Baylor soars to No. 1 for first time in program history

Junior forward Al Freeman looks for an open teammate on Nov. 15 at the Ferrell Center against No. 4-ranked Oregon. The Bears won 74-67. Photo credit: Jessica Hubble

Nathan Keil | Sports Writer

Drake might be the best suited to describe the Baylor men’s basketball’s season thus far when he writes, “Started from the bottom, now we’re here.” Just as Drake’s rise to rap stardom was a difficult one, Baylor’s rise through the rankings has exceeded the expectations many had for the team entering this season.

Well, Drake’s mantra is not entirely accurate. For it to be completely true, Baylor would have had to enter the season ranked 351 out of 351 schools in NCAA Division I Basketball, but the point is still partially true. Nobody was talking about Baylor or taking them seriously as a threat to dethrone Kansas in the Big 12 in 2017, let alone be a serious threat to compete for an NCAA championship.

Despite not receiving a single vote for the Top 25 in the very first Associated Press weekly ranking of the year, Baylor has proven itself worthy of the honor. With wins over Oregon, Xavier, VCU, Michigan State, and Louisville, Baylor now sits alone atop the college basketball world —earning the program’s first number one ranking in school history.

Baylor head basketball coach Scott Drew considers it a true honor to receive the recognition his program has received this season.

“It’s a great day to be a Baylor Bear. We don’t usually have conference calls for rankings, so when we do, you know it’s a big deal when you’re ranked number one,” said Drew. “Being ranked number one right now, it’s a great recognition, it’s a great honor. It’s very humbling. We have bigger goals and a lot more that we want to accomplish. Being ranked number one right now doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything the rest of the year.”

Drew is quick to credit three areas that have helped Baylor climb to the top of the rankings this season: leadership, chemistry, and depth.

“You have to have great leadership and we have a lot of upperclassmen that have done a great job leading and that’s led by Ishmael Wainwright. He has been outstanding,” Drew said. “We have really good chemistry so the guys fight for each other. Third thing is we have depth. We know fatigue makes cowards of us all and we are able to rotate, keep guys fresh and all and have different people step up and make plays. Every game isn’t your game, you need other people to step up and make plays when you’re not playing well.”

The Bears have also been one of the most balanced teams in the country. Two major pieces of the balance for Baylor, both offensively and defensively, has been the play of junior guard Manu Lecomte and junior forward Jonathan Motley. Motley has averaged 15.8 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. Lecomte averages just under 12 points per game, but his play down the stretch against Iowa State and Oklahoma State was crucial in keeping Baylor blemish-free.

Now that they have ascended to the top, Baylor wants to maintain its confidence and continue to play with a chip on its shoulder.

“It’s a great feeling to be number one, but we’re still underdogs. That’s how we’re going to keep winning,” Lecomte said after the win against Oklahoma State. “We’re going to play every game like it’s our last, and we still suck. So we’re going to go back tomorrow, and it’s 0-0, and we’re ready for West Virginia.”

Baylor has little time to celebrate its accomplishment and elevation to the top of the rankings, as the Bears now hit the road to Morgantown, W. VA, to take on the tenth ranked Mountaineers.

The Bears now embrace a fresh target on their backs. Their goals of winning the Big 12 conference and making a run to the Final Four remain unaccomplished. As a result, Baylor is not settling by checking a number one ranking of its bucket list. In fact, the mindset is still the same. Go out, compete and get the win.

“We’re not really worried about the rankings. We just go out and compete every day,” Motley said. “We’re not focused on the next game (West Virginia), and we’re doing everything we can to make sure we get the W.”

Baylor puts its number one ranking on the line Tuesday against West Virginia. Tip-off is set for 6 p.m. central time and will be aired on ESPN2.