Sports

Baylor's No. 1 goal: Beating Kentucky today for Final Four spot

ATLANTA -- In their return to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, Baylor's men have followed the same blueprint they used in 2010: Pound three double-digit seeds to set up a showdown with one of college basketball's blueblood programs.

The challenge today for the Bears (30-7) in the Georgia Dome will be altering the next step of the process against top-seeded Kentucky (35-2) to secure the school's first berth in the men's NCAA Final Four since 1950.

Baylor, the No. 3 seed in the South Regional, set up today's 1:20 p.m. matchup against the Wildcats by knocking off 10th-seeded Xavier 75-70 in Friday's Sweet 16 matchup. That followed victories over South Dakota State (14th seed) and Colorado (11th seed).

The 2010 Bears also defeated double-digit seeds, Sam Houston State, Old Dominion and Saint Mary's, before falling to Duke, the eventual national champion, in the Elite Eight.

Quincy Acy, the lone senior in the current Bears' starting lineup, plans to use lessons learned in that 78-71 loss to Duke to help earn the Final Four berth that eluded Baylor in 2010.

"In that Duke game, we got manhandled on the offensive glass," Acy said during Saturday's news conference at the Georgia Dome. "They got a lot of offensive rebounds and tip-outs for 3s. So I think we have learned from that and we know that it can't happen this year. We have to defend and rebound. We have to execute on all cylinders. It's going to come down to stops and effort."

That is the message Acy and coach Scott Drew have tried to instill in the younger players as the Bears prepare to face a Kentucky team that is the No. 1 seed in the tournament, not only the South Regional.

"They are ranked No. 1 in the country for a reason," Drew said. "What makes them a little different than most teams is they're athletic with size. And that size plays like guards. They can all handle the ball. They can all pass and shoot.

"We're pretty athletic, too. But when the hype sets in, people can start doing things... they haven't done all year long. We just have to make sure we use our strengths to try and stop their strengths."

That means attacking the rim against Kentucky center Anthony Davis, a freshman who leads the NCAA in blocked shots (169) and is a primary reason why the Wildcats have outrebounded opponents by an average margin of 39.1 to 31.8 this season.

It means minimizing turnovers against a Kentucky defense that has averaged six steals and forced 11.6 turnovers per game. It means shooting a higher percentage from the field than the Wildcats have allowed their opponents (37.5), particularly from 3-point range (31.5).

The Bears have thrived on the long-range jumper this season, with guards Brady Heslip (45.4 percent) and Pierre Jackson (42.0) leading the charge from beyond the arc.

More than anything else, it means blocking out thoughts of Kentucky's seven national championships -- the first of which included a 58-42 victory over Baylor in the 1948 title game -- and focusing on what has helped the Bears become the first 30-win team in school history.

Heslip said Baylor players have envisioned this matchup since November and embrace it with a point to prove.

"We've been watching them [Kentucky] from the beginning of the season on TV. Guys have been saying, 'Man, we would love to play them,' because we have guys who are just fearless, who want to play the best," Heslip said. "This means everything. Making it to the Final Four has been our goal all year. Nobody's doubted it and everybody thought we could do it."

That includes freshman forward Quincy Miller, who chose to sign with Baylor instead of Kentucky after sustaining a major knee injury during his senior season in high school. Miller, who has a longstanding friendship with Kentucky players Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, believes the Bears can play on even terms with today's more celebrated opponent.

"I think we're just as talented," Miller said. "Kentucky is a great team. We're a great team. We're not going down without a fight. We definitely have to rebound and play smart. We will have to play intense for the entire 40 minutes. We can't have any lapses and we can't have any turnovers."

Any lapses, at this point, could cost the Bears a trip to the Final Four. Just as it did against a different blueblood program in 2010.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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