Rising Bears: Baylor unranked to No. 4 in less than month
WACO, Texas (AP) — Baylor coach Scott Drew certainly gets why the Bears were overlooked going into this season.
“On paper with us losing our senior point guard, a lottery pick, the school's all-time leading rebounder, with us having only one senior this year, you understand why people weren't voting for us in the Top 25,” Drew said.
The Bears (8-0) are getting plenty of votes now after an impressive start with three wins over top 10 teams, propelling them from not a single vote less than a month ago to their highest AP ranking in six seasons.
“The fact that we've been able to win these games against quality teams has given us the recognition and attention that the players have earned,” Drew said.
Initially, it was easy to discount the Bears' 66-49 win over then-No. 4 Oregon the first week of the season since the Ducks were playing without injured preseason All-America forward Dillon Brooks. But the next week, after getting into the poll at 20th, the Bears won the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in Bahamas with come-from-behind wins over No. 24 Michigan State and No. 10 Louisville. After Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino's Cardinals jumped out to a 25-5 lead in the title game, and still led by 18 at the half, Baylor rallied to win 66-63.
And then last weekend as the No. 9 team, former Miami transfer guard Manu Lecomte scored 24 points and the Bears rallied in the second half to beat then-No. 7 Xavier 76-61 at home. It was the first time Baylor has ever won a matchup of top-10 teams.
“Rankings don't matter,” said junior forward Johnathan Motley, their leading scorer and rebounder (16.3 points, 8.1 rebounds per game). “We're just going to step between those lines and handle business.”
The Bears, with three wins over top 10 teams in the same season for the first time ever, are in an extended break during final exams before playing at home Wednesday against Southern. They will be overwhelming favorites for all four games remaining before their Big 12 opener Dec. 30 at Oklahoma. That includes a game at Fort Hood, the second year in a row playing for soldiers at one of the nation's largest Army posts only about an hour from their campus.
After their third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance last season, the Bears lost three seniors — Taurean Prince, the 12th overall pick in the NBA draft; Rico Gathers, the career rebounding leader now trying to become an NFL tight end on the Dallas Cowboys' practice squad; and two-year starting guard Lester Medford.
Lecomte, who was born in Belgium, practiced with the Bears and ran with the scout team last season. He is now averaging 13.9 points a game, with 42 assists and only 17 turnovers.
“Normally during a sit-out year, a transfer year, players tend to look really good. That's because they have no pressure, they get to run scout team, they get to get all the shots, coaches aren't yelling at them,” Drew said. “So we always temper expectations and thoughts on those players until they show it in games, and Manu's definitely proving what we saw in practice was reality.”
Jo Lual-Acuil, a 7-footer who also sat out last season after transferring from a junior college, is averaging 9.4 points and 7.8 rebounds for Baylor. Nuni Omot, a 6-9 junior college transfer, could make his Baylor debut during the Christmas break after being academically ineligible during the fall semester.
Lecomte insisted that he didn't hear the “We want Kansas!” chants from the home fans during the closing minutes of the victory over Xavier. Baylor doesn't play the third-ranked Jayhawks until February.
“We know what you did doesn't define what you're going to do,” Drew said. “We know it's a race to improve each and every day, and be at the best at the end of the season. Hopefully we're staying humble and we're staying hungry.”