By Nathan Keil | Sports Writer
The regular season has come and gone. Conference championships have been won. It has all led to this: the NCAA tournament.
Baylor seeks to win its first tournament game since 2014, when it advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. The Bears have been bounced out of the NCAA tournament the last two seasons in the round of 64, losing 79-75 to No. 12-seed Yale in 2016 and 57-56 to No. 14 Georgia State in 2015.
With that being said, the first challenge for the No. 3-seed Baylor Bears (25-7) in the East Region is the No. 14-seed New Mexico State Aggies (28-5).
Despite being the higher seed in the previous two tournaments, Baylor traveled to Providence, R.I., and Jacksonville, Fla., for its round of 64 games. The Bears have the opportunity to play their first two rounds in Tulsa, Okla., this season. Head coach Scott Drew is hoping that playing closer to home will serve as a benefit to the Bears.
“I’m excited that we’re playing closer to home because after playing basically in Yale’s backyard and after Jacksonville, that was closer to Georgia State,” Drew said. “After the last two years having the other teams having their teams, its nice to have Baylor Nation at their place.”
Even playing closer to home will not guarantee a first-round win for the Bears as they will still have to deal with the doubts of early-tournament exits the last two years.
Sophomore guard Jake Lindsey believes the pressure to win, especially after two consecutive first-round exits, isn’t a factor.
“You [the media] create pressure,” Lindsey said. “The pressure really isn’t real if you think about. It’s just something you create to make a narrative, to make something more interesting. We play basketball. It’s an opportunity, not a burden.”
Senior Ishmail Wainright, who has made the NCAA tournament in all four of his years at Baylor, said the only thing the team is concerned about is Friday.
“We are just focused on New Mexico State,” Wainright said. “Trying to stay positive. That’s our mindset. One game at a time. They’re a great team, led by a great PG [point guard].”
Baylor and New Mexico State are not completely unfamiliar to each other. The two schools have played each of the past two seasons with the Bears winning 85-70 in 2015 and 66-55 in 2014.
Drew does not believe that these past two games will have any impact come game time.
“There is no perfect scenario. We can’t say that we are going to beat them because we know them or because we’re playing in this facility,” Drew said. “That’s the beauty of a 40-minute game. It’s a small sample size and anything can happen.”
New Mexico State boasts the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Player of the Year in senior guard Ian Baker. Baker averages 16.6 points and four assists per contest. Drew and the Bears have seen his play up close before and know the type of game that he is capable of having against them.
“The good thing is we played against him a couple of years ago at the Ferrell Center, and two years ago, he had 21 points against us, so we know he’s a really good player,” Drew said. “He can shoot the three, get fouled, got a good float game, and he’s good around the rim. The fact that we’ve played against him and he’s done really well against us-we don’t have to work hard to sell him to our guys.”
Aggies’ junior guard Braxton Huggins and redshirt sophomore forward Eli Chuha also average double figures in the scoring column with a scoring average of 13 points apiece.
The other side of the battle for Baker will be the health of Baylor junior guard Manu Lecomte. Lecomte, the second leading scorer for Drew this season at 12 points a game, played sparingly against Kansas State in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinal and missed both the West Virginia and Texas games.
Drew said Lecomte is healthy and ready to go.
“Manu is doing good. It’s been great to have him practice,” Drew said. “That’s big for not only him to get back in rhythm, but get the other guys back in rhythm of playing with him. It’s been good getting him in a stance and playing some defense.”
The Bears and Aggies will tip at 11:40 a.m. today and play for a berth in the round of 32 against the winner of the No. 6-seed SMU and No. 11-seed USC. The game will air on truTV.