With court reminder, Bears aim for Houston

July, 20, 2010
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo didn't hide from talking about the Spartans playing in Detroit for the 2009 Final Four.

Last summer, Purdue upperclassmen were well aware of the chance to play in Indianapolis for the 2010 Final Four.

So Baylor coach Scott Drew doesn't have to say anything about Houston being the home for the 2011 Final Four.

The Bears are embracing the possibility, so much so that they just finished nearly two months of playing on the same Houston court that they reached the Elite Eight on last March.

Baylor rented the basketball surface from Reliant Stadium after a storm damaged the court at the school's Lt. Jack Whetsel Practice Facility. The Waco Tribune reported this month that the Bears had to get approval from the NCAA to use the floor, and the logos from the other South Regional teams (Duke, Saint Mary's and Purdue) were removed.

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Baylor Bears and Duke Dlue Devils
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesWill the Bears and Blue Devils meet again in Houston?

"The guys played on it every day in open gym,'' Drew said. "We had such great memories in Houston with most of the 47,000 fans supporting us.''

Drew said having the players play on the Reliant Stadium floor added to the chatter among the returning players -- and newcomers like highly touted big man Perry Jones -- that reaching Houston was a realistic goal.

"The upperclassmen are talking about it with the new guys,'' Drew said. "It was a great experience. Most of the recruits we have saw that game. They saw the great turnout. And now to have a Final Four in your state -- this is a dream for an athlete.''

So Baylor is not about to ignore the elephant in the room. Talking about the Houston Final Four will be an issue throughout the fall.

"You can't escape it,'' Drew said. "Especially for Anthony Jones [a rising junior from Houston], he's talking about it a lot.''

Drew said the original plan for the Dec. 18 game against Gonzaga was to try to play it in Houston as another possible prep. But the game instead will be played in Dallas at American Airlines Center.

The Bears also play host to Arizona State in the Pac-10/Big 12 Hardwood Series and are, alongside Butler, one of the two main draws at December's Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii (the rest of the field includes Florida State, Mississippi State, Washington State, Utah, San Diego and Hawaii). BU also drew two Big Monday assignments: against Kansas at home and at Kansas State on back-to-back weeks.

But to make all of this hype matter -- one scribe I know has Baylor in his top five -- the Bears have to replace Tweety Carter and Epke Udoh and still be fortunate enough to win four games in advance of Houston.

That puts a load of pressure on Jones to deliver on his hype and on LaceDarius Dunn to be even more of a go-to scoring guard. The good news is that the vibe with the Bears continues to be strong. No longer does Baylor have to seek out ways to be relevant. For example, Dunn is playing this week for the elite U.S. Select Team in Las Vegas against the U.S. National Team.

Jones and Quincy Acy are also heading to the Adidas Nations tournament for more prep work against elite competition this summer.

The Bears are also working on an appeal to get former Boston College guard Brady Heslip eligible for this season. Heslip is a shooter by trade but is working on his defensive skills while playing for his native Canada this summer. He went to BC at mid-semester last year on the promise that the staff would be in place. He didn't play and would have been eligible for the Eagles this fall. But the staff was fired and the incoming staff wasn't interested in keeping him, so Heslip pursued other options.

He landed at Baylor and the school is preparing an appeal. As it stands, Heslip would have to sit out the entire season and lose a year of eligibility. Drew said BC is supporting Heslip's right to play this season and the hope is that under the rare circumstances he'll be granted his immediate eligibility. If he is, Drew would have a shooter off the bench.

Speaking of Drew, having him stay put the last two offseasons was a win-win for both him and the program. He shied away from pursuing openings at Memphis, Clemson and DePaul over the last two seasons and now stability is in place.

So what's next for his program? Last season's run to the Elite Eight (and a gutty loss to the eventual champ Duke) was proof that Baylor has arrived. Reach the Final Four down state in Houston and the program would be elevated beyond anyone's reality.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer



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