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Cory Jefferson, Baylor could pose surprising challenge for Big 12 frontrunners

A more aggressive, assertive presence on the court helped elevate Cory Jefferson's game significantly. (Cooper Neill/Getty Images) A more aggressive, assertive presence on the court helped elevate Cory Jefferson's game significantly. (Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

In the days leading up to an important March home game against Kansas, Cory Jefferson had a conversation that changed him. Jefferson’s mindset wasn’t where he needed it to be, but after speaking with a close friend, something clicked. From that point on, Jefferson made an effort to be more aggressive, more assertive, whenever he took the court.

After scoring 25 points, grabbing seven rebounds and blocking three shots in Baylor’s 81-58 pasting of the Jayhawks, Jefferson realized how important a simple shift in mental approach could be for his basketball future. “I just needed to be more aggressive,” Jefferson says. “That’s the main thing I wanted to focus on in every game near the end of the season.”

The change stuck. Jefferson saved his best basketball for the Bears’ five-game run to the NIT championship, where he averaged 21 points, posted offensive ratings of 153 and 159 in the semifinals and finals, respectively (according to Kenpom.com), and continued his stellar work on the defensive end. Baylor may have finished its season, disappointedly, on the outside looking in when it came to the NCAA tournament, but Jefferson headed into the offseason with more momentum and confidence in his abilities than he’s had since coming to Waco four years ago.

Jefferson was ready to blossom.

Months later, a mentally rewired Jefferson was one of 12 American collegians chosen to represent Team USA in Kazan, Russia for the World University Games. Creighton’s Doug McDermott, Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell and Louisville’s Luke Hancock were among some of the team’s more recognizable members; Jefferson might not have been considered one of USA’s key contributors heading into the tournament, but there was little doubt about his abilities afterward. Jefferson blocked a team-high nine shots and finished with averages of 21.6 minutes per game (fourth most on the team), 10.5 points and nine rebounds per game. His performance was raved about throughout the tournament, even as it came in the midst of a disappointing ninth-place finish.*

In Jefferson’s view, the World University Games were merely an extension of the string of impressive performances he had during the NIT. It gave him the confidence to know the change in attitude he credits for his late-season bloom had become a permanent fixture of his gameday mentality. After distinguishing himself amongst a feted group of college stars, Jefferson knew he wasn’t going back to his old self.

“Cory had a tremendous close to the season, and this summer did a tremendous job playing with the World University Games team,” says Baylor coach Scott Drew. “I think his confidence from last season and this summer will carry over.”

The early Big 12 frontrunners in 2013 are well-established: Kansas, thanks to its signing of highly-touted freshman Andrew Wiggins, and Oklahoma State, thanks to the return of All-American point guard Marcus Smart, are expected to wage a fierce two-team battle for the conference championship. Mid-tier teams such as Iowa State and West Virginia, meanwhile, will be tough outs on a nightly basis. “I think it will be one of the better years in the Big 12,” Drew says.

Baylor has what it takes to enter the league championship discussion. Returning big man Isaiah Austin, Ricardo Gathers and Jefferson, freshmen Ishmail Wainright and Allerik Freeman (Denver transfer Royce O’Neale, who could play significant minutes, has not heard back from the NCAA on the undergraduate hardship waiver he applied for to play this season), and junior college transfer Kenny Chery give the Bears one of the most talented rotations in the conference. And depending on how much you believe in superstition, the Bears -- who have alternated NCAA Tournament appearances with either NITs or no postseason going back to 2007-08 -- are right on schedule for another NCAA birth.

“With the team we have, I definitely like how we’re looking and how everybody is coming together,” Jefferson says. “I definitely think we’re capable of accomplishing a lot of things.”

Without a strong season from Jefferson, Baylor will be good. With the aggressive, locked-in, mentally-sharpened Jefferson that emerged last March playing his best basketball on both ends of the floor, the Bears’ trajectory is much more promising.

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