Bears to wake from hibernation

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Baylor guard Aaron Bruce has watched games on television, aching to play in one. About the only benefit of his team not playing any nonconference games was being able to go home to Australia for Christmas.

After three months of practice and watching everybody else play, the Bears finally get to start their season.

"We've been talking about it for so long, it's great to actually be in that situation," said Bruce, the nation's top scoring freshman last season. "We spent months preparing for a game, doing things for a game. But now, it's more specific. We're preparing for Texas Tech."

Like all other teams, the Bears began practice in mid-October. But when everybody else started playing about a month later, the Bears kept practicing.

Baylor was banned from playing nonconference games as part of NCAA penalties for numerous violations under former coach Dave Bliss. The violations were discovered after former player Patrick Dennehy was murdered in the summer of 2003.

The Bears play their season opener Wednesday night at Texas Tech -- 307 days after being eliminated from the Big 12 tournament March 10. The Red Raiders (8-7, 0-1 Big 12) and Oklahoma State, the opponent for Baylor's home opener Saturday, have already played a league-high 15 games.

"There's only so much you can accomplish in practice. We accomplished all that," third-year coach Scott Drew said Monday. "And we made it through as a team, and still like each other."

What Drew and his staff couldn't simulate during all that practice time was the speed and flow of a Big 12 game. Or get actual game experience for six freshmen, the most for Baylor since 1978-79.

"Hopefully, there won't be too many of those first-game jitters," Drew said. "Those front-row Texas Tech fans better keep their hands up. They might get hit by an errant pass."

While there are plenty of unknowns for Drew, opposing teams don't know what to expect either. Bruce (18.2 points a game last season) is among four returning starters, but everybody else on the roster is new or played sparingly last season.

"They will have played only one game, so we will not have the scouting report we normally have," Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton said. "They've got their whole starting team and they've added some guys. That will be a very competitive edge."

Plus, the Bears should be fresher than most teams. Sutton said he and other coaches "probably have worked guys a little too hard" to correct mistakes made in games.

The Bears have had plenty of time to review tape. They even got to watch Texas Tech lose its conference opener 63-55 at Texas A&M on Saturday, since by a quirk of the Big 12's computer-generated schedule Baylor didn't have a game on the league's first weekend.

"It is pretty unique," Texas Tech athletic director Gerald Myers said. "They probably have all the Texas Tech tapes, and know what the different personnel does."

Myers, Tech's winningest basketball coach, said current coach Bob Knight is concerned about not knowing anything about Baylor.

"A big part of his coaching is to scout teams and to develop some kind of game plan, a defensive game plan as well as an offensive game plan," Myers said.

Knight didn't participate in the Big 12 coaches teleconference Monday, when his scheduled segment was at the same time Texas Tech was practicing. The coach didn't return a call after a request was made through the school for an interview.

Until last week, Drew had shortened practice sessions and devoted more time to individual development of skills such as passing, shooting, rebounding and dribbling. Players were still doing heavy weightlifting an hour a day, three times a week.

The Bears took an overnight trip to Dallas -- about 100 miles from the Waco campus -- last month to simulate a road trip. They practiced at the American Airlines Center, where the Big 12 tournament is in March.

"It's definitely exciting to know you have a game ahead of you finally," said forward Tim Bush said, who like Drew and all but one current player wasn't at the school when the violations occurred.

Former player Carlton Dotson pleaded guilty last year and is serving a 35-year sentence for the death of Dennehy, who was missing for six weeks before his body was found. The death sparked a scandal that led to Bliss' resignation.

School investigators later discovered Bliss had paid up to $40,000 in tuition for two players and improperly solicited $87,000 from school boosters, among other allegations.

In addition to scholarship reductions and other self-imposed penalties, the Bears didn't participate in the 2004 Big 12 tournament. The NCAA considered a full-season ban before deciding to cut nonconference games, thought to be an unprecedented move.

"It's been really rough, but it shows you the character of the team to be able to still come to practice every day and give 100 percent," Bush said. "And I think that's going to show up on the court when we do play."

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