MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — For all the long arms and wide shoulders comprising Baylor’s vaunted front line, the efficacy of point guard Kenny Chery can be overlooked.
“When he plays really well they’re really good,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, whose team hosts Baylor on Saturday afternoon in a pairing of bubble teams.
“They were 12-1 when he was playing really well. He started out playing really well and then he got hurt and didn’t play as well for a stretch. And now he’s starting to play really well again.”
Chery injured his foot while scoring 10 points in 28 minutes against WVU on Jan. 28. He was unable to defend Juwan Staten’s game-winning baseline drive with 3.1 seconds left, and on Baylor’s last-ditch play, Chery launched a too-late 3-point bank shot instead of passing to the wide-open Cory Jefferson beneath the basket.
He sat out Baylor’s 76-70 upset win at Oklahoma State (good luck figuring out these Bears) and played sparingly in losses to Kansas and Oklahoma. But Chery has looked healthier and more productive in Baylor’s last three games, all wins. His performance during an 87-73 double-overtime upset of Kansas State—20 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds in 44 minutes—was a stat line suitable for framing.
“I guess his foot’s feeling better,” Staten said Thursday.
Shooting only 36 percent in Big 12 play (down from 51 percent in nonconference action), Chery won’t ever pack the scoring impact of the previous junior college point guard Baylor recruited, Pierre Jackson. But Chery’s recent uptick has helped free up opportunities for Jefferson, Isaiah Austin and Rico Gathers inside.
“When Kenny Chery plays,” Huggins said, “you can’t get help (defense), so their bigs get iso’d.”
Tipoff: Saturday 1:30 p.m. in Morgantown (Big 12 Network)
Records: The bipolar Bears (17-9, 5-8) can drive their fans and their coach batty, but they have stabilized somewhat after a dreadful 1-6 start in Big 12 action. Also working in the Bears’ favor: they have faced the nation’s fifth-toughest schedule. West Virginia (15-11, 7-6) is coming off an uninspired 88-71 loss at then-No. 19 Texas, but has won four of six to enter the NCAA tournament pool of hopefuls.
RPIs: Baylor is No. 41 and WVU is No. 66.
Coach: The perception conundrum facing Scott Drew is that he rebuilt Baylor basketball from complete shambles and yet somehow presides over a program now considered to be an underachiever. Some of that is short attention span fodder: Last year’s talented squad settled for the NIT and this year’s team (once ranked No. 7 in the AP poll) could be doomed to the same fate. Still, he’s 217-158 in 12 seasons overall and 197-47 in his 11th year at Baylor—strong totals considering Drew inherited the Dave Bliss scandal that left Baylor mired in sanctions and unable to play a nonconference schedule in 2005-06. That said Drew’s choir-boy image was tainted by NCAA violations that occurred under his watch, resulting in the loss of a scholarship the past two seasons and his own two-game ban last year.
Baylor top players: There’s 7-foot-1 Isaiah Austin (11 points, 5.8 rebounds per game), who’s scoring 16.2 points in his last four games and averaging six blocks in his last three. He’s joined inside by the 6-9 Cory Jefferson (13.1 points, 8.2 rebounds) who has posted consecutive double-doubles, including a 25-point, 13-rebound effort in a 70-64 overtime victory against Oklahoma State. … The 6-8 Rico Gathers plugs in 7.4 points and 7.4 rebounds off the bench but has been held scoreless in the last two games. … 3-point sniper Brady Heslip leads the league in long-distance shooting at 46.2 percent. He sank 4-of-6 against WVU last month and, beware, comes into Morgantown having made just 2-of-12 in the previous two games.
WVU roster notes: Staten’s terrific season was highlighted by his game-winner in Waco, on a night when he had 15 points and nine assists. He’s second in the Big 12 in scoring (18.1) and assists (6.04), fifth in shooting percentage (50.8 percent) and first in free-throw attempts (197) and makes (142). … Backcourt mate Eron Harris (17.6 points) ranks third in Big 12 scoring and is in the midst of a run of making 48-of-50 free throws. … The Mountaineers have slipped to the bottom of the conference in field-goal defense at 44.2 percent, but they’re third in steals (6.46). They’re first i turnover margin (plus-362) but next-to-last in rebounding margin (minus-0.8 per game). … Freshman forward Devin Williams remains in an offensive funk—having averaged 5.2 points while shooting only 31 percent in the last 10 games.
Line: West Virginia favored by 2.5
Prediction: West Virginia 72-70