Gil LeBreton

After troubled year, Baylor has a likely No. 1 team to sing about

Baylor guards Ishmail Wainright, left, and Manu Lecomte celebrate their 61-57 vicotry over Oklahoma State that likely ascends the undefeated Bears to the No. 1 ranking when this week’s polls come out.
Baylor guards Ishmail Wainright, left, and Manu Lecomte celebrate their 61-57 vicotry over Oklahoma State that likely ascends the undefeated Bears to the No. 1 ranking when this week’s polls come out. AP

With precisely 1.2 seconds remaining on the clock Saturday night, the chant began.

“Num-ber one! Num-ber one!” shouted a choir of 10,627 at Baylor’s Ferrell Center.

Pardon the religious analogy. But frankly, other than a Copper Bowl trophy and a weekly Chip and Joanna HGTV makeover, Baylor Nation has not had much to sing about in recent months.

Blessed, therefore, is the Baylor men’s basketball team. The Bears’ 61-57 Big 12 victory over Oklahoma State on Saturday lifted their record to a perfect 15-0 and cleared the path for their ascension into the top spot in the Associated Press poll.

The most proper perspective, as it turned out, was rendered by the losing coach, the Cowboys’ Brad Underwood.

“They’re probably going to be No. 1,” Underwood said, with a nod towards Bears coach Scott Drew. “Remember where they were when he got here. Let’s not forget the remarkable job he’s done.”

Underwood didn’t need to elaborate. When Drew assumed the coaching reins here 13 years ago, Baylor was considered more of an excavation job than a rebuilding job.

Because of NCAA sanctions levied for the ills of the previous coaching staff, Drew’s third Bears team wasn’t even allowed to play non-conference games. It wasn’t until his fourth year that Drew had the luxury of signing a full scholarship allotment.

But now look at the Bears.

Smart. Seasoned. And ferocious on defense.

“They’re really old,” Underwood added, “and I mean that in a great way. This is an old, experienced basketball team. You win in college basketball with age.

“I don’t know how many redshirts they have (four starters), but it’s a bunch. That allows them to extend the playbook. It allows you chemistry at both ends of the court.

“Nothing rattles them. There’s a maturity.”

Though ignored in this season’s preseason polls, Baylor knocked off No. 4-ranked Oregon, No. 24 Michigan State and 10th-ranked Louisville, all in November. A 15-point win over No. 7 Xavier gave the Bears three wins over Top 10 opponents.

By the second week of December, Baylor itself had soared to No. 4 and earned six first-place votes.

No team in America has a better non-conference ledger than Baylor. Which should excuse, one would think, the taxing struggles that the Bears have faced in their first two Big 12 games.

Baylor trailed Iowa State last week by six points with five minutes to go, yet prevailed 65-63.

The game Saturday wasn’t much easier.

Oklahoma State kept scavenging offensive rebounds and getting second-chance points (10) in the first half, and the Cowboys led by as many as seven with 15:48 to go in the game.

But few trips down the floor by Oklahoma State came without a struggle, and it eventually took its toll on the 37-percent-shooting Cowboys.

“Credit our guys for defending when we’re not scoring,” Drew said.

Drew and two of his team leaders, Manu Lecomte and Terry Maston, all downplayed the likely No. 1 honor that they are about to assume.

“Not many people get the chance to be ranked No. 1,” Drew said. “It’s a great honor, and I think our fans, as a nation, deserve it.

“But in the big picture, nobody is going to remember who was ranked No. 1 in the first week of January.”

Oh, the city of Waco and Baylor Nation will.

“Num-ber one! Num-ber one!” the sold-out crowd chanted Saturday.

Finally, Baylor had something to sing about.

Former Temple coach Matt Rhule is introduced at Baylor University as the next football coach. (video by Mac Engel/Star-Telegram).

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