ATLANTA – You wouldn't think a probable future NBA lottery pick dressed in eye-searing yellow could fade into the background.
And yet that's exactly what has happened to Baylor's Perry Jones III and his frontcourt compatriots, Quincy Miller and Quincy Acy. They survived challenges from South Dakota State and Colorado, but with two games standing between them and a trip to New Orleans, all eyes are on the underachieving frontcourt. Deferring to their guards, a move that worked so well in the NCAA tournament's opening weekend, is no longer a formula for success.
Perry and the Quincys – a group whose name brings to mind students at Hogwarts, not Texas ballers – are undeniably athletic, long and lean and slick enough to elude beefier post players. They can whip the ball around the court, they can run and weave and create their own shots in transition. The problem comes when those shots aren't falling.
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Against South Dakota State and Colorado, all three players scored below their average, most notably Jones, who has scored a total of nine points this tournament. That dumped the burden of scoring on the backcourt, and the only reason the Bears are in Atlanta is that the guards, particularly Brady Heslip, responded with lethal outside shooting. That, Baylor coach Scott Drew said, is exactly how it ought to be.
"Let's credit South Dakota State and let's credit Colorado for great interior defense," Drew said Thursday. "Because of that, our guards had a big week. There have been other times where people have concentrated on the guards, and the front line has been able to put up big numbers."
Jones and the Quincys have Baylor first in the Big 12 in rebounding defense, second in rebounding margin and second in blocked shots. And all three have rebounded right at their average for the tournament. It's a hopeful set of statistics for Baylor fans to cling to should the team start slow.
But Friday night, they'll be facing Xavier 7-footer Kenny Frease, who's riding high off a 25-point, 12-rebound masterpiece against Lehigh. If Baylor's going to take down Xavier, it can't rely on playing keep-away with Frease.
More to the point, at some point the Biggest Bear of them all can't keep deferring if he wants to stay the biggest. Somewhere in the next 40 game minutes – or 80, or however many he has remaining in his season, and maybe his college career – Jones will need to seize control. It's not enough to bust out a performance like he had in the first round of the Big 12 tournament, with 31 points and 11 rebounds against Kansas State. To get to the Elite Eight and beyond, he'll need to show complete-game consistency. But to hear him tell it, Jones is just as happy to be the most talented role player in the country.
"If my shot's not falling, I'd rather go 1-for-7 than 1-for-20-something and then we lose," he said. "I just try to do something, just try to rebound, maybe get offensive rebounds, do whatever I can to help my team. … If we're winning the game, I'm not bothered by [a lack of production]. I feel like I help my team in other ways."
Jones' teammates and his coach have his back, but they've clearly heard the whispers and questions. And there's a thin line between spirited defense and excuse-making.
"We want him to score more, but if we're winning, I think that's the most important thing," Acy said. "He contributes in so many ways, and he draws so much attention that it opens up things for everybody else."
Perhaps it's just not in Jones' nature to lead the frontcourt; perhaps he's best as part of a system, not the head of it. During stretches before practice Thursday afternoon, Acy led the team in chants, Miller gleefully responding. Jones simply smiled quietly, and later nodded in response to coaches' instructions, and banged hard during a scrimmage. While Acy hollered loud enough to echo off the Georgia Dome's upper decks, and Heslip tried (and mostly succeeded at) throwing down one-handed dunks, Jones kept his head focused on the game, quietly going about his business.
"At the end of the day, wins and losses are the most important thing," Drew said of the big men in the tournament's opening rounds. "Without the front-line play, we definitely don't get two wins."
But without better front-line play, they won't get two or more.
Follow Jay Busbee on Twitter at @jaybusbee.
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