Ready to dance: Bears face Syracuse in first round of March Madness

Baylor sophomore forward Mario Kegler drives the ball against Oklahoma on Feb. 11 at the Ferrell Center. Shae Koharski | Multimedia Journalist

By Jessika Harkay | Sports Writer

For the fifth time in six seasons, the Baylor men’s basketball team is ready to compete in March Madness. No. 9 seed Baylor takes on No. 8 seed Syracuse for the first round of the NCAA Tournament at 8:57 p.m. Thursday in Salt Lake City.

Two of the Bears’ last three appearances in the tournament have fallen short — losing in the first round — and with a four-game losing streak going into this matchup, The Dallas Morning News predicts the Bears to be the underdog.

Syracuse leads the NCAA in height. With a total of 1,303 inches, the Orange hold an average height of 76.6 inches, or almost 6 foot 4 inches. With players passing the 7-foot mark, and especially facing forward Oshae Brissett at 6 foot 8 inches, Baylor head coach Scott Drew said he is preparing to deal with the size difference between the two teams.

“Oshae is somebody that’s really aggressive offensively and somebody that when he gets going can really get going,” Drew said. “Everybody’s a little bit taller and longer than most people you face, and that’s why they have the No. 1 largest height in the country. Again, that will be the toughest thing for us is we don’t have near the size and length that we’ve had in the past. So it’s hard to simulate getting ready for that.”

Although lacking in size, Drew said he’s hopeful that the Bears’ defense and careful ball handling will give Baylor sparks of momentum.

“What people don’t realize is they’re ninth in steals and 10th in turnover percentage. That length causes a lot of deflections, and then what that does is that gets them in the break,” Drew said. “We’re 260th in the nation in turnover percentage. So, we’ve got to take care of the basketball. And then get shots up, because the one thing we do is we’re second in the nation in offensive rebounding. They’re not as good defensive rebounding, 335 in the nation. We’ve got to get quality shots and hopefully have opportunities to rebound it and not turn it over and get them in transition.”

Baylor freshman guard Jared Butler agreed that capitalizing off second-chance points is the Bears key to success.

“One of our best offensive percentages is when we have kick-out 3’s,” Butler said. “We’ve got so many shooters on the outside, and getting a second chance at shooting a three, especially a good look, is something we need, especially in this game. They don’t rebound the ball well on defense. So we’re really looking to capitalize on that opportunity.”

Recently coming off a 83-66 loss against Iowa State on March 14, the Bears aren’t discouraged going into the first round. Senior guard King McClure said the Bears losing streak is a thing of the past.

“It’s new things. It’s the tournament. Everybody wants to be here, this is what you dream of as a kid,” McClure said. “Everybody’s ecstatic about it. They really can’t wait to play. [For] a lot of guys, this is their first time and they’re just happy to be here, it’s a blessing. Like I tell them every day, just enjoy this moment, live in the moment. I think it’s a brand new vibe and I think we can get back to being ourselves.”