Rewind to Feb. 12. The Baylor Bears, featuring Aussie big man Jo Lual-Acuil Jr., are riding a three-game win streak, including an impressive victory against the No. 10-ranked Kansas Jayhawks. Big 12 rivals Texas stand between them and a fourth straight win, and the Bears trail the Longhorns by a point with 10 seconds to play in the second overtime period. After winning only two of their opening 10 games of the season, the Bears had finally looked like they were getting back on track. But this is a must-win game. A loss, and their hopes for a March Madness berth might very well be dashed.
Manu Lecomte, the Bears' senior point guard, has the ball at the top of the key, dribbling time off the clock. He waits for senior Terry Maston to clear the paint before exploding to his right and driving to the basket. But there's just one problem: Texas' freshman phenom and master shot-blocker Mo Bamba is under the basket, waiting for him. Lecomte notices him and in an attempt to avoid getting blocked, throws his layup attempt high off the glass. The ball bounces off the rim, and with Bamba out of position and unable to box out, Lual-Acuil slips right to the basket and throws down the putback dunk. The Bears escape with the W, their dreams of a March Madness berth still alive, and the Australian big man had played the role as the team's metaphorical defibrillator.
Entering this season, Lual-Acuil was considered one of the best interior defenders in the competition. He was a 2018 Preseason All-Big 12 honorable mention and had a lot of basketball scouts curious as to what he might be able to deliver. With only a handful of games left in league play, he has certainly exceeded many people's expectations. Lual-Acuil and his coaches, however, have always known how good he can be.
"I work on my game a lot," Lual-Acuil told ESPN. "Most of it comes down to the hard work that I put in. The rest is just how the coaches have been able to put me in a position to succeed. I'm also more comfortable with who I am, and spiritually I'm more in tune with my beliefs and I think [that translates to form] on the court."
Lual-Acuil may not be as dominant a shot-blocker statistically as he was last season, but his all-round game has improved dramatically. He has become much stronger on the boards, but also his low-post scoring has become much more effective -- elements of the game that bode very well for his career after college.
But all of this supreme talent and basketball potential almost never was. It took many things falling in place for Lual-Acuil to get where he is now.
Growing up, Lual-Acuil and his family fled war-torn Sudan for Uganda. From Uganda, they made their way to Perth, Western Australia, where Lual-Acuil would attend high school and eventually discover his love for basketball.
"I was always a soccer player," Lual-Acuil says. "My high school coach, he told me to just play [basketball] for the team one year, and then from there it pretty much just took off, and I ended up investing all of my time in it."
Lual-Acuil and his family moved to Melbourne after he graduated high school, and he was able to call on a familiar name to help him get to college. He contacted Jeremy Coombs, who would be his coach at Neosho County Community College.
"[Coombs] had connections with people in Australia. He knew David Patrick, and David Patrick was able to tell them to get me."
For those unfamiliar with David Patrick, he is the man who helped LSU to land Ben Simmons when he was an assistant coach with the Tigers. More recently, he has also recruited college players Lat Mayen and Kouat Noi to the TCU Horned Frogs, another Big 12 program, where he is currently an assistant coach.
After two successful years at Neosho County Community College, Lual-Acuil was recruited by Baylor, a school he had been wanting for years to attend. Lual-Acuil felt right at home from the moment he set foot on campus.
"I thought, and I still think, that it's great. I feel like if you're playing basketball, it's just a great school. You're around a lot of high-character guys who really want to invest time in helping you get better. I'm fortunate to be in this situation."
His tenure at Baylor didn't get off to a very smooth start, as a heart condition sidelined him for the entire 2015-16 season. Lual-Acuil didn't give up; instead, he decided to make the most of the situation. "[The year off] was great. I was really able to just focus on the game and observe from the sidelines. It was also a chance for me to get fitter and stronger and get my body right." He was able to do exactly that.
In his first season playing at Baylor, Lual-Acuil averaged 9.1 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in helping the Bears to earn the No. 3 seed in March Madness. After taking care of New Mexico State and USC in the first two rounds, however, the Bears fell to a gritty South Carolina team led by current Clippers guard Sindarius Thornwell. Despite not making it past the Sweet 16, Lual-Acuil remained positive about the experience.
Baylor closes gap with Omot's back-to-back jumpers
Nuni Omot works around the defense to make back-to-back jumpers, cutting West Virginia's lead in the second half.
"Everyone who plays college basketball has aspirations in playing in March Madness because that's when you can make the Final Four and play in the big games that are televised, so it was really fun. I really enjoyed it."
When asked what the Bears have to do to make some noise in March this year, Lual-Acuil's answer is simple.
"The biggest thing for us right now is honestly just focusing on trying to win these next games that we have left, and then once the tournament comes, there's always a Cinderella story in every tournament."
"Anybody can win it. That's why it's such a good tournament. Once we get there, we'll focus on it, but I have a lot of belief in this team, and I think that once we do get to that point in the season, we can really do a lot of damage."
Lual-Acuil's positivity is infectious. When he talks about his goals and aspirations for this season and beyond, it's almost impossible not to believe that he'll succeed. How can you possibly doubt him? This is a person who didn't have anything handed to him. He has worked for everything he has achieved, on the basketball court and off. He is the epitome a stellar student-athlete, always making sure to take advantage of all of the resources he has at Baylor; the biggest thing for Lual-Acuil, is to be able to look back at his collegiate career and not have any regrets.
It is because of this philosophy that he was able to graduate -- with a degree in Health Studies and Kinesiology -- in front of his parents, who had flown from South Sudan to watch him play for the first time as a Bear.
"That was a really big deal for me. I always told my mum that I was going to graduate so being able to achieve that, and have them there was a really big thing for me."
Through all of this, Lual-Acuil has also become a role model to many within the South Sudanese community in Australia. He has become one of the faces of success for that community.
"The biggest thing for me is just leading by example ... if I can do it, anybody can do it. If I'm here, then hopefully it gives everyone else hope that they can be here too."
Lual-Acuil and his Baylor Bears teammates have a mighty fight in front of them to make March Madness, but to rule them out would be to overlook the heart of their team and a 7-foot Australian senior. The Bears are hitting their peak at the right time of the season, despite two losses after extended their winning streak to five, and they will be a very tough beat for any team if they earn a spot in March Madness. Just ask Jo.