Baylor coach Scott Drew still prefers the inspiration he gets from hearing the “Rocky” theme. Except such motivational tactics are no longer needed for his team.
The No. 23 Bears aren’t considered underdogs anymore.
“The only bad thing is guys play the music they like,” Drew said, with a laugh. “We might have to go back to that in the future. But when you get a more experienced group, you let them have more liberty and freedom.”
These Bears (12-2), who open Big 12 play Saturday at home against Texas Tech, have earned that.
While Baylor goes into conference play with the same record as last season, so much feels different this time. Their success has been expected, and the Bears are prepared to handle what comes next.
“The mental approach is completely different this year. We really, really expect to win,” said Kevin Rogers, one of four senior starters.
“When we go into arenas now for big games, I don’t think we’re as much in awe. We have more of a confidence to us,” Drew said. “We walk in with a different aura, and that’s a good thing.”
Initially, the Bears were able to build off their non-conference success last year, shooting to the top of the Big 12 standings after winning their first four conference games. And they earned their first national ranking in 39 years.
“At that point, that was new territory for us and a lot of people were patting us on the back telling us what a great job we were doing,” Drew said.
But the Bears then struggled through a 1-6 stretch before finishing strong to earn their first NCAA tournament berth in 20 years.
“We are more prepared for the ups and downs of the Big 12 season. I don’t think we’ll get as high, and don’t think we’ll get as low,” Drew said. “All that experience.”
Baylor’s only losses this season are to No. 4 Wake Forest in the 76 Classic championship game in California on Thanksgiving weekend, and an 85-84 home loss last weekend to South Carolina to end the non-conference schedule with their third game in five days.
“I’d rather for us to lose that game and see the flaws we have in our defense, instead of coming out maybe with a one-point victory and thinking that’s the right way,” Rogers said. “It was a big eye-opener and definitely will help us down the road.”
Drew saw a renewed determination from his team in practice this week after the Bears allowed 80 points for only the second time this season - both of their losses.
Scoring certainly isn’t a problem for Baylor, third in the league at 83.5 points a game and just ahead of Texas Tech (83.2).
“This is not really the first place I wanted to go to open up,” Red Raiders coach Pat Knight said. “You can’t ask for a tougher opponent. … Everything I’ve watched, nobody’s been able to contain them.”
Knight made his head coaching debut for the Red Raiders (10-5) about 11 months ago in Waco, his first game coming two days after the sudden midseason resignation of his father, Bob Knight.
Texas Tech lost the first game for the younger Knight, who was suddenly asking players to do different things. But the Red Raiders have adjusted and are averaging 14 points more a game this season in what Knight refers to as his “speed and screen” offense.
“We play at a good pace,” Knight said. “I really like the offense. We’re playing faster, and then when things are going well, we are able to slow it down and get into a screening game.”
Baylor has been in the AP poll for six consecutive weeks - one more week than the Bears had been ranked combined ever before.
The Bears’ revival comes in the wake of the much-told sordid tale from six summers ago involving the murder of a player by a former teammate and despicable acts by former coach Dave Bliss. Carlton Dotson is serving a 35-year prison term after confessing to the murder of Patrick Dennehy.
Now Baylor is one of three Top 25 teams from the Big 12, joining No. 6 Oklahoma and No. 7 Texas.
“A couple of years ago nobody expected us to do anything,” said leading scorer Curtis Jerrells (16.7 ppg), and one of five Bears averaging in double figures. “It’s a lot different now. We don’t get nervous, we don’t get frustrated. … Now we’ve showed that we can play, and we want to prove it wasn’t just an accident.”