By Ben Everett | Sports Editor
As Baylor men’s basketball prepares to face Syracuse in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, they do so having defied expectations.
Baylor missed out on the NCAA Tournament last season and graduated four key players. The Bears were picked ninth in the preseason Big 12 poll prior to this year. Four of five starters put on a Baylor uniform for the first time this season. The Bears lost to Texas Southern and Stephen F. Austin during the non-conference and opened conference play with sophomore forward Tristan Clark going down with a knee injury.
Despite all this, Baylor finished fourth in the Big 12 with a 10-8 record and was selected as a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Baylor head coach Scott Drew said the Bears worked hard and played for each other all season, and now that’s paying off.
“The team really maximized the ability as far as playing for one another and really bought into serving one another and caring more about the team than themselves. Individually, talent-wise, people had us picked ninth or 10th for a reason,” Drew said. “I really think the guys competed hard. As a whole, one thing we usually did is compete. As a coach, you always can hang your hat and go to bed at night knowing that as long as a guy’s played hard, that’s half the battle. Seeing their excitement and joy of being able to know they’re playing in March, that’s what all that hard work is for. Now they have the chance to play a part of the best spectacle in sports.”
At the beginning of the season, Baylor learned it would be without senior guard Jake Lindsey, who retired due to complications from hip surgery. In January, the Bears lost Clark for the season. Throughout the conference schedule, senior guards Makai Mason and King McClure each missed time due to nagging foot and knee injuries, respectively.
Mason said injuries have caused many to doubt the Bears, but the team fought through adversity to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
“Just to be back on the stage is going to be really fun, especially with this team. We’ve been doubted from the beginning, so just to put it together after all that, it’ll be even more special to be there again,” Mason said. “It’s a pretty amazing feeling to have it all culminate to the moment that we just had, and seeing our name go up there. This team has been doubted all year with the injuries and everything. It really shows the true character of this team, to fight every game throughout the season and continuing to get better.”
The Bears will be going up against Hall of Fame head coach Jim Boeheim and the No. 8-seeded Syracuse Orange in Salt Lake City on Thursday. If they win, they could face No. 1 seed Gonzaga.
McClure said Baylor needs to have a win-or-go-home mindset and focus on the present.
“It’s really a one-game season at this point,” McClure said. “If you lose, you go home. Stay in the moment, stay locked in, and don’t look too far ahead.”