Talent infusion fuels Baylor
WACO, Texas – A pat on the back would’ve been nice – or maybe a fist-bump from a teammate or a handshake from the principal.
Instead, basketball prodigy Perry Jones noticed a sea of puzzled glares as he walked the halls of Woodrow Wilson High School the morning after he committed to Baylor as a 15-year-old freshman.
“No one even said, ‘Congratulations,’ ” Jones said. “Instead everyone was like, ‘Why Baylor?’ “
And it wasn’t just classmates or members of his team.
“My coach, Pat Washington, didn’t understand it, either,” Jones said. “He told me going to Baylor was a bad idea.”
Perhaps now, four years later, Washington and the rest of those naysayers understand.
Long considered the doormat of the Big 12 conference, Baylor will enter the 2010-11 season with as much momentum as any school in the league.
Baylor hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1950 before coming within seven points of advancing to the Final Four last spring. Even though Scott Drew’s team was upended in the Elite Eight by eventual national champion Duke, the Bears’ season – they finished 28-8 and second in the Big 12 – was hardly viewed as a fluke.
Baylor, it appears, has staying power.
And it’s all because of huge hauls on the recruiting trail.
Go to any summer tournament featuring the country’s top prospects, and you’re sure to find recruits who have the Bears listed among their finalists alongside tradition-rich schools such as North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas and UCLA.
“We used to call kids and no one would answer,” Drew said. “We’d be lucky if we got a return call. Now we call elite players and they either pick up or call right back. They want to hear what we have to say.”
Drew’s message is apparently hitting home with a number of prospects. Already this summer, the Bears have received a commitment from 7-foot shot-swatter Isaiah Austin, the No. 2-ranked player in the Class of 2012.
“They’ve been recruiting me since I was in the eighth grade,” said Austin, a junior at Grace Prep in Arlington, Texas. “I think a lot of people were surprised I made my decision this early, but there was no reason to [wait]. I knew Baylor is where I wanted to be.”
Others may soon follow suit.
Forward Quincy Miller, the fifth-best prospect in the Class of 2011, is slated to visit Baylor on Oct. 2 along with AAU teammate Deuce Bellow. It’s believed Miller and Bello – the nation’s 11th-ranked point guard – will choose between the Bears and Louisville.
Just last weekend, forward LeBryan Nash and guard Ky Madden were on campus for an official visit. The players are ranked No. 4 and No. 27, respectively, by Rivals.com. According to a posting on his Facebook page, Madden thoroughly enjoyed his trip.
“love it up here dnt wonta go home [tomorrow],” Madden wrote at 9:40 p.m. Saturday.
No signee in Baylor history, though, has received as much hype as Jones. Numerous websites predict that the 6-11 forward will be the second player selected – behind North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes – in the 2011 NBA draft. Jones transferred from Woodrow Wilson to Duncanville High School after his sophomore year.
“I went to some camps this summer,” Jones said, “and everyone was asking me whether I thought we’d make the Final Four. It was definitely a lot different than when I committed, when no one could understand what I was doing.”
Baylor’s ascension under Drew is almost unfathomable when you consider the depths to which the program had sunk less than a decade ago.
When Drew took over for the disgraced Dave Bliss in the summer of 2003, Baylor had narrowly escaped the NCAA’s death penalty following the murder of Patrick Dennehy by teammate Carlton Dotson just months earlier. Ensuing sanctions kept the program from playing a non-conference schedule in 2005 but, by 2008, the Bears had earned an NCAA tournament berth for the first time in 20 years.
Drew’s squad reached the NIT finals the following season before its inspiring run to the Elite Eight last spring.
“When I was being recruited, I never worried that the arena [in Waco] wasn’t full or that they were going through ups and downs,” Jones said. “I fell in love with the school the moment I stepped on campus for the first time in eighth grade. They didn’t even have to recruit me. I knew this is where I wanted to be.”
Indeed, as hard as Drew and his staff work in recruiting, Baylor can often be an easy sell to prospects in Texas.
Jones and Austin, for instance, said their relatives will only have to drive a little more than an hour from the Dallas area to see them play home games. Austin is just 90 minutes away and Houston is roughly three hours.
“With so many good players in Texas, we’re definitely in a great situation as far as location,” Drew said.
Baylor’s enrollment is just less than 15,000, which means class sizes are smaller than they are at rival schools such as Texas and Texas A&M.
The world’s largest Baptist university, Baylor’s emphasis on religion can also an important factor for recruits and their parents. Jones, whose mother is an evangelist, said Baylor’s coaches encourage him to attend church and often participate in voluntary Bible studies with the players.
“God is important to them,” Jones said of the Bears’ staff. “That was big with me.”
So, too, was the fact that Drew and his staff continued to recruit Jones after he committed as a high school freshman in 2007. He said they were at almost every one of his summer league games the next three years “when they could’ve been watching someone else who hadn’t committed.” Austin said he and Drew have exchanged e-mails regularly since he committed during the summer.
“Recruiting is still all about relationships,” Drew said. “The better you build the relationship, the better chance you have of landing a recruit.”
Still, even Drew will admit the biggest factor is success on the court. Only one other Big 12 team (Kansas State) can say it went as far as the Bears did last season. It also helped Baylor’s image when center Ekpe Udoh was chosen No. 6 overall in last summer’s NBA draft.
“Going as far as they did definitely helped them get me,” Austin said. “Now I’m going to work on some other [recruits] I know and try to get them to make the same decision.”
Baylor should still be going strong when Austin arrives in Waco two years from now. Although Udoh and point guard Tweety Carter – the first McDonald’s All-American in school history – are gone, the Bears return three starters from last year’s Elite Eight squad.
Guard LaceDarius Dunn is on pace to become the Big 12’s all-time leading scorer, and Quincy Acy was one of the country’s top sixth men a year ago. The biggest question mark surrounds the replacement for Carter at point guard, but whoever wins the battle between sophomore A.J. Walton and freshman Stargell Love will have one of the country’s top forwards to feed the ball to in Jones.
Baylor also announced Monday that UCLA transfer J’mison Morgan – a Dallas native who was one of the country’s top-ranked centers coming out of high school two years ago – has received a waiver from the NCAA that will allow him to play immediately.
“As good as we were last season, I think we can be even better,” Dunn said. “That’s definitely our goal.”
It’s an attainable one.