By: Austin Staton
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
The centennial season for Baylor's men's basketball program was not the typical celebration of a milestone.
The 2005-06 season was truncated. Sanctions imposed by the NCAA prohibited the Bears from playing a nonconference schedule. Baylor opened Big 12 Conference play by losing their first six games and finished with a 4-13 record. Not exactly the way to commemorate 100 years of hoops.
The positive aspect of the 2005-06 season was the foundation that was laid. Coach Scott Drew, who came to Baylor in 2003, landed the nation’s 11th-rated recruiting class according to Rivals.com. Guards Henry Dugat and Curtis Jerrells alongside power forward Kevin Rogers joined center Mamadou Dienne who had redshirted the previous season.
While that group endured a rookie season of growing pains, it formed the core of a team that is enjoying considerable success.
“My first year here was really tough basketball wise. We played against some really good teams so it was really difficult back then,” said Diene, the 2007-08 Big 12 Male Sportsperson of the Year. “We had the mentality of ‘what can I do not to lose.’ We didn’t have any hope during the games.”
That lack of hope turned into confidence last season. Just two seasons after their shortened schedule, the Bears reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1988.
“Our work ethic and staying positive through everything helped,” Jerrells said. “Knowing that things were not always equal for us back then helped us understand that life is not always fair and you have to learn how to deal with certain situations. Obstacles will always get in you way, you just have to get past them.”
The NCAA Tournament appearance gave Baylor a taste of success. This season, the Bears are ravenous. They have won eight of their first nine and earned a No. 21 ranking in The Associated Press poll.
Dugat credits players most fans have forgotten with helping show he and his classmates the way.
“Learning from guys like Aaron Bruce, Pat Fields and Tommy Swanson we saw how they cared about this program and we wanted to do what they did, but also take it to another level,” Dugat said. “I think that is what we are doing.
“(The program) has changed tremendously. But when we came in here, that is what we wanted to do, change the program around and bring it up where it was suppose to be. We wanted to play the best teams, but also to beat the best teams.”
Persevering through their trial by fire as freshmen helped bond the Baylor seniors.
“If a couple of us would have decided to go in different directions when everything happened, we wouldn’t have the team collectiveness like we do," said Jerrells, who leads Baylor in scoring with 15.9 points per game. "We know each other so well that it makes it so much easier to play on the basketball court.”
As they play their final seasons, Baylor's seniors realize it's time to pass the torch. Freshmen like Quincy Acy, Anthony Jones, Fred Ellis and Kendall Wright along with sophomore LaceDarius Dunn will be charged with maintaining the winning ways.
“When we first got here (the upperclassmen) talked a lot. Now I know what it is like. They were just trying to share their knowledge with me,” Jerrells said. “Now, I kind of do the same thing to the young guys. I kind of feel that sometimes I might be talking too much, but I am just trying to get a point across to get them to understand because I know what it is going to be like”
“The basketball IQ for the young guys is so high,” Rogers added. “The talent level that they have is definitely high and that is obvious from watching the games. It is easy to be a mentor to guys that want to learn.”
That is exactly what a coach wants to hear.
“For a coach it is extremely important from the standpoint that most of your successful teams all have that senior leadership," Drew said. "Every once in a while you will get one of those one and done or two and done players that are special leaders at a young age. But for most of us, it is always that senior leadership and that experience.
"The great thing about our seniors is that they have been through the tough times and they have also been through the good times. They want to make sure that we don’t go back to the bad times.”
No matter what this season brings, one of the seniors is celebrating a milestone. Diene, a native of Senegal, will become the first member of his family to earn a college degree. Hours after walking the stage at the Ferrell Center, Diene will then take the court against UT-Arlington becoming the first Baylor player to graduate and play a game on the same day.
“It has been a rollercoaster, but this is what we came here for,” Rogers said. “This is what we saw and this is what we wanted to do. We definitely knew that we had to be patient. For us to have to have that patience that we had as young guys and for it to now be finally paying off is something special. But we are not done yet. The season is still young.”