, I’m kind of glad they scheduled it like that, you know?” senior point guard Pierre Jackson said. “We all anxious to get on the court. Were playing in front of everybody at the Ferrell, so I’m ready and excited. I think the team is too.”

Head coach Scott Drew is back for his 10th season at Baylor with perhaps the hardest schedule and the deepest team.

“I think they’re more ready to play than us coaches because we know there’s a lot more that we need to work on,” Drew said.

The biggest concern for the Bears’ is the frontcourt. Baylor’s two returning frontcourt players, senior J’Mison Morgan and junior Cory Jefferson, have a combined 15 career starts.

“We know what we have,” Jefferson said. “We’re not doubting ourselves at all.”

Along with the two veterans are third-year senior Jacob Neubert, sophomore Logan Lowrey and freshmen Isaiah Austin, Rico Gathers, Taurean Prince and Chad Rykhoek. Each of these players will most likely get the chance to go off a back pick set by Heslip toward the rim to throw down an alley-oop from senior point guard Pierre Jackson.

“Practice makes perfect,” Jackson said. “We’ve put a couple sets in. Getting that ready for Isaiah and Rico and whoever else is going to be catching. I can throw them, you know, it just depends on if they’re going to catch them. They’ve been doing well in practice though.”

As far as the backcourt goes, the Bears returned every guard from last year’s Elite Eight team and added a top 75 national recruit: Jackson, senior A.J. Walton, Heslip, junior Gary Franklin, sophomore Deuce Bello and freshman L.J. Rose. With so much depth, Baylor could run a two-, three- or four- guard front.

“Oh man, that’s going to be a big plus,” Jackson said. “You know, everybody thinks that’s one of our best strengths. You know, they talk about me and Brady a lot, but AJ’s been a great help for me; just being that he’d been here two years already before I got here. He’s just like a big brother to me. He still helps me out to this day. We got Gary Franklin. He’s ready to step up. He didn’t really get that much time last year. And y’all know Brady. We already know what he’s going to do.”

This is the opposite of where Baylor started out the season last year.

“Well the good thing is coaches would rather be experienced in the backcourt because the guards are the ones that really dictate the tempo,” Drew said. “You have Pierre, you have Brady, you have Gary, you have A.J. I mean they’re all juniors and seniors, and they bring a lot of experience to the table. Then you have Deuce who played minutes last year, critical minutes down the stretch and then L.J. Rose, a talented freshman, so we do like some of the options we have in the backcourt.”

The team has only had eight or nine practices so far, and, due to injuries, Wednesday was the first practice in which the whole team was healthy enough to compete. With five freshmen on board, Drew said that he would not know who the usual starting rotation would be until closer to the season.

“It’s one thing to know who your five most talented players are, it’s another thing to find out who plays best together,” Drew said. “At the end of the day it’s about winning and who plays well with one another and complements one another.”

Another facet of the game that should complement the Bears is the style of defense they play. Baylor is known for its long arms in the frontcourt in a 2-3 zone; however, with the experience and speed in the backcourt, a man defense looks to be more compatible.

“Initially, we have a lot of depth and experience in that backcourt which might lend more in man to man defense if you’re playing smaller,” Drew said. “Later on, as some of the freshmen come along, then maybe the zone comes back in. We’ll have both. At the end of the day, whatever’s working, that’s what we’ll go with.”

The coaches are more worried about what Baylor brings to the hardwood than anything ACU offers. Since some athletes play better under the lights while others play better in practice, Drew can analyze his team before the season begins.

“What the game will do is it will give us a chance to see what players play like under the lights and allow them to get some nerves out of the way,” Drew said. “And then from there, when you’re competing with your own team, sometimes you don’t see some weaknesses because you’re physical in practice, and then all of a sudden in the game you find out you’re not physical enough. Or maybe we think we’re better defensively than we really are, etc. So the big thing in playing against someone else is we’ll get to see what areas are stronger than what we thought and what areas are weaker than what we thought and plus we get a scrimmage also to find out before Lehigh.”

As for the players, they just want to play ball in the Ferrell.

“I’m just eager to get on the floor, just play in the Ferrell again,” Heslip said. “It’s a great feeling you can’t really talk about. You just have to embrace it. I’m just looking forward to going out there with these guys that I’ve been working hard with all offseason and practicing with each and every day so it’s going to be fun for us to go out there and play against some competition.”