Editor's Note: ESPN Insider has teamed with Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook to provide a comprehensive look at all 326 Division I teams. To order the complete 2006-07 edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, visit www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).
(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
COACH AND PROGRAM
Baylor went 4-13 overall last season and wasn't even allowed to play a game outside the Big 12 Conference because of NCAA sanctions.
So why is standout guard Aaron Bruce smiling?
"Honestly, I've been smiling since the season ended last year because I've been so excited about the group we have coming in," said Bruce (13.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.2 apg, .407 3PT, .806 FT), a 6-3 junior from Australia who also endured a half-dozen injuries last season. "Last year was all doom and gloom in the sense we weren't allowed to play a non-conference schedule. I haven't stopped smiling since. I've got so much more energy leading into this season just because the optimism and positive feelings around our club are so much better this year."
It appears the tragic residue of the infamous Dave Bliss fallout is fading and there might finally be some good news for the bad news Bears.
Coach Scott Drew somehow laughed through the frustration of his first three seasons. Now, for the first time under his reign, his team will play a full schedule while having a full allotment of scholarships.
Last year, Baylor became the first Division I team to not be permitted a non-conference schedule. It was a penalty many in college basketball considered to be far too harsh, particularly with no one in the program's current regime at fault.
"Last year was like waiting all year for Christmas, then all of a sudden you're told you don't get to have it," Drew said. "That makes the wait even tougher."
The Bears also competed with scholarship limitations during Drew's first three seasons.
Because Baylor was allowed only a league schedule, that meant the Bears went 309 days between games in two different seasons, and had 89 days to practice for their Jan. 11 season opener at Texas Tech.
"Coaches like practice. Players probably don't," Drew said. "That was obviously difficult. In hindsight looking back, you can't prepare for the adrenalin rush you have from playing in a game, playing in front of a crowd. Scrimmages can only tell you so much.
"You might train for a race, and when you get in that race you have to learn to control your pace and your emotions when you're running. It's the same thing in sports. Until you get game experience it's very tough to simulate in practice. You can run hard, you can do drills, but you can't simulate 10,000 fans, cheerleaders and the band."
The obviously overanxious Bears pressed early when they finally were set free and suffered convincing losses their first five games against Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Colorado, Texas and Oklahoma.
The sixth game gave them hope, even though they lost, 72-70, at NCAA Tournament qualifier Texas A&M.
Four days later, by the same score, Baylor beat Kansas State in overtime. Six days after that, the Bears ripped apart Missouri, 90-64, in what would be Quinn Snyder's last game as the Tigers' coach.
Bruce made an immediate impact in the Big 12 as a freshman, averaging a team-high 18.2 points and 3.8 assists and earning honorable mention all-conference honors.
Last year's numbers dipped because Bruce battled a dislocated finger (twice) on his non-shooting hand, a stress fracture in his foot, tendonitis in his lower leg and three other nagging injuries.
The affable Bruce is a native of Horsham, Victoria, and played on the Australian national team at the FIBA World Championship in Japan this summer.
It's believed Bruce was one of only three current college players to play in the competition, the others being Winthrop's Craig Bradshaw (New Zealand) and Oregon's Oguchi Chamberlain (Nigeria).
The Aaron Bruce Fan Club has many members from abroad.
"I think he's really enjoyed it and I really think he's been great for this university," Drew said. "He's not only an exceptional player, he's such a high-character person. He carries himself so well."
Asked if he thought Bruce would have to make major adjustments from international play back to college ball, Drew said, "No, not too much. He played against good competition. He probably thinks when it comes to college basketball, we [coaches] are the one who mess him up."
Bruce said any necessary adjustments would be minor.
"Only in the sense that I have to adjust to who I'm playing with now," Bruce said. "I'm not going to approach the game any differently or anything like that."
Bruce returned from the World Championship with a slew of familiar faces and a trio of impressive newcomers awaiting him in Waco.
Baylor returns 93.5 percent if its assists, 87.6 percent of its scoring and 84.7 percent of its rebounds.
The Bears lost starting forward Tommy Swanson and seldom-used guard Kevin Shipman, but 6-6, 240-pound senior forward Tim Bush (3.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg) and 7-0, 255-pound sophomore center Mamadou Diene (3.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 38 blocks) return as starters.
Bush has started 41 straight games after his transfer from LSU, and though his stats are modest, he plays an important role.
"Tim will be counted on for leadership this season," Drew said. "He is a two-year starter with plenty of experience."
Diene led the Big 12 in blocked shots with his average of 2.2 per game, the nation's second highest among freshmen behind only LSU's Tyrus Thomas. Diene also ranked 13th in the Big 12 in rebounding.
"Mamadou continues to add weight to his frame and we look for him to improve his stats each year," Drew said. "We especially look for him to increase his offensive production as he continues to develop."
Curtis Jerrells (13.5 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.3 apg), a 6-1, 200-pound sophomore, led the team in scoring, assists and steals last season and helps give the Bears one of the league's top backcourts.
"I think Curtis is excellent," Bruce said. "He's improved gradually from the first day he got here. He's definitely got a Big 12 body, a big, strong frame and a great first step. He knew his role from the start. He's great to play alongside. He takes pressure off me bringing up the ball and he can do some scoring, too."
Jerrell was chosen to Collegeinsider.com's freshman All-America team and he was a consensus pick to the Big 12's All-Freshman team. Jerrells put together several impressive performances as a rookie, but he'll be remembered for the three-pointer he made that beat Kansas State for the Bears' first win of the season.
Off the bench last season came a valuable trio of 6-6 senior swingman Patrick Fields (8.3 ppg, 1.8 rpg, .452 3PT), 6-0 sophomore guard Henry Dugat (7.2 ppg, 2.2 rpg) and 6-9, 235-pound sophomore forward Kevin Rogers (6.1 ppg, 4.0 rpg). Though none started, each played important roles.
Fields was Baylor's third-leading scorer last season and proved to be a consistent three-point threat, making 19-of-42 shots from behind the arc.
"Pat has proven that he can score at the Big 12 level," Drew said. "He makes things happen. We look for Pat to continue to put up numbers."
Dugat averaged 24.3 minutes off the bench and showed the occasional sign he could put the ball in the hole. He scored 13 points in a five-minute span against Texas A&M and finished with 18. He made 4-of-6 three-pointers in that game.
"Henry has improved physically and has more confidence," Drew said. "We're looking for him to be more consistent with his offensive game this season. He showed flashes of great offensive production year and we just look for him to do that on a more consistent basis."
Rogers is the likely replacement for Swanson at power forward.
"We look for Kevin to assume a bigger role in his second season," Drew said. "He will continue to improve and being able to play non-conference games will really help him prepare for the Big 12 season -- a luxury he wasn't afforded last year."
Baylor's already solid backcourt became even better when the Bears landed their first-ever McDonald's All-American in 5-10, 170-pound freshman guard Demond "Tweety" Carter from Reserve Christian School in LaPlace, La. This guy's high school stats were off the charts -- literally. He started playing varsity basketball in the seventh grade and wound up scoring 7,457 career points to become the highest-scoring high school player in U.S. history. Technically Carter will rank second on the National Federation of State High School Association's all-time record book with 5,748 points scored in his final four seasons because his seventh and eighth grade varsity figures will not be counted.
During his career Carter led Reserve Christian to a 248-69 record and four state championships. Last season Carter set a national high school record with 287 three-pointers and he averaged 33 points.
"He's a prolific scorer, but also passes the ball well," Drew said. "He has the physique right now to play college basketball. Some players might need the time to adapt, but he has the body already. Now it's just getting used to the speed of the game, length of the game, height of the game, etc."
Carter didn't just fatten his stats on poor competition, and he earned tons of accolades. He was chosen to the Parade, Jordan and EA Sports All-American teams and was Louisiana's Mr. Basketball. He turned up among the top 50 players in the Class of 2006 on several recruiting analysts' lists. He figures to make an immediate impact at either guard spot.
Also arriving are a pair of top-100 high school recruits in Djibril Thiam, a 6-8, 200-pound forward, and Josh Lomers, a 7-1, 250-pound center.
Thiam, a native of Dakar, Senegal, played last season for Stoneridge (Calif.) Preparatory School. An athletic slasher, he can play four positions. He was rated No. 93 by Rivals.com and rated the No. 22 small forward in the nation. He averaged 8.3 points and 5.8 rebounds as a senior.
Thiam has grown seven inches the last two years and used to play point guard.
"He has good ball-handling skills, good passing skills and good perimeter skills, and at the same time, he's somebody who'll get stronger in the next couple years with rapid growth," Drew said. "If he spends a lot of time in the weight room, physically he'll really improve the next couple years."
Lomers, who loves physical play, comes from Boerne (Texas) High School, where last season he averaged 23 points and shot 74.5 percent from the field. Lomers turned up on several top 100 lists and was rated the No. 10 prospect in talent-rich Texas by Texas Roundball and No. 13 by TexasHoops.
"Josh already is a really strong guy," Drew said. "After he hits the weights, he should be amazing. He has the size right now to play at this level."
Drew's last three recruiting classes have been ranked in the Top 20 nationally.
"We have good depth returning and great talent coming in, so it gives us some options," Drew said. "All three of those freshmen have a chance to contribute immediately."
Another newcomer is 6-10, 220-pound Jari Vanttaja, a freshman who red-shirted last season. A native of Finland, Vanttaja has extensive international experience and like most international big men, has a face-up game.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
No team in America is more thankful last year is over than Baylor.
With experience and quality newcomers on board, the Bears appear to be a serious threat as an upper-division team in the Big 12.
"I think we're only limited by ourselves," Bruce said. "If we let excuses and things like that hamper the way we play, that's the only limits we have. If we work really hard and prepare the best we can for every game, I don't see why we don't have a realistic chance to beat everybody in this league."
Asked if he's overheard any of his players speak about the postseason this year, Drew laughed and said, "You know what, I think every kid thinks postseason. They're all thinking NBA, too."
Coaches around the league agree Baylor is on the rise.
"Baylor definitely is improved," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "I think they're ready to make a dent in the league this year."
Texas A&M coach Billy Gillispie seconded that opinion.
"You bet Baylor could be good," he said. "We saw last year how good they can be."
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 326 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2006-07 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).