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Versatility has been key in Baylor's return to Sweet 16

A quick scan of Baylor's NCAA Tournament statistics reads like a misprint.

The leading scorer from the regular season, forward Perry Jones III, ranks sixth on the team -- at 4.5 points per contest -- during the Bears' run to tonight's Sweet 16 appearance against Xavier. Guard Brady Heslip has more than doubled his regular-season scoring pace during the season's biggest games (22.0 average in NCAA play).

Eight Bears are averaging double-digit minutes in the NCAA Tournament, with nonstarter Anthony Jones ranked third in tournament scoring (9.5 average) and fellow reserve A.J. Walton ranked fourth in minutes played (29). Both figures trump the numbers posted by forward Quincy Acy, the Bears' lone senior starter and team leader who has seen his minutes (23.5) and scoring average (5.5) diminish during March Madness.

Depending on what the Xavier defense throws at Baylor at 6:15 tonight in Atlanta, all of those numbers could spin 180 degrees. And all of that is by design, said coach Scott Drew, who will continue to lean on the team's versatility in efforts to carry Baylor (29-7) to the school's first Final Four appearance since 1950.

"A lot of teams might play just six or seven guys this time of year. We have the ability to go deeper than that," Drew said. "Our depth is our biggest strength. But it can become your biggest weakness if you become selfish."

That has not happened. Instead, two former starters -- Anthony Jones and Walton -- have embraced their bench roles despite being upperclassmen. The three frontcourt starters -- Acy, Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller -- have accepted playing fewer minutes when Drew leans on his three-guard set for extended stretches.

Drew anticipates more of the same as he continues to tweak lineups in pursuit of favorable defensive matchups and fresh legs in the second halves of tournament games.

"You've got give all the credit to the players ...for putting the team first," Drew said. "In some games, people play more because we play a certain defense. Other games, they don't play as much because we play a different defense. It's not that we don't trust them or they can't help us. It's just what the game plan and matchups dictate."

In each of the Bears' NCAA games, a defensive switch turned the momentum. When Baylor dug an early deficit against South Dakota State, a move to a three-guard set and a man-to-man defense helped the Bears erase a 12-point deficit en route to a 68-60 victory. Against Colorado, a second-half switch to a zone defense -- leaning heavily on three bigs under the basket -- cooled the Buffaloes' shooting touch during an 80-63 triumph.

The fact that Baylor can win with either blueprint makes this team a more viable threat to reach the Final Four than the 2010 team that lost to Duke in the Elite Eight, said players who were part of both squads.

"It would be a tough game, but I'd pick this team over that team," said Walton, a defensive stopper who lost his starting job to point guard Pierre Jackson at midseason. "Our depth is better. We have players who are all in for the team. We don't fuss about who's playing or who's not. It's a pretty good thing to have teammates who will sacrifice their playing time for somebody else who is fresh to come in and do their part."

That trait runs up and down the roster, said Anthony Jones, a 2008 starter who has started only seven games this season.

"Everybody plays selfless. Everybody is there for each other," Anthony Jones said. "That's the beauty of this team ...From the bench, I see a lot of things that people out there on the court don't see. So during timeouts, I try to help the guys out who are out there on the court. They do the same for me when I'm out there."

How flexible are these Bears? Baylor has used five starting lineups this season. Six players have led the team in scoring. It has made for a "different vibe" than in 2010, said Acy, a key contributor on both squads.

"Back then, it was spectacular just to get there," Acy said of a Sweet 16 appearance. "This year, it's what we worked for. It's what we expected ...Our first goal was to win a Big 12 championship. But we didn't get that. Now, there's only one more goal. And that's to win the national championship. I think guys have really bought into it. I think we can do it if we continue to defend and to execute."

The next step comes tonight against Xavier (23-12). Walton said he likes the way this team has bonded down the stretch.

"Everything has been flowing," Walton said. "We play for each other. We're going to keep playing how we've been playing and keep winning."

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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