After playing in small arenas at towns across the Midwest for two years, Baylor point guard Kenny Chery is eager for his first NCAA tournament experience.
Point guards are often the catalysts for teams that advance far in the NCAA tournament, and Chery wants to be that guy for the sixth-seeded Bears. Baylor will open West regional play against 11th-seeded Nebraska at 11:40 a.m. Friday at the AT&T Center in San Antonio.
“I just want to be the point guard this team needs,” Chery said. “That’s being a leader through tough times and good times. It’s my job to put guys in the right position and get it to them at the right time. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.”
Stepping in for all-Big 12 point guard Pierre Jackson, Chery has made a major impact for the Bears in his first year of Division I basketball after transferring from State Fair Community College in Sedalia, Mo.
Chery is averaging 11.6 points and ranks fourth in the Big 12 with five assists per game. His 87.3 free throw percentage matches Oklahoma State’s Phil Forte for the best in the league.
During Baylor’s season-ending surge, Chery has played his best basketball as he’s averaged 14.2 points and 5.8 assists to lead the team to a 10-2 record in the last 12 games. Most importantly, the Montreal native has provided great leadership to pull the Bears out of a midseason slump.
“That’s our general, and I tell him that before every game,” Baylor forward Isaiah Austin said. “He gets us going on the court and off the court in the huddles. He’s a loudmouth, he likes to talk a lot, and I love that about him. When you’re not in the right spot, he tells you. When someone isn’t going hard on defense, he tells the coach that we need to get somebody else in. He’s just a great leader to have on the court.”
The Bears saw how much they missed Chery’s leadership when he suffered a turf toe injury just before they played West Virginia on Jan. 28 at the Ferrell Center.
Chery tried to play against the Mountaineers, but had difficulty moving. That was most evident in the final seconds of the game when all-Big 12 guard Juwan Staten drove past him for the decisive basket in a 66-64 win over the Bears.
With Chery sitting out, the Bears managed to win pull off a road win over Oklahoma State. In double-digit losses to Kansas and Oklahoma, Chery tried to play but was ineffective as he scored just three points in 20 minutes in the two games as the Bears dropped to 2-8 in the Big 12.
“Credit Kenny for wanting to try to play and help the team,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “But I should have kept him out for two weeks. Not only did he not play well, the team wasn’t used to playing with him because he wasn’t practicing. It was a tough situation.”
With a great deal of treatment, Chery’s left toe began to improve as he started at point guard in Baylor’s 91-58 thrashing of TCU on Feb. 12. But in the next game, Chery showed he was back all the way as he recorded the sixth triple-double in program history with 20 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds in an 87-73 double-overtime win over Kansas State.
Since then, Chery has scored in double figures in nine of Baylor’s last 11 games, including a career-high 29 points in the rematch against Kansas State in a regular season-ending 76-74 win in Manhattan.
Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger saw how much Chery meant to the Bears when he collected 12 points and seven assists in a 78-73 win over the Sooners in the second round of the Big 12 tournament.
“Kenny makes a big difference,” Kruger said. “You’re always looking for someone to run the club, and he’s done a terrific job. Because of him they appear to be playing with a high level of confidence and trusting each other, especially in the last six weeks or so. They’re playing their best basketball right now.”
After experiencing how difficult it was to play with the toe injury, Chery is glad to have his mobility back. He believes he’s developed all areas of his game in the last month, and has become more secure in his leadership role.
“I can move better and be a better leader,” Chery said. “I’m confident that I can help my team on both ends of the floor compared to when I had that turf toe injury. Everybody was down on us, but we always kept our heads up and moved forward. Now we’re a sixth seed in the tournament, and we’re real confident.”
Though he felt considerable pressure taking over for Jackson at point guard, Chery has proven he can play point guard at a high level in the nation’s No. 1-ranked conference. Living far from his family in Montreal, the Baylor players and coaches have made him feel at home since the first day he stepped on campus.
“Seeing Pierre come here from junior college, I thought I could have the same success,” Chery said. “The coaches really loved me and my family loved them. When I came on my visit, the players welcomed me like I was part of the team, and that was real special.”
Drew knows more than anybody how much Chery has meant to the team. That’s been especially evident during Baylor’s late drive to the NCAA tournament after Chery recovered from his injury.
“Sitting out, Kenny gained perspective, and maybe the game slowed down a little bit while he was injured,” Drew said. “At the same time, he saw how much the team needed him and how much he could help. He’s probably had more confidence and the guys have encouraged him more. Our record reflects how we’ve been since he’s been back healthy.”