By Nathan Keil | Sports Writer
Baylor men’s basketball is two wins away from a trip to the Final Four.
The No. 3-seed Bears in the east region will square off against the No. 7-seed South Carolina in a Sweet Sixteen matchup tonight at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
South Carolina stunned No. 2-seed Duke 88-81 to earn its berth in the Sweet Sixteen.
The Gamecocks will not be the only opponent the Bears will have to overcome if they want to advance, but they will also have to deal with critics who say that Baylor isn’t good enough to keep advancing.
According to sophomore guard Jake Lindsey, the Bears have been battling this kind of adversity all year long and at this point, the lack of belief is simply motivation to keep going.
“Coming from where we came from as a team — we were overlooked at the beginning of the season [did not receive one top 25 vote entering the season], had a lot of success, went through a lot of adversity [5-6 in last 11 games entering the tournament], just the way we responded with two wins in the tournament I’m pretty proud of this team and how we handled the ups and downs of the season,” Lindsey said. “Some people say we don’t close games very well. There are ones that say we don’t have much depth, there’s one that says we’re not talented and Coach [Scott] Drew isn’t a good coach. People will still rank us as the least likely to advance at this point. It’s nothing personal, it’s just motivation. It is what it is at this point.”
Senior guard Ishmail Wainright, who was a member of the 2014-15 Baylor team that advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, said that at this point in the tournament, it’s two teams and whoever executes better, gets to move on.
“At this point, it’s just two teams playing, having fun doing what we’re doing and staying positive at all times,” Wainright said.
On the court, Baylor will see the top defense in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and the conference player of the year in senior guard Sindarius Thornwell. Thornwell leads the team in scoring at 21 points per game, but as gifted as Thornwell is on the offensive end, it’s his defense that impresses Baylor head coach Scott Drew the most.
“Defensively he forced 44 steals in conference and does such a great job anticipating,” Drew said. “He’s like a safety back there and just waits, sees where you’re dribbling, get yourself in trouble and then he’s able to get a steal and get in transition.”
Thornwell scored 24 points, grabbed six rebounds and dished out five assists in South Carolina’s win over Duke.
The man in charge of the Gamecocks is a familiar foe for Baylor in head coach Frank Martin, the former head coach at Kansas State and someone that Drew and his staff have a lot of respect for.
For Drew, the outcome will be determined by how well the Bears handle the defensive pressure and how well they take care of the ball.
“They’re one of the best defenses in the country. Fourth in forcing turnovers and they lead the SEC in everything defensive category basically. It’s a very good defense, which makes it tough to score, and when you have a good defense, it leads to easy offense in transition. They’re very athletic, that’s how they were able to score 60 some points in the second half against Duke,” Drew said.
Drew also said that in order to be able to come away victorious, the Bears are going to need to need to be smart with the basketball and not turn it over.
“You have to be able to take care of the basketball which is been something that has been a challenge for us at times,” Drew said. “The second thing is if you take care of the basketball, then they do a great job rebounding and we do a great job rebounding, so you have two elite teams on the glass.”
In two games in the tournament thus far, Baylor’s bench has been huge in getting the Bears to the Sweet Sixteen. In the first round against New Mexico State, junior guard Al Freeman scored 21 points and junior forward Terry Maston added 19 points off the bench. Against USC, Maston again scored 19 and grabbed nine rebounds while sophomore guard King McClure tied a career-high with 17 points while hitting five three pointers.
Drew says the bench and chemistry of the team have been key for the Bears all season, so it is no surprise that Maston, Freeman and McClure have all stepped up in Baylor’s tournament run thus far.
“Our bench is why we’re good. It’s the leadership and chemistry that allows the depth to take over because some games some guys play more, some games they play less,” Drew said. “When you have more weapons and more people that can have good games, it gives you opportunities when someone’s not having a good game, you don’t have to lose, because when they aren’t on, you can find someone else to pick up the slack.”
Heading into its matchup with South Carolina, Wainwright likes their chances as the Bears are doing having fun and being smart with the basketball.
“We still are the Baylor Bears. We still have a chip on our shoulder,” Wainwright said. “We still love the game and each other. We’re smarter, taking care of the ball a little more. We’re healthy and back to having fun.”
Baylor and South Carolina will square off at 6:29 p.m. tonight for a berth in the Elite eight. The winner will advance to take on either No. 8 Wisconsin or No. 4 Florida. The game will be aired on TBS.