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October 23, 2008

Big 12 Notes: Baylor no longer an underdog

OKLAHOMA CITY Scott Drew oversaw one of the best stories in college basketball last season by leading Baylor to its first NCAA tournament appearance in 20 years.

Now he's in the unfamiliar position of leading a conference front-runner.

Big 12 coaches picked Baylor to finish third in the league, tied with defending national champion Kansas, in the preseason poll. It's an unthinkable spot for a program that has had to rebound from grief, controversy and NCAA sanctions over the past five seasons.

Baylor returns its top five scorers and seven of its top eight off a team that went 21-11 last season. Drew returns three senior starters, including All-Big 12 guard Curtis Jerrells, plus a deep and experienced bench.

"The big thing is goals changed after we went to the NCAA tournament," Drew said. "Once we left there, the players realized that we had a great year, but now our goal isn't to make the NCAA tournament. It's to have an opportunity to get back there and win some games."

Drew inherited a mess when he arrived at Baylor in 2003. The murder of a player and an attempted cover-up by former coach Dave Bliss drew severe NCAA sanctions, which included a ban on non-conference games in 2005-06 and the loss of scholarships.

"Our first recruiting trips were around campus trying to find anyone over 6-5 who could play on our team," Drew said. "Now we go to practice and we have a lot of talented players, a lot of excitement. Most people around campus know who the basketball players are now, where before they were students we were just grabbing to be part of the team."

Kansas not there yet

Coach Bill Self will be the first to say Kansas looks nothing like a national championship team.

The roster bears little resemblance to the one KU had when it beat Memphis for the national title. Five Jayhawks were drafted, including Brandon Rush and Darrell Arthur in the first round. Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich are the only returning players who had a major role last season.

"I don't think we're very good right now at all," Self said. "We have some nice pieces. There's much less margin for error.

"It takes us an hour to do something last year's team took five minutes to do, but still they work hard that entire hour and they're trying. That's exciting."

No standing still in Stillwater

Only five days into practice, Oklahoma State is a little shell-shocked by the new system installed by first-year coach Travis Ford.

Ford, who was hired away from Massachusetts, prefers to run and push the pace, a drastic change from the more conservative Sean Sutton. Making matters more taxing, Ford has only 10 scholarship players. He also instituted what he called the most demanding conditioning program of his coaching career.

By the time Big 12 play begins in January, Ford hopes his team will become acclimated.

"Right now, we're really struggling with it," said Ford, who was 49-20 in his final two years with the Minutemen. "We're five days in and we're really far behind."

Guard Byron Eaton was one of those most affected by the change in styles. Eaton reported in June at 246 pounds but weighed in at 210 Wednesday. Eaton averaged 11.5 points last year but was explosive at times. He scored 26 points in a game against Kansas and had 25 points and eight rebounds against Baylor.

Ford also made a statement by suspending senior guard Terrel Harris in April for a violation of team rules. Harris was reinstated at the end of August.

With Eaton, Harris, James Anderson and Obi Muonelo, Ford said he would use a four-guard - and occasionally even a five-guard - lineup.

"We'll have to figure out how to rebound out of those lineups and defend bigger people out of those lineups," Ford said.

New day for Knight

Ford technically is the only new coach in the Big 12, but Texas Tech's Pat Knight will coach in his first season-opener against St. Francis (Pa.) on Nov. 14.

His father, Bob, resigned Feb. 4, giving Pat a running start into the 2008-09 season. The Red Raiders were 4-7 under Pat Knight, but defeated Texas and Kansas State in Lubbock.

Pat Knight doesn't need to be reminded of the difficulty in following a legend. Few shadows loom longer than that of his father, men's basketball's career wins leader.

"There's two type of guys that were unsuccessful: One is the guy that tries to be just like the guy he took over for," Knight said. "And then the second is the guy that tries to do everything different and try to forget about the guy he took over for. You have a fine line.

"I promised my team I would not make a decision based if my dad would do it or I need to do this because he wouldn't do it. That's going to get me in trouble."

Mr. Popularity

Billy Gillispie set the bar high at Texas A&M, so much so that first-year coach Mark Turgeon received criticism last season despite leading the Aggies to their third-highest win total in school history.

The Aggies hit a rough spot early in Big 12 play, losing three in a row in January, then going 2-5 during a stretch in February and March.

As criticism started to build among the A&M fan base, Turgeon responded to a question from a reporter by saying, "I know no matter what I do, if I win, Gillispie is getting the credit. And if we lose, it's my fault."

The comment hardly endeared him to the fans.

"I'm used to being the most well-liked guy in town everywhere I've been," Turgeon said. "It wasn't always the case last year."

The Aggies recovered by the end of the season, reaching the second round of the NCAA tournament and coming close to a Sweet 16 berth in a 51-49 loss to Final Four-bound UCLA.

"Day to day, just everything is better," Turgeon said.

Colorado improving

Colorado coach Jeff Bzdelik walked into a rebuilding job when he left Air Force. Despite losing leading scorers Richard Roby and Marcus Hall and having only one junior and one senior on the roster, Bzdelik said his team is in better position than a year ago.

Even with Roby, the third-leading scorer in the conference, the Buffs were last in the league in scoring on the way to a last-place finish in the Big 12.

"We're scoring the ball much better right now because we can shoot the ball at every position," Bzdelik said. "That really makes the offense go. We have a willingness to pass the basketball and the skill to shoot it, the skill to drive it from all positions."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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