After budging through the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament last weekend in New Orleans, Baylor received a coveted invitation to the Sweet 16 beginning this Friday at Reliant Stadium in Houston.
The Bears and Kansas State University are the only two teams remaining left from the Big 12, which entered the tournament as the No. 1 conference in the RPI. With the overall No. 1 seed Kansas eliminated, a 2-seed knocked out (Villanova) and all but one 3-seed (Baylor) surviving to the second week of the tournament, the tournament has panned out to be one of the more peculiar ones in recent memory. Power conference schools like Kansas, Villanova, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin and Georgetown have been replaced by St. Mary's College, Northern Iowa and Cornell.
"I think until recently you didn't have as much parody because you had fewer programs and more dominance before the NBA rule changed," Scott Drew said. "And now with the scholarship reductions, I think more TV exposure for a lot of teams have helped, too, with recruiting and also international basketball. You put all that together and that's why you have all this parody."
The 3-seeded Bears knocked off a pair of Cinderella hopefuls en route to Houston, and both scrapped together fights until the games' final minutes. In order to reach the Elite Eight against the winner of the Duke/Purdue game, Drew's crew will have to knock off another.
Friday Baylor will take on St. Mary's College, who upended Villanova to earn a trip to the Southern Regional semifinals. The 10-seeded Gaels have become the sweethearts of America recently for their scrappy demeanor of play and underdog role. Before last week, the team hadn't advanced past the first round of the NCAA tournament since 1959, when the squad made an Elite Eight appearance. Now media analysts are latching on to St. Mary's as a team that could make it to the Final Four.
"St. Mary's is going to come in with energy and come in with fight, they aren't going to hand us the game," senior point guard Tweety Carter said. "We just got to come out and match their intensity and just be better. We've got to prepare for them like any other game and know that we can win if we don't take them lightly and come out and play our style."
In Saturday's second-round game against Old Dominion University, Josh Lomers provided the spark that the Bears needed to ignite a stagnant Baylor team in a 76-68 victory. In the Bears' first game against Sam Houston State University, the team's perplexity from the Bearkats' triangle-and-two defense frustrated Baylor throughout the 40 minutes, but LaceDarius Dunn spurted for eight points in the game's final two-and-a-half minutes to advance the Bears.
"We wanted to win and that is what we got. I am not really worried about who got it and who did what," Lomers humbly said during a press conference Monday. "We all did our part, and I did not do anything alone. Nothing I do is without my team."
The Bears' first Sweet 16 appearance in school history has been greeted with exuberance from the school's students, alumni and fans. Students lined up at the Ferrell Center as early as 6 a.m. Monday for a chance to get tickets for this weekend's games. With Reliant Stadium being a short trip down Highway 6 away, Baylor will have a distinct homecourt advantage over the other teams that are hailing from North Carolina, Indiana and California.
"It's great when you can bring the university together as one," Ekpe Udoh said. "It's really coming together. This morning I heard the ticket line was long and you don't see that here. So it's good to know that times are changing and it's very exciting."
Baylor's tip-off against St. Mary's is schedule for 6:27 p.m.