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Returning to Waco, WVU finds talented Bears in freefall

Cory Jefferson and Baylor were ranked No. 7 in the nation before a 1-5 start to Big 12 play dropped the Bears from the rankings.


WACO, Texas — While five Big 12 teams occupied spots in the AP Top 25 unveiled Monday, Baylor was not among them. Four consecutive losses will have that effect.

Yet pollsters were the least of the Bears’ worries as they practiced Monday inside the Ferrell Center. Their resounding nonconference run—bolstered by neutral-court wins over Kentucky and Colorado—has been unraveled by a 1-5 league start.

Sure, college teams endure their ups and downs during the  course of a season, but Baylor—once ranked as high as No. 7—has gone completely schizo.

“We haven’t defended well in conference and we haven’t shot well in conference, which is a complete flip from what the nonconference was,” said coach Scott Drew, whose team hosts West Virginia (11-9, 3-4) on Tuesday night.

Baylor, the reigning NIT champ, sits 13-6 overall and needs a string of wins to resurface on the NCAA selection committee’s radar.

“We have to start winning if we want to have a chance to do what we want to do,” Drew said.

Baylor has shot 39 percent in Big 12 play after making 50 percent in nonleague action. Conversely, its Big 12 opponents are shooting a league-high 48 percent vs. 38 percent in the nonconference.

Those stats convey a slide in which Baylor hasn’t even been competitive, suffering double-digit losses to Iowa State, Kansas, Texas Tech and Texas. Only during a 66-64 home loss to Oklahoma did Drew’s team have a chance at the finish.

That’s been a steep and frustrating freefall for a roster stocked with talent—six players came to Baylor as top-100 recruits, and junior college point guard Kenny Chery was the No. 12-rated prospect in Canada. As players invariably have tried to give super-human individual efforts, Drew reminded them that trusting teammates is the surest way out of the slump.

“There’s a psychologist in us all (coaches) and we’re trying to push the right buttons,” said Drew, who wholly supported the players-only meeting that followed Saturday’s 74-60 home loss to Texas. “I think communication always prevents disaster.”

Last season’s trip to Waco was a disaster for West Virginia, which committed 18 turnovers in an 80-60 thumping.

“Coach Huggins has a had a lot of changes from last year’s team and this year’s team really plays hard,” Drew said. “They’re overall more skilled than last year’s team.”

Sophomore forward Rico Gathers—who came off the bench and emphatically dunked his way to a career-high 22 points against WVU last year—described the recent players’ meeting as about “getting back to where we were before we started slipping up.”

Tipoff: Tuesday 7 p.m. in Waco (ESPN2)
Records: The Bears (13-6, 1-5) have five losses against RPI top-50 teams and have faced the nation’s 19th-toughest schedule. West Virginia (11-9, 3-4) has lost four of five, including two tight losses to No. 8-ranked Oklahoma State.
RPIs: Baylor is No. 52 and WVU is No. 91
Coach: Scott Drew (211-155 overall) spent one season as Valparaiso’s head coach before arriving at Baylor in 2003 in the aftermath of player Patrick Dennehy’s murder and the scandalous coverup by then-coach Dave Bliss. After four sanction-plagued seasons, Drew has transformed the program with three NCAA berths (including two Elite Eight trips) and two NIT bids. His record in 11 seasons with the Bears is 191-144.
Baylor’s top players: The starting front line of 7-foot-1 Isaiah Austin (10.5 points, league-high 53 blocks), 6-9 Cory Jefferson (12.9 points, 8.3 rebounds) and 6-7 Taurean Prince receives a boost from the 6-8 reserve Gathers, who leads the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. … Kenny Chery (11.1 points) stepped in for departed point guard Pierre Jackson and stands second in the Big 12 assist-to-turnover ratio behind Juwan Staten. Brady Heslip, whose 46-percent 3-point shooting is second in the league, burned WVU for 20 points last season, the fourth-highest scoring game of his career.
WVU roster notes: Staten ranks third in the league in scoring (17.3 points), third in field-goal shooting (52.2 percent) and tops in assists (5.8). He’s actually shooting even better during his seven league games. “He’s really blossomed,” said Drew. “When you’re shooting 56 percent rom the floor as a point guard, that’s real impressive.” … Backcourt mate Eron Harris (17.6 points) is second in Big 12 scoring after a 21-point game in Stillwater, and has enjoyed a three-game stretch by making 13-of-20 3-pointers. … West Virginia owns a 100-19 record under Huggins when scoring 70 points, with six of those losses coming this season as the Mountaineers have slipped to last in the league in field-goal percentage defense. “Nobody can guard the way the game has changed,” Huggins said, referring to the NCAA crackdown on defensive physicality. “They’ve gotten what they wanted and the scores are much higher.” … Terry Henderson shot 1-of-10 at Oklahoma State, his second vanishing act in three games. “For some reason it seems when Eron is making shots, Terry isn’t,” Huggins said. “And we need both of those guys to make shots for us.”
Line: Baylor favored by 5 1/2
Prediction: Baylor 80-71

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