By Shehan Jeyarajah
For the first time in Baylor history, men’s basketball is heading to the NCAA tournament in consecutive years. The Bears earned a three-seed in the West Region and will face Sun Belt Champion Georgia State in Jacksonville, Fla., to open postseason play Thursday.
“It means a lot,” senior guard Kenny Chery said. “Personally, I thought we were going to be a four-seed, but God blessed us. Now a lot of eyes will be on us and we will be expected to win.”
After losing three of its top four scorers from last season, Baylor was picked to finish No. 6 in the Big 12 and on the outside of the NCAA tournament picture. But despite the losses, the Bears improved from a six to a three-seed heading into the 2015 tournament.
“It’s just about playing as a team,” senior forward Royce O’Neale said. “Every guy on this roster is unselfish.”
Baylor this year averages on 61 percent of its made baskets, up from 58 percent in 2014. Its numbers are helped by playing a starting lineup with three standout ballhandlers in O’Neale, Chery and junior guard Lester Medford.
Junior forward Rico Gathers and junior forward Taurean Prince have also stepped up their games. Gathers finished in the top five nationally in rebounds and broke the Baylor single-season record with 384, and counting. Prince led the team in scoring while improving his output from 6.2 to 13.8 points per game.
For their efforts, Gathers was named All-Big 12 First Team and Prince was named Second Team and earned Sixth Man of the Year.
Baylor was eliminated in the semifinal of the Big 12 tournament by Kansas, but it did not seem to have much effect on seeding. The Bears were one of three Big 12 teams to earn a three-seed in March Madness, along with Oklahoma and Big 12 tournament champion Iowa State.
“They showed a lot of respect for the Big 12,” head coach Scott Drew said. “We had the third-toughest schedule and 10th-best RPI. We were able to get a lot of top 50 wins and cannot thank the Big 12 enough for that.”
Other Big 12 teams in the Big Dance include two-seed Kansas, five-seed West Virginia, nine-seed Oklahoma and 11-seed Texas.
While Baylor has historically posted success in the tournament, qualifying for the Sweet Sixteen in its last three appearances, the West draw is one of the most difficult in the nation. The region features No. 1-seed Wisconsin, who knocked Baylor out of the tournament last season behind a dominant 19 points and six blocks from national player of the year candidate and All-American Frank Kaminsky.
“[Kaminsky’s] interior dominance just sets him apart,” Gathers said. “He’s really skilled, but especially anywhere around the basket. He’s a versatile player and that has really carried their team.”
Two-seed Arizona was also right on the edge of being named a top seed itself. Freshman Stanley Johnson leads a balanced effort that features six players averaging nine points or more per game.
“Wisconsin and Arizona are standout teams and it is hard to argue with what those two teams have done all year,” Drew said.
If it beats Georgia State, Baylor will play either Xavier, Ole Miss or Brigham Young in the next round. Other notable teams in the bracket include North Carolina, Ohio State and Oklahoma State.
Along with 14 conference games against tournament-bound teams, Baylor also played tourney teams New Mexico State, Texas Southern and Stephen F. Austin during its non-conference slate. Baylor posted a 9-7 combined record against the nine tournament teams it played.
No. 3-seed Baylor will take on No. 14-seed Georgia State at 12:40 p.m. Thursday at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla. The game will be nationally televised on TBS.