College Basketball Countdown: No. 17 Baylor

Quick point guard Pierre Jackson leads the Bears' backcourt

Visit the online store for Baylor and other editions of the 2012-13 Athlon Sports College Basketball annual.

The first practices of college basketball season begin in mid-October, and Athlon Sports 2012-13 preview annuals are starting to arrive on newsstands all over the country.

To prepare for the start of college basketball season, we will preview one team each weekday, counting down to the first official day of basketball practice on Oct. 15, or for some teams on Oct. 12.

We continue our countdown with a preview of No. 17 Baylor:

A half-dozen college basketball programs have appeared in the Elite Eight two of the last three seasons. Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, Florida and Butler are hardly a surprise.

But don’t feel bad if you couldn’t guess No. 6.

Even today, it’s still hard to believe Baylor has become a member of college basketball’s upper class less than 10 years after narrowly escaping the NCAA death penalty. Sparked by coach Scott Drew, the turnaround that has occurred in Waco is one of the most impressive in college basketball history.

Baylor won a school-record 30 games last season before losing to eventual national champion Kentucky in the regional final. Three players were selected in the NBA Draft, and Drew signed a recruiting class that was ranked No. 4 nationally by Scout.com.

Successful as the Bears were a year ago, there could be even better things in store in 2012-13 thanks to what may be the deepest backcourt in the country and the addition of a future NBA Lottery pick in the paint.

“As always,” Drew says, “we’re setting our sites high.”

FRONTCOURT
The Bears took a major hit down low when underclassmen Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller left school early to turn pro and Quincy Acy graduated. All three players — who combined to average 36.1 points and 19.9 rebounds were selected in the NBA Draft.

Still, Baylor will hardly be lacking in the paint. Cory Jefferson would’ve started for almost any Big 12 team last season but was relegated to just 10 minutes per game behind the Bears’ talented frontline. Pencil the 6-9 junior in as a starter along with highly-touted signee Isaiah Austin, a 7-footer who may be the most talented prospect in the entire class of 2012. Austin can bring the ball up the court, swish 3-pointers, beat a defender off the dribble from the perimeter and can score from both mid-range and in the paint. Also a skilled shot-blocker, Austin is projected as a top-five pick in next summer’s NBA Draft.

Drew’s team will also tout a pair of quality backups in J’mison Morgan and Ricardo Gathers. Morgan, who began his career at UCLA, is a former McDonald’s All-American who redshirted last season. Coaches have praised the senior for improving his physical condition and his work ethic. At 6-8 and 240 pounds, Gathers is a banger and rebounder extraordinaire who has drawn comparisons to Acy, although Gathers, a freshman, may be more skilled offensively.

BACKCOURT
The Bears’ biggest strength will be on the perimeter, where they return five guards who averaged at least 10 minutes per game last season. Leading the way is point guard Pierre Jackson, a Cousy Award finalist who had team-highs in points (13.8 ppg), steals (1.8 spg) and assists (5.9 apg) as a junior last season. Jackson is as quick as any guard in the country and shot a respectable 40.8 percent from 3-point range a year ago. If he cuts down his 3.5 turnovers per game he could earn All-American honors.

Joining Jackson in the backcourt will be Brady Heslip, who is regarded as one of the top long-range shooters in America. Heslip connected on 45.5 percent of his shots from beyond the arc in 2012-13, including a 54.2 mark (26-of-48) in the postseason. Senior A.J. Walton, who ranked second on the team in steals (1.3 spg), could also start in Baylor’s three-guard lineup.

Another option is sophomore Deuce Bello, who coaches say improved as much as any Bears player during the offseason. Bello had blossomed into one of the team’s top defenders and offensive rebounders by the end of his freshman year, but now he’s a much better ball-handler and shooter.

Also returning is Gary Franklin, who contributed 10 minutes per game after transferring from Cal. L.J. Rose is a 6-4 freshman who is expected to back up Jackson at point guard.

FINAL ANALYSIS
Proud as they are of their recent success, the Bears are ready to take the next step by winning an outright conference championship for the first time since 1948. It certainly won’t be easy. Kansas has claimed the last eight Big 12 titles — and the Jayhawks will be the favorites to repeat again in 2013.

The keys to Baylor ending Kansas’ streak will be another banner season from Jackson and Heslip, breakthrough performances from Bello and Jefferson and significant contributions from freshmen Austin and Gathers, both of whom must develop quickly. If those things occur, the Bears’ potential is limitless.

Athlon College Basketball Countdown So Far:
20. Florida

19. Notre Dame

18. Memphis

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