Ricardo Gathers has always looked like a man among boys on the basketball court.

And now, even though he’s just a freshman at Baylor, the former Riverside Academy star is making the same impression.

“Rico comes to practice, works hard and beats up on me to make sure I’m ready,” Isaiah Austin, Baylor’s 7-foot-1 center said. “It’s like we’re going up against Shaq or Charles Barkley or something.”

At 6-8 and 260 pounds (40 more than Austin and 15 more than his prep playing weight), Gathers has plenty of bulk to put to good use against friend and foe alike, witness his 11 rebounds in Wednesday’s 82-48 victory at Texas Tech.

And he’s finding out that it takes more than poundage when you graduate from the high school to college level.

“There’s lots of good big guys out there who know how to use their bodies well,” Gathers said. “Every game is physical, and it’s going to get more like that now that we’re into Big 12 play.

“I can’t just go out there and throw my weight around. Every practice and every game is a learning experience.”

There’s something else Gathers is having to learn about, too — coming off the bench, something Louisiana’s former Mr. Basketball can’t remembering doing at any level before.

Although he does have one start, Gathers, generally is the first big man off the bench, spelling fellow freshman Austin or 6-9 junior Cory Jefferson in the Bears’ three-guard lineup.

In 15 minutes per game, Gathers is averaging 5.7 points and 4.9 rebounds with five blocked shots. That is a comedown from his norms of 19.8 points, 11.5 boards and 4.5 as a senior at Riverside, but Gathers saw that coming.

“I knew that with the talented people we have, there was going to be a lot of competition for playing time,” he said. “But it definitely takes some adjusting.

“You just learn your role on the team, which for me is taking an aggressive approach so that when I do come off the bench, I can make a difference.”

Baylor coach Scott Drew certainly has no complaints about Gathers’ contribution.

”I love rebounding, passion and the energy he plays with,” Drew said. “He needs to continue to get better at the free-throw line (Gathers is only 14 of 29) because he gets fouled a lot.

“But no question, when he comes in, the energy level picks up. It’s great to have him as one of those guys on your side instead of against him.”

Drew and the Bears nearly didn’t get Gathers.

A consensus top-50 national prospect, Gathers originally committed to St. John’s in the summer before his senior season,

But he decommitted early last year and eventually picked Baylor — which had an “in” because former Bears guard Tweety Carter had played at Reserve Christian for current Riverside coach Tim Byrd — over LSU, Florida and North Carolina State.

Gathers, who now goes by “Rico,” a shortened version of his first name, will face ex-LSU coach Trent Johnson today when the Bears (10-4, 2-0 Big 12) host TCU (9-6, 0-2).

“There was nothing wrong with St. John’s,” Gathers said. “But Baylor just felt like it was the right place for me. The people here are very warm and they love Baylor athletics.”

Baylor’s good start in Big 12 play came after an inconsistent non-conference part of the schedule.

With a Top 10 recruiting class headed by Austin and Gathers, the Bears started the season ranked No. 18, but lost early home games to Colorado and College of Charleston, only to end Kentucky’s 54-game winning streak at Rupp Arena, 64-50, avenging last year’s Elite Eight loss to the Wildcats.

Since then, Baylor has gone 5-2, not enough to get them back into the Top 25, although the Bears are projected as a No 9 seed by CollegeRPI.com.

“We were disappointed with some of those early games, but we didn’t let it get our heads down,” Gathers said. “Now we’re off to a good start in the conference, and we like our chances against TCU. But we know we’ve got Kansas and some other good teams coming up. We’ve just to keep working to get better.”