All Baylor has is practice
Practice, practice, practice.So far, that’s all there has been for Baylor. There has even been a practice road trip, complete with bus ride, overnight hotel stay, morning shootaround and intrasquad scrimmage.While other teams already have played about a dozen games, the Bears are banned this season from playing nonconference games. It’s part of the NCAA penalties for numerous violations under former coach Dave Bliss.So they wait, watch other teams play on television and keep practicing until their Big 12 opener Jan. 11 at Texas Tech.”When you see people playing in game situations, it hurts not to be a part of it,” said Aaron Bruce, the nation’s top scoring freshman last season. “But we’re working very hard, and we’re just looking forward to getting started.”And finally getting past all the penalties for violations discovered after former player Carlton Dotson murdered teammate Patrick Dennehy in 2003, sparking a scandal that led to Bliss’ resignation. All that came before the arrival of coach Scott Drew and all but one current player, senior Tommy Swanson.
“The light is definitely at the end of the tunnel,” Drew said.”Once we’re done with them, we can just turn our back on the whole situation,” Bruce said. “We’ll always remember what happened, but can turn our backs on the penalties and stuff like that and just really focus on basketball.”After considering a full-season ban, the NCAA in June instead levied what is believed to be an unprecedented partial ban on regular-season games. Baylor got the choice of when to take the reduced schedule, and chose this season rather than next.Baylor still got to start practice in mid-October like other teams. But when everybody else started playing games a month later, the Bears just kept practicing.Without any games, Drew and his staff shortened practice sessions and devoted more time to individual development of skills such as passing, shooting, rebounding and dribbling. Players still spend an hour a day, three times a week, doing heavy weightlifting.”With a young team, physically, you’re normally not as developed. And when the season starts, you’re in a maintaining mode,” Drew said. “We have been able to keep the building mode for a longer period.”There isn’t any replacement for actual game experience, but the extra development time could have long-term benefits for a team with two seniors and six freshmen – the most for Baylor since 1978-79.
Five of the freshmen were playing in high school last year. The other is 7-foot center Mamadou Diene from Senegal, who has gone from a skinny 200 pounds to more than 240 pounds since getting to Baylor last winter.”We know all the plays like the back of our hand, that shouldn’t be a problem,” freshman guard Curtis Jerrells said. “Each player has something special they do. This extra time has given us all an opportunity to improve on what we do best.”Before getting a rare extended break for Christmas, just like they did at Thanksgiving, the Bears hit the road. Drew didn’t want the opener at Texas Tech – 307 days after their last game – to be their first trip this season.They went to Dallas – about 100 miles from the Waco campus – and stayed in the same hotel they will for the Big 12 tournament in March. They practiced at the American Airlines Center, going through a morning shootaround like they will on game days, then returned later for an intrasquad scrimmage that consisted of five 10-minute periods.”That was our whole nonconference season in one practice day,” Drew said.Assistant coaches encouraged the players with shouts of “It’s game day, boys!”, and emphasized paying attention to details. Conference referees officiated the scrimmage, during which Bruce (who averaged 18.2 points a game last season) had 28 points and 11 assists with several spectacular passes.”The coaching staff has done a great job in making sure we aren’t doing the same stuff day in and out,” Swanson said. “Things like this change up the rhythm.”
Baylor’s program fell apart in the summer of 2003 after Dennehy was killed by Dotson, who pleaded guilty earlier this year and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.Bliss and athletic director Tom Stanton resigned that August, and school investigators later discovered that Bliss paid up to $40,000 in tuition for two players and improperly solicited $87,000 from school boosters. The probe also revealed that staff members didn’t properly report some players’ failed drug tests.As a result, Baylor endured several self-imposed sanctions that put severe limitations on Drew and his staff in their attempt to rebuild the program.The school placed itself on probation and released all players from their scholarships, allowing the top three returning scorers to transfer to other Division I schools. The Bears also didn’t play in the 2004 Big 12 tournament.Scholarships were reduced, and contact between coaches and recruits was limited. Baylor, which is on a five-year NCAA probation, never had more than seven scholarship players dressed for a game the past two seasons.But the 35-year-old Drew, whose infectious enthusiasm has provided a much-needed boost for the program, believes there already have been important steps forward, despite a 17-40 record the past two seasons.”We’re very excited with the progress we’ve made in a short period of time,” Drew said. “Our goal is to be a competitive program as soon as we can, rather than waiting.”
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