Until the arrival of Baylor men’s basketball coach Scott Drew, the full list of Bears’ victories in the NCAA Tournament since 1950 could have fit on the head of pin.
When there is nothing to write, it takes up no space.
The Bears, under Drew, have drastically changed that situation in recent years and will head into Thursday’s opening game of this year’s tournament with a pair of fresh milestones.
Baylor (24-9), the No. 3 seed in the West Region, has made the NCAA field in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history. The No. 3 seed matches the highest for any Baylor team, setting up Thursday’s 12:40 p.m. game against Georgia State (24-9), a No. 14 seed, in Jacksonville, Fla.
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“People take it for granted, but it’s hard to do,” Drew said of returning to the NCAA Tournament after reaching the Sweet 16 last season. “So we broke that trend and made history. Now, we’ve got to go play. I couldn’t be more pleased with our seeding.”
The next milestone for Drew and his players is to take Baylor back to the Final Four for the first time since 1950. Despite being in the same region with Wisconsin (No. 1) and Arizona (No. 2), Baylor forward Rico Gathers considers a deep run possible, even likely, for a team that is 6-2 over its last eight games. Included is a 79-70 win over Iowa State, the Big 12 tournament champion and a fellow No. 3 seed (South Region), in Ames, Iowa.
“Looking at the field, where we stand, we’re going to be ready to rumble,” Gathers said during a news conference after the bracket was revealed. “We realize the potential and know we haven’t played our best basketball. We can put it all together. We’ll focus on winning some games and possibly making a run to the Final Four. I think we can do [that].”
So does CBS analyst Clark Kellogg, who considers the Bears a tough matchup for Wisconsin (31-3) or Arizona (31-3) if those games unfold later in the tournament.
“Baylor has got an opportunity to reach the Final Four,” Kellogg said. “I love the way this team has played of late. They have length, athleticism, shot-making, zone defense … You can’t sleep on Baylor.”
ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, a Dallas resident who led three schools to the postseason during his coaching career (Manhattan College, St. John’s, New Mexico), cited the Bears’ physical inside play and unique 1-1-3 zone defense as factors that will challenge first-time opponents.
The Bears rank seventh nationally in offensive rebounds (14.7 per game), with forwards Gathers (11.7 points, 11.6 rebounds per game), Taurean Prince (13.8 points, 5.3 rebounds), Royce O’Neale (10.1 points, 5.8 rebounds) and Johnathan Motley (7.8 points, 4.2 rebounds) comprising a deep and imposing inside tandem.
“Baylor is hard to play,” Fraschilla said. “They use a unique zone defense and they’re a very tough, hard-nosed team. Very gutty.”
In other words, the opposite traits that most outsiders expect from a team coached by Scott Drew, who typically operates with a smile on his face and is proud of the fact he’s never cursed at an official during a game. Not even when getting a technical foul, Drew insists.
Beneath the good-guy persona beats the heart of a competitor who has guided teams to a 17-4 record in their past five postseason appearances (three NCAAs, two NITs), with an NIT title (2013) and three deep NCAA runs in the last five years. Baylor reached the Sweet 16 last season, with Elite Eight appearances in 2010 and 2012.
Yet Drew still gets criticized by some peers and media members for producing “soft” teams loaded with high-profile signees who let too many winnable games get away from them in crunch time.
“That’s baloney,” Fraschilla said. “I get tired of people bashing him. A lot of his peers are upset that Baylor used to be an automatic two wins for everybody (in Big 12 play) and that’s not true anymore. The interesting thing about this Baylor team is that Scott is winning with tough, under-the-radar guys like Taurean Prince, Johnathan Mottley and Rico Gathers. They don’t back down. That’s why Scott’s postseason record is on pace with anyone in the country.”
It could improve this season. But not unless the Bears pass the first test Thursday against Georgia State, the Sun Belt conference champion.
Point guard Kenny Chery admitted he’s already looked ahead at the bracket to spot a payback possibility on the horizon.
“Last year, we lost to Wisconsin in the Sweet 16,” Chery said. “Hopefully, we can play them. I personally want to see revenge for [last year’s seniors]. We’ve been confident since Day One. I know we can make a deep run. It just depends how much we execute and how much we stay together when we face adversity.”
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760
A look at Baylor’s success in postseason tournaments under coach Scott Drew, who has fashioned a 17-4 record in the Bears’ last five trips:
NCAA West Region
No. 3 Baylor vs. No. 14 Georgia State, 12:40 p.m., Thursday, TBS