Fancy Pace gave Baylor men’s head basketball coach Scott Drew advice she knew would break her son’s heart.
The Bears had given her son, former Killeen standout Cory Jefferson, a taste of the NCAA Tournament in his first season of college basketball. She knew how hungry he was to have an even better sophomore season.
But, Drew was going to ask Jefferson to put that season off a year, wanting him to redshirt the 2010-11 season. The Baylor coach asked Pace how she would approach her son with the option.
“‘Be direct with him and let him know. Give him the pros and cons,’” Pace told Drew. “The pros outweighed the cons. Although, he would have to stay out, sit out, which was really hard for him because he really wanted to play.”
After waiting out the redshirt season and playing limited minutes last season behind three players currently in the NBA, Jefferson, now a junior at Baylor, is finally having a rewarding and impactful season.
Jefferson, a 6-foot-9 forward who’s averaging 12.1 points a game as Baylor’s third-leading scorer, ranks second in the Big 12 in field goal percentage (58.6) and blocks (1.97 per game), and fourth in rebounds per game (8.3). He’s also had 10 double-doubles this season.
“I just wanted to be in there. Just saw it (the waiting) as something that I have to endure and work through and I finally made it,” Jefferson said.
Baylor (18-14, 9-9 Big 12 Conference) has reached the NCAA Tournament three of the last five years and looks for its fourth appearance in 25 years when the tournament’s 68 teams are announced today on CBS at 5 p.m.
The Bears, who reached the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight last season for the second time in three years, bolstered their chances for a return to the national championship tournament with their big win over then-No. 3 Kansas in the final game of the regular season. But, they have been inconsistent all year and are considered a long-shot to make the national championship tournament.
Jefferson scored 10 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the Bears’ 74-72 loss to No. 14 Oklahoma State in a Big 12 Tournament quarterfinal on Thursday, a game Baylor needed to win to give itself a better chance to make the NCAA Tournament. Now, more than likely, the Bears will be bound for the National Invitational Tournament.
“We haven’t really played to our ability like everybody wanted to, but we still have our chance to do what we’re trying to do,” Jefferson said. “We’re just going to keep on doing it until it’s over.”
A chance to improve
Jefferson accepted a bit-part role in the Bears’ first run to the Elite Eight as a true freshman.
In 21 games during the 2009-10 season, he averaged less than five minutes, two points and two rebounds a game. He played in Baylor’s Sweet 16 win over Saint Mary’s before the Bears lost to eventual national champion Duke the next round, one game shy of making the Final Four.
“I was ready to come back and help the team the next season (as a sophomore). I was planning on breaking out and everything,” said Jefferson, who was a three-year starter and one-time all-state selection at Killeen and committed to Baylor before his junior season.
“I felt like I had gotten better since my freshman year, I wanted to show everybody how much I had improved and (Drew) came to me, asked if I wanted to redshirt and that’s why it was so tough to do. But, at the same time, I knew that if I did go through with the redshirt year, then it would pay off.”
He practiced and traveled with the team and worked in the kitchen and weight room to build muscle and add weight. Weighing just 170 pounds coming out of Killeen High School, Jefferson was pushed around by the big men of college basketball his freshman season.
“I think it has had everything to do with it. It’s easier being out there against everybody else, all the other big men,” said Jefferson, who now tips the scale at 215. “I was always under size, weight-wise, way undersized and they just liked to push me around. Now, I can actually play out there and hold my own while I’m on the court.”
Even though he worked to be better during his redshirt season, sitting out never became easy.
“There were times when they’d go into halftime and I noticed he would not come out with the rest of them. I felt that he was going through an issue then. He couldn’t come out and get on the court, so he took a minute to come back out,” Pace said. “Once, I went up to have lunch with him and he teared up a bit because it’s in his heart to play ball.”
Playing behind three players that were drafted in the first two rounds of the NBA Draft last summer (Perry Jones III, Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller), Jefferson played less than 11 minutes a game as a redshirt sophomore and averaged 3.6 points and 2.6 rebounds a game.
Jefferson took the reserve role in stride, just as he did as a freshman.
“I just wanted to be out there on the floor — offense, defense, wherever it was,” Jefferson said. “I just wanted to finally get a chance to play on the court.”
Jefferson’s started all 32 games for the Bears this season and has more than twice as many points (386) and rebounds (265) this year than in 55 games in his first two years (148 points, 115 rebounds). He’s scored at least 10 points in 20 of 32 games this season, including four 20-point games and is fifth in Baylor history with 109 career blocks, including 63 this season.
“Cory’s improved a lot. Playing behind three pros, you ain’t got no choice but to get better,” Pierre Jackson said following Baylor’s 81-58 win over Kansas on March 9.
Should Jefferson opt to forego his senior season at Baylor, many mock draft boards have him getting picked up in the middle-to-late second round of June’s 2013 NBA Draft. But, Jefferson is in no rush to make that decision, yet.
“Everything’s focused on finishing up this year and doing the best that we can,” Jefferson said.
He has bided his time patiently to get to this point, Jefferson and his mom are not in a hurry for it to be over.
“This year when he came out, he had a break-out season. He realized, again, as the commentators say often, he had to play behind the other bigs, they’re finally gone, now he gets his turn to shine. And, he really did shine,” Pace said. “ It’s been great. Everything hasn’t been a bed of roses, but it’s been great. The season as a whole, it’s been great.”