- Associated Press - Monday, November 8, 2010

WACO, TEXAS (AP) - Baylor climbed out of the basketball abyss with one of the best seasons in school history. The Bears want to go higher.

Undeterred by several key departures and the suspension of the leading scorer they’re still hoping will play this year, No. 16 Baylor also has to push aside reports of an investigation into recruiting tactics as it tries to build on an NCAA tournament run that ended with a loss to eventual champion Duke in the regional finals.

The Bears were picked as also-rans in the Big 12 last year and were 2-3 in league play when they beat Texas in overtime in Austin. They won their last four regular-season games and carried the momentum through three rounds of the NCAAs. Big 12 coaches are picking the Bears fourth this year _ a spot behind Texas after they swept the Longhorns last season _ but Baylor knows how little that means.

“I don’t think Baylor is considered an underdog anymore because of the run they made last year,” said freshman Perry Jones III, a top recruit out of the Dallas suburb of Duncanville. “A lot of teams are going to be more prepared to play us instead of saying, ‘Oh, it’s just Baylor.’”

It’s not the same Baylor because center Ekpe Udoh gave up his final season of eligibility to become the sixth pick in the NBA draft and another strong inside presence, Josh Lomers, is gone. Senior guard Tweety Carter was a leader who symbolized the program’s recovery from a horrific scandal sparked by the shooting death of Patrick Dennehy by teammate Carlton Dotson seven years ago.

Most of the leadership burden was expected to fall to guard LaceDarius Dunn, but he was suspended last month after police accused him of his hitting his girlfriend and breaking her jaw. Dunn has been allowed to practice after the university cleared him to return to classes. His girlfriend disputed police reports and asked that all charges be dropped. McLennan County prosecutors haven’t commented.

As long as Dunn can’t play in a game, junior forwards Quincy Acy and Anthony Jones are the elder statesmen. Acy was already expecting to fill the void left by Udoh, so much so that he went to work out the night his roommate was drafted because he knew what it meant for his role.

“I was just like, ‘OK, it’s time,’” Acy said. “He called me about 15 minutes after (the draft) and said, ‘You already know what’s next.’ And I was like, ‘I gotcha.’ So I went to the gym that night. And it just started from there.”

Acy figures to be a mentor to Perry Jones the same way Udoh was to him, but they won’t baby-sit their prize recruit. For one thing, he might be gone to the NBA sooner rather than later. And coach Scott Drew has already tried him out in practice at every position but shooting guard.

“I think everybody realizes that Perry’s going to be much better when he’s 28 than he is when he’s 18 or 19,” Drew said. “At the same time, the things he can do right now, I know Baylor fans are going to be very excited.”

Baylor also is expecting big things from J’mison Morgan, a junior transfer from UCLA. Freshman guard Stargell Love should see significant minutes as well.

“The talent is there,” said Drew, whose team went 28-8 a season after losing in the NIT final. “The experience and leadership is something that takes time.”

If the Bears have to replace Dunn, it won’t be easy. He averaged 19.3 points per game _ 10 more than Acy, the second-leading returning scorer _ and was a huge threat from 3-point range. He tied for second nationally with 116 3-pointers and shot 42 percent from long range.

Acy, who averaged 9.3 points per game, was second to Udoh in rebounding at 5.1 per game, while Anthony Jones started all 36 games and chipped in 6.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game.

Life without Dunn didn’t look so great for Baylor in an exhibition against Division II Midwestern State last week. The Bears didn’t take the lead until the 8:17 mark of a 68-59 win that featured 10 ties and 11 lead changes. But the rugged dress rehearsal doesn’t change Baylor’s outlook.

“Postseason runs are kind of like desserts,” Drew said. “You have a couple of bites and you want to finish it. You look at especially the men’s side of college basketball, you do have turnover every year. There’s a lot of competition, a lot of parity. Coaches understand just how hard it is to win with young players.”

The Bears will try anyway, knowing every opponent will be ready. They open the season Friday at home against Grambling.

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