Published November 08, 2013
DALLAS – Baylor finished last season celebrating the NIT championship.
The 25th-ranked Bears start this season close to where they would like to end it — in North Texas, where the NCAA Final Four will be played five months from now.
Baylor takes on former Big 12 rival Colorado on Friday night in the nightcap of a season-opening tripleheader at the Dallas Mavericks' home arena in downtown Dallas. That is about 20 miles from the Dallas Cowboys' massive stadium that will host the Final Four in April.
"Everybody identifies, everybody realizes and knows the importance and significance of those two places, and wants to play in venues like that," Bears coach Scott Drew said. "I know our players are really excited."
Oklahoma plays Alabama in the opener, with Dallas-Fort Worth teams SMU and TCU meeting in the middle game.
SMU returns all five starters, and each played more than 32 minutes a game in Larry Brown's first season. But the Mustangs have added so much depth that they aren't settled yet on a starting five for this season. Three talented transfers are available, along with a highly touted group of freshmen.
"That's going to be our biggest challenge, is to find out what guys play well together," Brown said. "Right now, we have 12 kids, I think all can play a little bit. We've got to find which guys make each other better, and which five guys will defend and rebound and share the ball the best."
TCU goes into coach Trent Johnson's second season without injured big men Devonta Abron and Aaron Durley, both out for the year. The Horned Frogs did add a quartet of freshmen, led by 6-foot-10 center Karviar Shepherd.
Johnson said those freshmen "are going to have to play a lot of minutes for us to be successful, and play well." That quartet combined for 41 of the Frogs' 81 points and nearly 60 percent of the rebounds in their only exhibition game.
Alabama made it to the NIT quarterfinals last season and has averaged 23 wins the last three years. Coach Anthony Grant said the Crimson Tide, playing Oklahoma for the first time since New Year's Day 2007, have a good nucleus of eight or nine players.
Sooners coach Lon Kruger last year became the first coach to lead five different teams to the NCAA tournament. Oklahoma has only six returning players, including two seniors.
"Coming out of Friday, we'll have a much better idea of where we stand, and what we need to work on," Kruger said. "We've got a young group that's excited to play."
This will be Colorado's third Pac-12 season, and the Buffaloes are playing the Bears for the third consecutive season in that span. All of those games have been on a neutral court.
The Buffs won the Pac-12 conference tournament in 2012 and their first game in the NCAA tournament before losing 80-63 to Baylor. Colorado didn't have to wait long for another shot, and upset then-No. 16 Baylor 60-58 in the semifinal round of the Charleston Classic last November.
The Bears will have a new point guard after Pierre Jackson led the Big 12 in scoring and assists as a senior last season. The likely starter will be Kenny Chery. Like Jackson, he's a standout junior college transfer.
Baylor also will get an up-close look at the Final Four venue, when the Bears play top-ranked Kentucky there on Dec. 6.