KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Baylor forward Perry Jones III began his postseason with a standing ovation. It came from teammates when he boarded the Bears' charter flight to Kansas City to begin preparations for Thursday's opening game in the Big 12 Tournament.
"That made me laugh. It made me happy," said Jones, a sophomore who saw his initial opportunity for postseason play eliminated last year by a six-game, NCAA suspension for accepting impermissible benefits. The penalty was handed down on the eve of the 2011 Big 12 Tournament, meaning Jones -- the most heralded recruit in Baylor history -- made his postseason debut Thursday in the Sprint Center.
More standing ovations will be in order, from teammates and Baylor fans, if he continues to produce throughout the postseason as he did in the Sprint Center during an 82-74 victory over Kansas State. Jones scored a career-high 31 points, grabbed a team-high 11 rebounds and played with a passion rarely seen from the 6-foot-11 Duncanville resident during his two seasons in Waco.
If he chooses to enter the 2012 NBA Draft -- a possibility Jones admits he is considering -- this postseason will mark his lone opportunity to showcase himself in the NCAA Tournament for No. 12 Baylor (26-6).
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The same is true for the Big 12 Tournament, where Jones said he "opened up my whole arsenal" of offensive possibilities against K-State (21-10), a team that limited him to four points and four rebounds during the teams' last meeting, a 57-56 victory by the Wildcats on Feb. 18.
But there were no limits Thursday for Jones or Baylor in a game the Bears controlled throughout the second half. Baylor built a 77-61 lead with 4:59 to play before coasting home against an opponent that has two victories this season over No. 5 Missouri. Jones, who received a pep talk from teammates before heading to Kansas City, took their advice to heart and said he "didn't want to come here and play unaggressive."
Too often, that has been the knock on Jones' efforts in big games. He's shown up timid and unproductive in losses this season to Kansas, Missouri (twice) and K-State.
The inconsistency landed him a spot on the third-team unit of the All-Big 12 team, as selected by league coaches, despite universal admiration of his skill set.
But there was nothing timid about Jones' first half against K-State, which included 21 points and eight rebounds. Jones made all eight shots he took from the field and finished 11 of 14 for the game. He looked like the NBA lottery pick he is projected to be.
If he keeps this up for the rest of the season, Baylor has a chance to win the Big 12 Tournament. And the one that follows. If not, the Bears easily could be bounced from the Big 12 Tournament tonight by No. 3 Kansas (27-5) and could fall victim to a more physical foe in the NCAAs.
That is why point guard Pierre Jackson plans to continue working on Jones' psyche throughout the postseason. The Bears need their best player performing at his peak in every game if they are to maximize their postseason opportunity.
"I think Perry's the best player in the nation," Jackson said.
"Once he gets his mindset right, he's hard to stop. I just hope he keeps it up. I'm going to keep feeding him positive thoughts, to try and keep his confidence up so he can go out and perform like that."
The Baylor team that made its postseason debut Thursday caught the attention of K-State coach Frank Martin.
"They're a Final Four-contending team," Martin said. "They came after us and knocked us down. And we really never punched back."
For once, the telling haymaker in a big game came from Jones. Martin urged him to keep swinging, regardless of the critics. Jones said he appreciated the advice.
"He told me that, no matter what anybody says, I should just play basketball and be me," Jones said. "Because I know what I've been through. And just use that as motivation to keep pushing and play my heart out. Because that's going to help me be successful."
It certainly worked Thursday. If Jones continues on the same path, his first postseason in a Baylor uniform may be one of the most memorable in school history.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760