By Cody Soto
In less than 24 hours, Baylor men’s basketball will make history. The three-seed Bears face Georgia State in the second round of the 2015 NCAA Tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., tomorrow. This is the first time in program history where the team will play in back-to-back tournaments.
Baylor (24-9, 11-7 Big 12) has been a successful team under head coach Scott Drew in the tournament. Drew has led the Bears to two Elite Eight and three Sweet 16 appearances, the most recent coming last season.
The three-seed ties for the best seed in Baylor’s postseason history. The Bears join six other Big 12 teams in the big dance; 70 percent of the conference entering into postseason play leads the country for the second year in a row.
“It means a lot. Personally, I thought we were going to be a four-seed,” senior guard Kenny Chery said. “Now, a lot of eyes will be on us and we will be expected to win. We will just go out there and take Georgia State as a big opponent and play some basketball.”
The Bears have recently struggled in the last four games, going 2-2 to finish off Big 12 play and in the team’s two tournament games last week. Baylor defeated Texas Tech in a comeback effort in the final regular season game and took a 10-point win over five-seed West Virginia in the Big 12 tournament, but problems emerged during Baylor’s overtime loss to Texas on March 2 and their loss to one-seed Kansas in the conference tournament.
Baylor is known to be a dominant team on the boards, and they’ve outrebounded their opponents for 27 out of 33 games played this season. However, the Bears have been outrebounded in four of their last six games. The Bears will need to reestablish this known strength in order to make a deep tournament run.
Georgia State (24-9, 15-5 Sun Belt) make their return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001. The Panthers earned an automatic bid after taking the Sun Belt tournament title after winning its second-straight regular season championship.
“Georgia State is a team that is very talented like any team in the field,” head coach Scott Drew said. “Coach Hunter always has a talented team and he has done a great job with them.”
One noticeable headline that surrounds this team revolves around three important members. First, head coach Ron Hunter has picked up the most wins for a fourth-year coach in the team’s history. Hunter led IUPUI to the NCAA tournament in 2003 where he coached for 17 years prior to accepting his current job with Georgia State.
However, he gained media attention for tearing his Achilles at the postgame celebration but will still coach in a hardcast on Thursday. He doesn’t want the incident to overshadow what his team has accomplished this season.
“I hope I’m not famous for that (injury), because again, at the end of the day, it’s about the players and what they’ve done,” Hunter said. “I’m more embarrassed by it than anything because I’ve always considered myself a great athlete.”
The team is led by the scoring duo of R.J. Hunter and Ryan Harrow where each player averages 19.8 and 18.7 points per game for the Panthers. The Georgia State roster also features redshirt junior Kevin Ware who transferred from Louisville following a gruesome season-ending leg injury in 2013.
The Panthers hold their opponents to a 38 percent shooting percentage, ninth in the NCAA. The Bears have several contributors to combat against the Georgia State strong guard positions. Junior forwards Rico Gathers and Taurean Prince have become key players for the Bears this season and senior guard Kenny Chery is joined at the helm with senior forward Royce O’Neale.
If the Bears can play like they did in their four-game conference winning streak, they can make a deep run into the tournament. Baylor took wins over ranked Iowa State and West Virginia during that stretch, recording their first-ever win in Ames, Iowa.
Baylor is known for its strong three-point presence, and when that lacks, the team struggles to score. Prince, Chery and junior guard Lester Medford are going to be the go-to players to get this going. Also, the offensive glass is vital to the Bears’ success. Baylor succeeds when they get their post players, Gathers and freshman forward Johnathan Motley, scoring and grabbing offensive and defensive rebounds.
The Bears and Panthers face off at 12:40 p.m. tomorrow on TBS. Assuming Baylor wins, they will face the winner of Xavier vs. Ole Miss in the third round of the NCAA tournament.