By Daniel Hill
The Baylor Bears men’s basketball team has a goal of traveling to New York City to play in the “Mecca of basketball,” Madison Square Garden.
If the Bears can defeat the Providence Friars at 8 p.m. today at the Ferrell Center, then they will head to the Big Apple for the next step of their NIT mission.
“I’ve never been out east at all,” senior guard Pierre Jackson said. “That’s a long flight, but I’m willing to take it though. My eyes will be wide open walking through that place. A lot of great players have been through there. My favorite player, LeBron [James], did a tremendous job on that court. It’d be fun to play on the same court as he did and a lot of other great players.”
The third-round NIT match-up with Providence is the last hurdle before the Bears are in the semifinals of the NIT.
“Providence, from the Big East Conference, everybody knows what kind of a physical league that is,” head coach Scott Drew said. “They play three guards and are very athletic. They like to get out in transition. The two bigger guys do a great job of crashing the boards. They rebound well. They’re a team that if someone asked me how they liken to a Big 12 team, I’d say Oklahoma. I think Oklahoma has some similarities with their bigs.”
A Big 12 team has never won the NIT tournament, and one of Baylor’s goals is to be the first Big 12 team to hoist the NIT Championship trophy after the championship game on April 4.
“Every team wants to do something special, and do something that hasn’t been done and wants to be the first to do something,” Drew said. “So that’s something that definitely excites our team and at Baylor. We haven’t won an NIT or NCAA Championship, so we’d love to, we all know one game at a time, but big picture-wise there are only two happy teams at the end of the year and we’d love to be one of them.”
Providence went 19-14 overall and posted a 9-9 record in Big East Conference play. The Friars are led by junior guard Bryce Cotton who averages a team high 19.6 points per game. Senior guard Vincent Council distributes the ball with seven assists and 10 points per game for Providence.
“Bryce Cotton is somebody who is really quick who can really score in bunches, very similar to Pierre, so I think fans will enjoy watching those two go at it,” Drew said. “Vincent Council, their point guard, set an assist record for them. He’s a bigger, stronger guard who makes the right plays. Freshman guard Kris Dunn can rebound, guard, play defense and slash to the basket. Again, when you are, as Rico [Gathers] says, in the Elite Eight, I think you know you are a good team so they are definitely, and this is a team that won nine of their last 12 games, and most of them in the Big East. So they finished on a high note.”
The players know that any game could be their last contest of the season, and the seniors, like Jackson and guard A.J. Walton, would like to leave as winners. The team can also use the NIT postseason as a springboard for success for next season.
“Pierre and A.J. obviously want to leave on a winning note, and winning the last game of the year is always a blessing,” junior guard Gary Franklin said. “I think for myself and even for Brady [Heslip], we want to have some momentum going into next season, and I think we are constantly motivating the freshman and guys that are getting more playing time and stepping up into a role for next season.”
Junior guard Brady Heslip has never played at Madison Square Garden. He says that he would love it if the Bears can win and advance to the next round so the team gets a chance to play at the historic arena in New York.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Heslip said. “It’s the ‘Mecca of basketball’ so everyone wants to play there and that’s our goal to end up there.”