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Blanchette: Brett Bailey rediscovers stroke for Toreros

Former University Titans standout Brett Bailey is having a banner season for the Toreros. (Photo courtesy of Brock Scott)

There is no award for most improved player in the West Coast Conference, which is either an oversight or acknowledgment that the league needs to put multiple teams in the NCAA tournament just to pay the engraver.

Player of the year, naturally. Coach, newcomer and defensive player – all honored. A 10-man all-league team, five more on a second team. An all-freshman team.

But no most improved.

And this year it saves a little heartache, because if anything the WCC is the most-improved league – not so much collectively, but individually.

Big Jock Landale of Saint Mary’s has more than doubled his modest averages – 7.9 points, 3.9 rebounds – of a year ago. Chris Reyes averaged 2.6 points last year at Utah and 14.7 now as a graduate transfer at Pepperdine. Mission returnee Eric Mika of BYU is seven rebounds short of averaging a double-double and hadn’t even played for two years.

Ladies and gentlemen, your first through third runners-up.

The most improved of the most improved? It’s Brett Bailey. Hey, if you’re not hung up on semantics, you could even call him the comeback player of the year. In any case, you won’t recognize him.

OK, you might.

He did, after all, fill it up at University High School – all-state, twice Greater Spokane League MVP, a league-record 47 points against Rogers – before heading off to San Diego four years ago. Didn’t seem a stretch to think he might do it there, too, in time.

A couple of years later, it did seem a stretch.

But that was then. The Brett Bailey who returns to Spokane on Thursday night with the Toreros to take on unbeaten – and poised to be No. 1 – Gonzaga is either remade or resurrected, take your pick.

And given that it’s his final homecoming, he’s revved up, too.

“The Kennel is an awesome place,” he said. “You look at the ratings across the country of the best places to play and Gonzaga is right up there. But anytime you come back and play in front of the hometown crowd – even if it’s for the other team – it’s definitely a special feeling.”

That might describe his whole senior year. The Toreros are still part of the WCC’s great snarl south of Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, but at 10-10 they’ve already won more games than a year ago – including a takedown of BYU two weeks ago.

And Bailey?

Well, there was a stretch of 12 games earlier this season in which he scored 17 points or more – including against UCLA (22), New Mexico State (24) and USC (17). At the moment, the 6-foot-6 forward is averaging 17.4 points and 7.0 rebounds, both team highs, while shooting 48 percent – 39 from distance.

Compared with this line last year: 6.9 points. 4.8 rebounds. 37 percent from the floor – and 18 from 3.

“It’s a good feeling – any competitor would like to have the ball in their hands at the end of the game,” said Bailey. “But it’s a good feeling that comes with a lot of work.”

Like a shooting program in the summer when he made some 17,000 shots in nine weeks – meaning another 17,000 or so misses. But other work – on his confidence and approach – began before that.

Because as modest as his numbers were last season, those from his first two years were closer to microscopic.

Some of that was dues-paying; some of it was something else.

“You question yourself a little,” he admitted. “It’s different going from being the go-to guy on your team – even just in high school – to being a role player and trying to find your way. It takes a toll on your confidence and mental state.”

The crash came midway through his sophomore season in a game at Saint Mary’s, where he subbed in “maybe 34 seconds” before halftime – and then never played again.

“It really made me take a step back and realize whatever I was doing, it wasn’t working,” he said. “It needed to change.”

Change was coming.

Bill Grier, the one-time GU assistant, and the staff that got Bailey to commit to USD after his sophomore year at U-Hi were fired and the program turned over to former USD standout Lamont Smith. Struggle though he had, Bailey still had a relationship with the departing coaches (”they gave me the opportunity to play”) and weighed, if briefly, then gave himself over to the promise of the future instead of the past.

“Obviously, it’s satisfying to start to reach some of your full potential and just laying it out there,” Bailey said. “But in the end, it’ll mean a heck of a lot more to me if we end up having a good season than whatever I’m accomplishing statistically.”

Or some award that they don’t give out anyway.

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