DALLAS -- He’s made 17 of his past 26 3-point attempts and is shooting 48.7 percent overall from beyond the arc. Still, the best illustration of Brady Heslip’s importance to Baylor’s basketball team occurred during a stoppage in play nearly two weeks ago at BYU.
“They had just gone on a run,” Heslip said, “and there were 23,000 people [in the Marriott Center] going absolutely nuts.
“I didn’t want us to get rattled, so I huddled everyone up and said, ‘Guys, this doesn’t mean anything. Let’s play our game. Let’s go!’”
Moments later the Bears were celebrating an 86-83 victory over the Cougars.
The leadership that Heslip displayed in Provo was sorely lacking at Baylor last season, where the Bears missed the postseason just one year after advancing to the Elite Eight.
As he watched the team crumble from bench, Heslip (a Boston College transfer) realized how important it would be for him to become a calming influence for Baylor once he became eligible in 2011-12.
“Last year we didn’t have a defined leader,” Heslip said. “I didn’t want to let that be a reason that we didn’t succeed this year. I lead as much as I can.”
Baylor coach Scott Drew couldn’t be more pleased.
At 12-0, the seventh-ranked Bears are one of just six remaining undefeated teams in the country. They’ll receive their stiffest test of the season thus far when they close out nonconference play against No. 14 Mississippi State (12-1) tonight at the American Airlines Center in Dallas.
“He’s a heady player, a coach on the floor,” Drew said of Heslip. “It helps having someone who thinks the game as well as Brady. Everyone knows he’s a great shooter, but he does a lot of other things behind the scenes.”
Anyone familiar with Heslip’s lineage probably isn’t surprised that Heslip has emerged as Baylor’s glue guy. His father was an All-Canadian player at the University of Guelph in 1980. And his uncle, Jay Triano, played for the Canadian national team for 11 years and spent nearly three seasons as the Toronto Raptors’ head coach.
As much as he prides himself on being a good player, Heslip realized during his recruitment that his basketball IQ could be equally valuable to Baylor.
“They didn’t have anyone like me,” Heslip said. “I feel like I see the game differently than a lot of guys. I can point things out to guys and tell them what I think they need to do. What I wanted to bring to the table was someone that thinks the game, someone who is going to get the right guy the ball at the right time.”
Lately, Heslip has been the Baylor player with the hottest hand.
The sophomore shooting guard is averaging 15 points in his past four games and is shooting 66.7 percent (20-for-30) in that span. Thirty-seven of Heslip’s 42 baskets this season have been 3-pointers. He made six of them against BYU and five in last week’s overtime victory against West Virginia in Las Vegas.
Heslip leads the Big 12 with an average of 3.08 3-pointers per game.
That the 6-foot-2 Heslip has been able to make such a big contribution this quickly is somewhat remarkable, considering he hadn’t played a single minute of college basketball prior to this season. Heslip redshirted at Boston College in 2009-10 before transferring to Baylor and sitting out last year.
He said playing for Canada’s senior men’s national team over the summer helped prepare him for his first year at Baylor.
“I’d been waiting for so long,” said the 180-pound Heslip, who has lost 24 pounds since arriving in Waco. “I was nervous when I first got out there. I had jitters. But I got rid of them after a few games, and everything felt good again.”
Baylor had an effective 3-point shooter last season in senior LaceDarius Dunn, but the difference with Heslip is that he doesn’t take ill-advised, heavily-contested shots, which was a Dunn trademark.
With Heslip and point guard Pierre Jackson -- last year’s national junior college player of the year -- in the backcourt, the Bears have one of the most imposing guard tandems in the Big 12. Jackson averages 12 points a game and has made 19 of his 36 3-pointers (52 percent).
Backups A.J. Walton (last year’s starter) and Gary Franklin (a Cal transfer) give Baylor’s backcourt almost as much depth as its frontcourt, which features future first-round draft picks Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller along with veterans Quincy Acy and Anthony Jones.
“We’ve got a lot of guards, a lot of bigs,” Heslip said. “We’re a really deep team. I don’t know if anyone has as much chemistry as we do right now. We’re so close off the court that it translates on the court. If you’re just around us for a day you’ll see that we’re a tight-knit bunch of guys.”
Baylor’s cohesion will need to be on display more than ever tonight against Mississippi State. Even though Baylor touts victories over formidable opponents such as BYU, St. Mary’s, San Diego State, Northwestern and West Virginia, the Bears have yet to defeat an opponent in the Top 25.
Just like Baylor, the Bulldogs boast one of the nation’s top frontcourt rotations with Arnett Moultrie, Renardo Sidney and Wendell Lewis. Small forward Rodney Hood is regarded as one of the nation’s top freshmen, and senior point guard Dee Bost is one of the country’s best players at his position.
“They match up with us well,” Heslip said. “They’ve got a lot of size on the front line. They’ve got some fast guards that can shoot the ball and score the ball. They’re the same kind of team as us. It’s going to be a battle.”
With Heslip on the court, Baylor likes its chances.
Prediction: Baylor 80-74
The Baylor-Mississippi State game is far from the only marquee matchup on tap for tonight. Here’s a quick rundown of some other can’t-miss -- or, at the very least intriguing -- games:
No. 12 Georgetown at No. 4 Louisville: The Cardinals are 12-0, but they haven’t faced a team anywhere near as good as Georgetown. The 10-1 Hoyas’ only loss is against Kansas. Louisville struggled in its past two games against College of Charleston (69-62) and Western Kentucky (70-60) but it could’ve been because it was playing down to its competition. Not many teams in the country play as hard and defend as well as Louisville, and not many are as well coached. The Cardinals also boast one of the country’s toughest road venues in the KFC Yum! Center. The biggest question is whether Louisville is talented enough to match up with Georgetown standouts such as Jason Clark, Henry Sims, Otto Porter and Hollis Thompson. If the Cardinals can survive this one, the naysayers who question their gaudy ranking -- Louisville has played just one true road game (against Butler) -- will be silenced.
Prediction: Georgetown 61-58
No. 15 Indiana at No. 17 Michigan State: The undefeated Hoosiers became the feel-good story of the season when they toppled Kentucky on Christian Watford’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer back on Dec. 10. Indiana, though, will be hard-pressed to win in East Lansing without Will Sheehey and Verdell Jones III, both of whom are expected to miss the game with injuries. Jones and Sheehey average a collective 19.1 points and 4.9 assists. Michigan State dropped its first two games of the season to North Carolina and Duke but hasn’t lost since. The Spartans are physical as always in the paint and rank sixth in the country in rebounds. Senior forward Draymond Green averages a team-high 15.5 points.
Prediction: Michigan State 80-67
No. 1 Syracuse vs. Seton Hall: At 11-1, Seton Hall has been one of the Big East’s most surprising teams thus far. A victory over the top-ranked Orange is probably wishful thinking, but the Pirates might be good enough to at least make things interesting. No player in the conference -- and not many in the country -- has been as good this season as forward Herb Pope, who is averaging 20.3 points and 11.4 rebounds. And not many guards have improved as much as Jordan Theodore (15.8 points and 7.3 assists). Still, even though last week’s win at Dayton was impressive, Seton Hall has yet to play a ranked team, so shell-shock could set in against an experienced, deep Syracuse squad that is good enough to win the NCAA title.
Prediction: Syracuse 82-69
Missouri State at Creighton: Even with a 7-5 record, Missouri State will have a chance in every game it plays thanks to standout forward Kyle Weems (14.3 points, 7.3 rebounds). And it’s not as if Missouri State’s losses have come against lackluster opponents (Oral Roberts, New Mexico, Oklahoma State, St. Mary’s and West Virginia in overtime). Creighton and Doug McDermott, though, are tough to beat -- especially at home. The 10-1 Bluejays, who are ranked 19th, are one of the top mid-major teams in all of college basketball.
Prediction: Creighton 85-74