After Sweet 16 run, Baylor’s Gathers ready to expand role
Published 11:34 pm Friday, August 15, 2014
By RYAN ARENA
WACO, Tex., — Standing at 6’8” and 270 pounds, Ricardo Gathers, it can be safely assumed, will never find himself bullied. Not off the basketball court, and certainly not on it, where the former Riverside Academy star has always made his presence known.
But upon arriving at Baylor, Gathers found himself in unfamiliar territory: for the first time, he wasn’t by far the biggest man on his own team, forming a frontcourt with the 7’1” Isaiah Austin and the 6’9” Cory Jefferson.
Practices, Gathers said, often presented a greater challenge than the games themselves.
“Our practices were more physical (than games), really, when you consider how games are officiated,” Gathers said. “I had the luxury of having a 7’1” player with a 7’6” wingspan on my side. But in practices, going against (Austin) made me better. I never had to play against anyone that much taller than me. It forced me to better my game, use a pump fake or develop a different release around the basket.
“And (Jefferson) is just freakishly athletic. We went at each other hard. A lot of trash talk, a whole lot of physicality. It was really competitive.”
Baylor boasted one of the most talented frontcourts in America last season, helping to propel the Bears to an appearance in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Baylor scored decisive victories over Nebraska and Creighton before bowing out to eventual national semifinalist Wisconsin, as Gathers and his teammates finished the 2013-14 season on a 12-3 run.
Gathers will have a different role next season. For two years, the former Louisiana Mr. Basketball has been a key reserve for coach Scott Drew’s squad. But with Jefferson and Austin now departed from the team, Gathers knows he’ll carry a much greater responsibility, as a starter and the team’s top returning big man.
“(Drew) has been telling me he needs me to come in and lead,” Gathers said.
Gathers said Drew has set some specific statistical goals for him to reach. Sixty percent shooting from the field and 80 percent from the foul line are the ultimate aims from an efficiency standpoint.
“And rebounding,” Gathers said. “That’s the most important thing.”
Already, he’s made a big impact in that column. Gathers averaged 14.4 rebounds per 40 minutes last season. He ranked in the top 10 nationally of both offensive and total rebounds per minute, backing up his reputation as a high energy, impact player off the bench. Gathers averaged 6.4 points and 6.4 rebounds in 17.8 minutes per game last season.
“I hear people ask, ‘How can he go from being the man (at the high school level) to being a contributor (off the bench)?’ But that’s what it is at the college level. When you join a team where everyone can go out and score, what can you do to stand out and help your team win games? For me, it’s been rebounding.”
The Bears made their Sweet 16 run last season, but for a time it looked like Gathers and his teammates may not have had the opportunity. After beginning the season 12-1, the Bears fell into a slump early in Big 12 play, losing eight of its first 10 conference games.
“You start losing and you just keep wondering when you’ll get that win to snap out of it,” Gathers said. “We lost five in a row and it just wouldn’t come, and then we went to Oklahoma State.”
On the road facing off against top prospect Marcus Smart and the then-No. 8 ranked team in the country, Gathers scored 14 points and grabbed six rebounds off the bench to help lift Baylor to a much-needed 76-70 victory.
Baylor lost their ensuing two games against ranked Kansas and Oklahoma teams, but followed with a decisive win over TCU.
From there, the Bears rolled. Baylor reached the Big 12 championship game before falling to Iowa State, then scored two NCAA Tournament wins as a No. 6 seed.
The signature win came in the round of 32. Baylor’s 85-55 victory over No. 3 seed Creighton was never truly in question after the Bears quickly built a commanding first-half lead.
“We played that game in San Antonio and I think that helped us grab the momentum,” Gathers said. “We came out and hit three or four straight 3’s and once we jumped on ‘em, we kept it going. It was exciting to get going like that and have everyone in your corner.”
That was a Creighton team led by eventual No. 11 overall NBA draft pick Doug McDermott. Gathers and Baylor faced six of the top 11 picks in the 2014 draft last season, including a 67-62 victory over No. 7 pick Julius Randle and eventual national finalist Kentucky.
In that game, Gathers perhaps put together his most impressive game as a collegiate performer, pulling down 13 rebounds and adding three steals in 22 minutes against Randle and a most imposing frontcourt.
Baylor will need more of that from Gathers if the Bears are to build on their 2014 success.
And Gathers, for one, believes it will happen.
“The expectations by the media and the outside world may not be as high,” he said, “but I definitely think we have what it takes to make that run to the Elite Eight or Final Four. We have everything we need. I know I have to step up, lead and make sure everyone’s on the same page.”