MANHATTAN, Kan. — For years he has been hailed as a future NBA lottery pick. Baylor’s Perry Jones III is a phenom, professional scouts have said, an athletic freak.
Lately, though, the 6-foot-11 forward whom some have labeled as the most talented player in America has heard a new set of adjectives to describe his game.
“Every day someone asks me, ‘Is Perry going to get any tougher?’” Bears coach Scott Drew said. “I think he answered that question tonight.”
Indeed, in one of the most intense games of the college basketball season to date, Jones put on his best scowl and muscled up when Baylor needed him most in a 75-73 victory over Kansas State at Bramlage Coliseum.
Jones scored a team-high 17 points, but his biggest moment came when he fought off K-State forward Jamar Samuels to rebound a missed 3-pointer by teammate Brady Heslip with 26 seconds remaining and Baylor leading 74-73. Jones was immediately fouled, and he split a pair of free throws to give the Bears a two-point cushion.
Drew couldn’t help but scream and pump his fist when time expired after Kansas State failed to score on its final possession. At 16-0, fourth-ranked Baylor remains one of three undefeated teams in college basketball. And as for Jones, who snared a game-high 8 rebounds?
“No one can say he’s not tough now,” Baylor forward Quincy Acy said. “For people to call him soft ... he just [has] taken that and ran with it.”
In some ways, Baylor has, too.
Much like their All-America candidate, the Bears have spent much of the past two seasons listening to fans and pundits question their focus and heart. Last season they were ranked as high as ninth but floundered down the stretch and failed to make the NCAA tournament.
Even during the early portions of this season there were times when it seemed as though the Bears needed to develop a mean streak -- especially in the paint, where Baylor boasts one of the most talented front lines in college basketball with Jones, Acy and Quincy Miller. Getting outrebounded by undersized squads such as BYU was inexcusable.
“It seems like every time we’re picked to lose, it’s because we’re not tough enough,” Jones said.
No. 18 Kansas State -- which was fresh off a blowout of then-unbeaten Missouri -- probably begs to differ after Tuesday.
Much like Baylor, Frank Martin’s squad boasts excellent size and depth in the paint, and the Wildcats are regarded yearly as one of the country’s most physical teams. But Kansas State outrebounded Baylor by only 28-26 on Tuesday, and the Bears outscored the Wildcats 36-32 in the paint.
Acy, though, said Baylor’s mental toughness -- and not the physical kind -- is the biggest reason for the Bears’ 16-0 start.
“Tough isn’t about going out and elbowing someone,” Acy said. “It’s about how you respond in certain situations when the crowd is against you. We’ve done a good job of persevering.”
A year ago, Baylor was 3-10 in games played outside of Waco, Texas. This season, the Bears are 7-0 in road and neutral-site games. Their points per game (65.8 to 73.1) and field-goal percentage (42.3 to 49.2) in those contests have improved dramatically from season to season.
Four of Baylor’s past five victories -- against BYU, West Virginia, Mississippi State and Kansas State -- have been decided by three points or less. None of those games were in Waco.
That’s poise, that’s toughness. Especially considering the added pressures that come along with being undefeated.
“We have a target on our back,” Jones said. “We’re getting everyone’s A-game. It’s difficult, but it feels a lot better than losing, definitely.”
The reasons Baylor is playing with more moxie are plentiful. With a 10-man rotation, BU has one of the deepest benches in America. Fresh legs and spirits are always a good replacement for a worn-down teammate who is upset with himself because of a turnover or missed shot.
The Bears also have two strong tone-setters in Acy and junior-college transfer Pierre Jackson, a point guard who had 11 assists Tuesday. Jackson’s fearlessness and spunk -- he often lets out a “Woooo!” after a big play -- have been infectious to his teammates, many of whom are beginning to take on his swagger.
Acy is the senior veteran who has reveled in the glory of advancing to the Elite Eight and felt the disappointment of missing the NCAA tournament one year later.
“We try not to pay too much attention to [our rankings],” Acy said. “Last year we got a little fame and we got embarrassed a couple of times. I stressed to the guys that we shouldn’t get caught up in the rankings and all that. Every game, we’ve got to play like we’ve got something to lose, like we have a target on our back.”
The Bears certainly did against Kansas State, when they trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half. Baylor fought back and trailed by only two at intermission.
Numerous Baylor players came up with clutch plays in the second half of a game that featured six ties and 10 leads changes.
Moments after K-State’s Will Spradling hit a 3-pointer to put his team ahead 63-62, freshman Miller responded with a 3-pointer on the other end to help Baylor regain the lead and quiet the crowd.
Soon after, KSU looked as though it may pull away when Henriquez swished a pair of foul shots that made it 71-67, but Heslip did a nice job of drawing contact on the Bears’ ensuing possession. He went to the free-throw line and made it a two-point game again.
“Guys didn’t get mad at each other,” Jones said. “We still played basketball the way we know how to play. When we see someone down we say, ‘C’mon, we’ve got to do this for 40 minutes. We’ve got to grind. There’s no time for sulking.’”
Acy scored five consecutive points -- four of which came as a result of his own steals -- to turn a 71-69 deficit into a 74-71 lead. A basket by Kansas State’s Rodney McGruder made it 74-73 with 2:04 remaining.
The only other point of the game came on Jones’ free throw with 20 seconds remaining following his heroic rebound.
Kansas State still had a chance to win or force a tie, and it looked as though it would happen when freshman point guard Angel Rodriguez broke free for what appeared to be an easy layup. But at the last moment, Baylor’s A.J. Walton ripped the ball away from Rodriguez with 3 seconds remaining.
The ball sailed out of bounds, and the Wildcats’ hopes died moments later when Acy got a hand on Rodriguez’s high-arching entry pass to Samuels and batted toward the other end of the court. Time expired as Kansas State chased down the loose ball.
“We assumed they were going to throw a lob because of the time,” Acy said. “They had run that play a couple of other times earlier in the game. I was fortunate to tip it and let the clock run out.”
Martin, whose team fell to 12-3 overall and 1-2 in Big 12 play, couldn’t have been more dejected after the game, mainly because the Wildcats had 20 turnovers.
“The guys wearing our uniforms threw the ball to the guys wearing their uniforms so they could go down and dunk,” Martin said. “For us not to protect our home court and not close this game out because of a comedy of plays is embarrassing.”
The win was easily Baylor’s biggest of the season -- and possibly one of the monumental of the Scott Drew era. Bramlage Coliseum is regarded as one of the toughest places to play in the country. Other than Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse, the Bears won’t encounter a louder, more difficult road environment all season.
Drew also realizes his squad beat an exceptional team in Kansas State, whose only two losses before Tuesday were to West Virginia (in overtime) and Kansas.
“I’d put them up against anyone we’ve faced or up against any top-10 team in the nation,” Drew said. “They’re that good.”
People would’ve said the same thing about Baylor before Tuesday’s game. But now the narrative is different. Perry Jones and the Bears were always one of the nation’s most-talented teams.
Now they’re one of the toughest.