WACO _ Now that talented forward Ekpe Udoh has picked up his basketball and gone to pursue the fame and fortune the NBA has to offer, what's next for the Baylor Bears?
With Udoh, Baylor was a virtual lock to finish among the top three teams in the Big 12 Conference next season. Especially with gunslinger LaceDarius Dunn, 6-10 small forward Anthony and 6-8 super-sub Quincy Acy returning as catalyst from this year's historical 28-8 unit.
The Bears also are expected to reap some immediate dividends from Perry Jones, a 6-11 Parade and McDonald's All-American recruit from Duncanville, and from Plano West guard Bakari Turner. All that weighed heavily on Udoh, a pivotal player who helped Baylor reach the NCAA Tournament Elite 8, where they lost to Duke, 78-71.
And that's why when Udoh decided Tuesday to forego his senior season at Baylor to become an early entry candidate in the June 24 NBA Draft, it was not an easy decision for the Edmond, Okla., native.
"It was a tough decision, because I mean (we made the) Elite 8,'' Udoh said. "(We) were three minutes away from (beating Duke and getting to) the Final Four and winning the Final Four in my opinion.''
Udoh said the emergence of point guard A.J. Walton and Acy will be keys to the success the Bears will have next season. And he has faith that coach Scott Drew will be able to coax a fourth straight 20-win season out of the Bears.
"We have brought something out of Waco and Baylor University that I don't think anyone has ever seen,'' Udoh said. "The buzz on campus during our run was at an all-time high.
"And going forward with what Coach Drew has coming back next year, they're just going to keep raising that level. It was one of the best times of my life.''
Udoh's stamp on the Baylor program was so prominent it seemed as though he was around for four or five years. But after spending two so-so years at Michigan, the 6-10, 240-pounder transferred to Baylor in June of 2008 and quickly started making friends and shaping his game to the point where he became the most dominant defensive player in the Big 12 this past season.
Udoh worked hard with the Baylor players while sitting out the 2008-'09 season. When he was finally able to don a Bear jersey this season. he went out and collected 16 double-doubles, one triple-double, and averaged 13.9 points and 9.8 rebounds while establishing a new conference single-season record for blocks with 133.
Asked what Udoh meant to his program, Drew said: "The players could probably respond to that better because he has been like a big brother to a lot of them. He has been a great role model and influence to a lot of them.
"At the same time, he has prepared them to take over new leadership roles and bigger roles next year.''
Despite closing the chapter on his brief career at Baylor, Udoh said he will always use the words 'we' and 'us' whenever discussing the Bears.
"Ekpe is one of those guys that will always going to be involved in the program,'' Drew said. "He could be 45 and I could see him on the sidelines yelling at the officials for us.''
The Baylor fans who assembled for Monday's basketball banquet gave Udoh a standing ovation when he was introduced to the crowd. It was their way of letting him know they appreciate the hard work he's done for the program, and they wanted him to stay for his senior season.
"It was good and it almost worked,'' Udoh said. "After Duke won (the national title), I was. . .what if?''
Baylor fans are probably left saying their own "what if'' in regards to Udoh.
What if Udoh returned to Baylor next year? The Final Four is in Houston next year, and everyone knows some 35,000 Baylor fans were on hand to see Baylor and Duke battle it out in Houston for a trip to the Final Four.
Could things be different next year with Udoh? The Bears will never know, because Udoh is not walking through that door again as a member of the Bears.
But Udoh doesn't believe there will be too much of a dropoff for Baylor next year without him. Even a few pollsters have picked Baylor -- without Udoh -- as high as No. 6 in the nation going into next season.
"It's in great hands,'' Udoh said of the Bears. "Oh man, this is going to be a great team next year.
"We've got a great recruiting class coming in. They're just going to have to take the responsibility of getting better over the summer.''
Acy, best remembered for getting 10 dunks in a win over Texas this season, said he's going to miss having Udoh around.
"The teammate side of me obviously wanted him back, but the brother side of me wanted him to do what's best for him and his family,'' Acy said. "I want to see him succeed and reach his dream.
"We're not gooing to have nine blocks a game, but he left a lot more than that. Off the court and on the court he taught everybody how to be a leader, he gave everybody his work ethic.''
Udoh has a chance to become the first Baylor player chosen as a lottery pick since the NBA went to the lottery system in 1985. The top 14 players drafted are considered lottery picks, and Udoh is slated by some to get drafted possibly in the No. 11 position.
"He has started a new trend,'' Acy said. "He's turned the program all the way around and we're looking to just keep building on it.
"It just tells you what prayer does. Coach Drew has done the right job of getting the right people and leading us, and it's panned out.''
Acy, though, knows the dominance Udoh brought to the court will be sorely missed next season.
"The best thing about him is he left a part of him with us,'' Acy said. "So we're going to carry that over and be good.''
_ Dwain Price