The Baylor Bears are trying something new. They're taking Wednesday off, save for a tune-up practice in Kansas City. They've earned it. The third-seeded Bears have a bye for for the first time in the 14 years of the Big 12 tournament.
When the Bears (24-6) open play Thursday night against the Texas-Iowa State winner (and how many Baylor fans would love to see the Bears go for a three-peat of the Horns?), it will begin the final countdown for senior point guard Tweety Carter.
Carter, A 5-11, do-it-all dynamo from Reserve, La., has had a spectacular final season, averaging 15.8 points and leading the conference with 6.3 assists. He's increased his scoring by 5.2 points over last season and has dished out 150 more assists. He's shooting 39 percent from beyond the 3-point arc, always his specialty, but he's also now a significant threat inside the arc. He also brings a tenacious energy at the other end of the floor in the Bears' 2-3 zone defense.
Thursday's game will be Carter's 126th in a Baylor uniform, more than anyone who has come before him, and he ranks in the top 10 of 11 major career categories. With two more wins, Carter will lead the Bears to a single-season school record of 26 victories.
"Tweety is somebody who came in a great scorer and now will leave a great point guard and a great defender," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. "We know how valuable he’s been, and I think most people across the league know how good he is."
Carter, hard-working and highly likable, and junior sharpshooter LaceDarius Dunn, Baylor’s leading scorer at 19.2 points game, comprise the most explosive backcourt in the Big 12, capable of combining for 50 points or more on any given night.
"You’re always going to consider yourself the best, but me and Lace just come out and play hard every night," Carter said. "We let our play allow us to be better than people thought we were going to be."
Said Drew: "We don’t know if they're the most talented, but we know we wouldn’t trade them for anybody in the country. We love them as basketball players and we love them as people. They’ve done a tremendous amount for our program."
After a disappointing Big 12 season a year ago on the heels of the ballyhooed 2008 NCAA tournament berth, Baylor regrouped in the conference tournament, making it all the way to the title game. With an automatic bid on the line, the weary Bears fell to Missouri and settled for the NIT.
They took full advantage, barnstorming to New York City and an appearance in the NIT title game. As often happens with teams that make spirited runs in the NIT, Baylor will jump into the NCAA tournament next week. Few outside the program figured it would happen. With three starters graduating and no one certain that 6-10 transfer Ekpe Udoh would make such a significant impact at both ends, Baylor garnered little respect heading into the season. It was picked 10th in the preseason by the conference's coaches.
But then in nonconference play, the Bears beat Xavier, Arizona State, Arkansas and South Carolina. It wasn't until Baylor took Kansas down to the wire at Allen Fieldhouse that the Big 12 recognized the Bears as a direct threat.
"I knew we had a good team. A lot of people didn't know that," Carter said. "We lost three of our key players and I think a lot of people doubted us, but we stayed together as a team, we worked hard and we believe in each other that we can do a lot of good things."
The Bears never lost a game this season by more than seven points, something no other NCAA Division I team in the nation can say, according to the Baylor media relations department.
If Baylor gets past Texas or Iowa State, it could get a rematch in the semifinals against Kansas State, which won by two points in a gut-wrencher in Waco. And of course, No. 1 Kansas sits in the opposite bracket as a potential championship game matchup.
Baylor beat the top-seeded Jayhawks in last season's quarterfinal round on its way to the final.
"We'll take it one game at a time, go out there and compete like we have been all season and stay together," Carter said. "This team will come ready to play every game. As long as we keep doing that we can compete with anybody."