As expected, Creighton forward Doug McDermott dominated the media discussion in Saturday’s news conference at AT&T Center.
But if you’re looking for the player most likely to determine his team’s fate in Sunday’s Baylor-Creighton matchup in the NCAA Tournament (6:40 p.m., truTV), look past McDermott. The nation’s leading scorer (27.0 ppg) will make his presence felt, win or lose, in this matchup.
Instead, focus on Baylor point guard Kenny Chery. The junior college transfer from Canada has been the catalyst in helping the Bears (25-11) turn around their stagnant season and return to the NCAA Tournament.
For Baylor to get past Creighton (27-7) and advance to the Sweet 16, Chery will need to make some meaningful marks in all areas of the box score. Because the McDermott-led Bluejays have one of the few front lines in college basketball that can counteract Baylor’s typical advantage in the paint, the burden of proof in San Antonio figures to fall on the shortest player in either team’s starting lineup: Chery (5-foot-11, 180 pounds), a Montreal native who has taken his game to another level since returning from a midseason battle with turf toe.
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Much of Chery’s injury-related struggles overlapped the Bears’ 2-8 start in Big 12 play. It is no coincidence that, since Chery returned to the lineup after a three-game absence on Feb. 12, the Bears’ record is 11-2.
“Kenny Chery is kind of the X-factor for them,” said Creighton coach Greg McDermott, Doug’s dad. “When he’s making plays off that ball screen and scoring himself and making plays for his teammates, it just adds another element to go with what they already have inside. I’m very impressed with Baylor. Their play since the middle of February has been about as good as anybody in the country.”
During the Bears’ last 13 games, Chery has contributed 13.7 points per contest (2.2 above his season mark) while becoming a better floor general. He sees the game better, Chery said, because of things he learned about himself and his teammates during his time on the sideline.
Specifically, Chery learned better ways to get the ball to center Isaiah Austin and forward Cory Jefferson in favorable scoring spots on the floor. Both teammates’ offensive stats have increased since Chery’s epiphany.
“When you’re in the flow, you don’t get to see as much. But when you’re sitting on the bench, you get to see, ‘Oh, we should have made that pass’ or ‘I need to throw this lob at this time,’ ” Chery said Saturday. “Since I came back, I’ve got a better idea how to feed Isaiah and Cory. My timing with them is a lot better. I’d never played with taller big men as athletic as these guys. That’s one thing I had to adjust.”
Chery has done so without sacrificing his scoring ability. That brings a smile to Baylor coach Scott Drew, who acknowledged he erred by trying to let Chery play through his toe ailment instead of shutting him down and letting it heal. In the final two games of Baylor’s 2-8 slump, Chery combined for three points and zero assists in losses to Kansas and Oklahoma.
“In hindsight, if we had just kept him out for two weeks, it would have been better for the team,” Drew said. “He did a valiant job trying to be out there, but in those games he played, he wasn’t very effective. A healthy Kenny Chery makes us a much better team.”
After sitting out one game and most of two others, Chery has healed and refocused. During the Bears’ 11-2 run, he posted a season high for points (29) in a victory at Kansas State and a season best for assists (12) in a triumph over the NCAA-bound Wildcats in Waco. Plagued by foul trouble in Friday’s 74-60 victory over Nebraska, Chery knows he’ll need to contribute more than his eight-point, one-assist effort from that contest to carry Baylor back to the Sweet 16.
“Definitely,” Chery said. “What we’ve improved, the last few games, is giving the first punch. What needs to be improved is keep fighting to the end, no matter what happens. We’ve got to finish the game off.”
Baylor guard Gary Franklin said Chery has been an instant success as a team leader because he is vocal, basketball savvy and “a very good person” who quickly endeared himself to teammates. One example surfaced in the Bears’ home finale, when Chery texted Drew with a pregame request: He wanted Franklin, a senior, to take his spot in the lineup so Franklin’s parents could hear their son’s name announced as a starter on senior night.
“You don’t get that nowadays from most Division I athletes,” Drew said. “That just shows what type of people we’re blessed with and able to coach.”
Against Creighton, Chery will need to be front and center from the get-go if the Bears are to reach the Sweet 16 for a third time in their last three NCAA appearances (2010, 2012, 2014). As the catalyst of the Bears’ late-season surge, teammates have grown to expect nothing less.
“In big situations, Kenny knows how to make the right decisions,” forward Royce O’Neale said. “He always stays poised, whether he takes the tough shot or finds someone for an easy basket.”
If Chery can step up Sunday while playing in McDermott’s sizable shadow, the Bears will be headed to the Sweet 16.