Baylor's loss can be learning experience

March 10, 2012

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – A quest for respect ended with Baylor sophomore forward Perry Jones III shaking his head.

A few feet away, Missouri senior center Steve Moore hugged senior guard Kim English in the seconds before the Tigers clinched their second Big 12 tournament title with a 90-75 victory. Jones walked past the embrace, a roar from the pro-Missouri crowd at the Sprint Center growing louder with each step. At that moment, Baylor's resurgence had fallen short of its goal by one game.

Yes, Saturday's contest could have produced a redemption story. Twelfth-ranked Baylor, both full of potential and frustrating to watch, could have reshaped its image. It could have won its third game in as many days and claimed its first Big 12 tournament title in program history. It could have shed its "soft" perception and silenced critics by hoisting a trophy in a postgame celebration few would have seen coming.

Instead, the legacy of Baylor's play here – like its season overall – will be remembered for possibility rather than what was produced. It will be remembered for something less.

Yet, there is reason for the Bears to hope. They can draw from victories over Kansas State on Thursday and third-ranked Kansas on Friday a belief that a run in the NCAA tournament is possible. With adversity comes a chance to evolve, and Baylor was presented Saturday with another opportunity to grow.

"As a team, we feel like we don't get enough credit or respect for anything, especially in the Big 12," Jones told "Our emphasis was to beat K-State, Kansas and Missouri, and it was all in their backyard. Hopefully, we got a little bit of respect. But we still won't get any respect, because we didn't beat Missouri. … To be honest, I have no clue (where the lack of respect comes from). I really don't. It's whatever the critics say or whatever they want it to be. They're the reason the word is out there."

And the narrative eats at Jones and his teammates. They are familiar with the jabs: The Bears are weak mentally; they have the talent, but not the desire to beat the Big 12's elite; they suffer from an anemic leader (coach Scott Drew) who frittered NBA-quality talent during a year when Baylor finished 12-6 in the conference without a regular season victory in four tries against Kansas and Missouri.

Despite the concerns, the Big 12 tournament represented a chance to start anew. And for two of their three games here, the Bears offered a glimpse of what everyone expected from them. They played mad, hungry and inspired against the Wildcats and Jayhawks. As a result, they earned a shot to do the same against the Tigers.

"We've been getting labeled all year long," said Baylor sophomore guard Brady Heslip, who had 14 points. "People have been telling us we're soft, that we can't rebound with the best and we can't guard, that we're just a lot of talented guys who don't play together. But we're a family. We're in the postseason. We were ready for this tournament. We weren't going to come here and lose without a fight. We got those two great wins. Unfortunately, we couldn't win all of them."

No, they couldn't, and that is a reason to wonder if Baylor's resurgence will be short-lived. Top teams, like the Bears are supposed to be, don't lose to an undersized squad like Missouri three times in a season. Baylor is tall and talented enough that it should have stole at least one game. As a result, the Bears' problems against the Tigers showed their lack of success in the series had as much to do with heart as Xs and Os.

But all that is history, a dark memory to be forgotten. The NCAA tournament begins next week, and Baylor played here with the look of a group at times that could overwhelm opponents who aren't aware of its checkered past. On Saturday, Jones earned a team-high 16 points to cap a week when he resembled the future lottery pick some envision him to be. And Drew spoke afterward about how he believes his team has the talent beyond their 6-foot-11, 235-pound star to reach the Final Four.

"The thing that no coach can give is experience, and we got postseason experience," Drew said. "Four out of five starters never played in a Big 12 tournament (senior forward Quincy Acy is the only current Baylor starter who did). … Losing championship games are the worst … But we'll learn from this. We'll be a better team."

And that should be Baylor's inspiration. The Bears' journey for respect failed to produce a Big 12 tournament championship, but in the process they gained confidence for the future.

That belief could produce a deep NCAA tournament run and the redemption story that eluded them here.