By Michael Haag | Sports Editor
Entering the NCAA Tournament as a No. 3 seed is nothing new for Baylor men’s basketball.
The Bears were a three-seed in 2015 when they lost to 14th-seeded Georgia State University, 57-56, thanks to an RJ Hunter game-winning 3-pointer. Now, Baylor will face off against No. 14 seed University of California, Santa Barbara in the round of 64 at 12:30 p.m. CT on Friday in the Ball Arena in Denver.
Despite being 10.5-point favorites, the Bears (22-10) aren’t overlooking the Gauchos (27-7).
“We definitely respect Cal Santa Barbara,” redshirt senior guard Adam Flagler said. “We want to give credit where credit is due. They have high-caliber guys, a great coaching staff over there, and we know we can’t take this for granted. At the end of the day, our attention to detail and everything is just as if we’re playing the best team in the country at this point.”
Flagler transferred to Baylor from Presbyterian College after the 2018-19 season, so he knows what it’s like as a smaller school to fight and claw in order to make it into the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re really excited for the opportunity, but they’ve fought endlessly to get here,” Flagler said. “I know that they have to do a certain bid just like smaller schools when I was at Presbyterian. I know they’re going to have to fight but we have to be the toughest team out there.”
The Bears are coming off two-straight losses to Iowa State University, the second one in the quarterfinals of the Phillips 66 Big 12 Men’s Basketball Championship on March 9. Those setbacks dropped Baylor off the projected two-seed line going into the tournament.
But even with the recent slip ups, Flagler, who’s entering his fourth NCAA Tournament appearance, said March Madness puts everyone on a level playing field.
“I definitely think it’s a fresh start for everybody coming into this tournament,” Flagler said. “It’s a new beginning, new opportunity. We’ve just been trying to focus on each other, being connected out there. We had a great group of practice days where we could compete and get back to the basics and do things that show our identity when we come out on the court.”
The Bears have now reached eight of the last nine NCAA Tournaments. Baylor is also one of just four teams to be a three-seed or higher in each of the last three NCAA postseason brackets. The Bears are 8-5 all time when playing as a No. 3 seed.
Head coach Scott Drew said this time of year never gets old for him. Drew is in his 20th year as the head coach of Baylor and he still gets juiced up for it.
“Well, it’s always a blessing to be a part of March Madness,” Drew said. “It’s the best time of year if you’re a college basketball fan, player [or] coach. And during that month, [there are] unbelievable highs [and] unbelievable lows, but you have to thank God every time you get an opportunity to be a part of it.
“I love this team. [I’m] excited to see what we can do in March. Obviously, each and every year it seems like the parity is at an all-time high. But that’s what makes March Madness so great.”
The Bears and the Gauchos will be meeting for the third time ever, and Baylor is 1-1 in the series. The green and gold won 78-75 in Santa Barbara, Calif., on Dec. 11, 1965 and lost 95-68 in the same venue on Dec. 5, 1970.
Friday will mark the first meeting between the two schools in nearly 53 years.
Drew said UCSB does “a great job in developing and creating a winning program.” The Gauchos have won two of the last three Big West titles and currently have a lot of momentum, owning a seven-game winning streak after a three-game skid.
“I think it’s the third-winningest program in California in the last six years,” Drew said. “And their style of play [is] very deliberate on the offensive end, and they usually get high-percentage shots. Then defensively, very sound, really good team defense.”
UCSB head coach Joe Pasternack gave praise right back, saying he has “a lot of respect” for Drew and Baylor’s program.
“Baylor, I mean, first off, coached by a Hall of Famer in Coach Drew, a lot of respect for him, always have had,” Pasternack said. “And what he’s done from when he took over to now is unbelievable.
“The talent on Baylor is incredible. I don’t think it’s just the three guards. I know they get all the hype, but [Jalen] Bridges, what a terrific talent he is, and all three guards I think are all NBA-caliber guards. They’re the No. 2 offense in the country. Very, very explosive, explosive team.”
The Gauchos, led by standout sophomore guard Ajay Mitchell, are pumped to have been an automatic bid in March Madness following their conference championship. Mitchell also said he’s thrilled for the challenge the Bears present.
“I’m excited to play in this tournament,” Mitchell said. “It’s been a dream for me. Playing Baylor is also a great experience for us. We’re just very excited to play, and it’s going to be a great experience for us.”
Mitchell averages a team-high 15.9 points per game to go with 4.9 assists per game. He was also named a finalist for the Lou Henson National Player of the Year award, which is given out annually to the best mid-major athlete coming from one of 22 conferences in the NCAA.
Drew said he expects Mitchell to be a tough person to contain.
“Mitchell is somebody that most college coaches all know about, big conference Player of the Year, and 6-foot-5-inch point guard, pro prospect, someone that really does a great job facilitating for everyone else on the team,” Drew said.
Tipoff is set for 12:30 p.m. CT on Friday between Baylor and UC Santa Barbara. The Bears will be looking to reach the round of 34 for the fifth-consecutive season. Baylor lost in its second game of last year’s tournament to the runner-up national champion, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In 2021, the Bears took home the national championship.
Freshman guard Keyonte George said his biggest focus is helping the team get into the win column. George said if the team embraces its faith, everything else will take care of itself.
“We always talk about ‘God gives us a platform,’ and we don’t want to take advantage of it,” George said. “I’m going to do everything in my power to go out there, play hard. My main focus is winning. When you have that mindset, you don’t care about the points, care about yourself. We have that culture. Others just before yourself.”
- Redshirt freshman guard Langston Love is a “game-time decision” because of his eye injury according to Drew. Love has missed the last two games and hasn’t seen the floor since he played seven minutes at Oklahoma State University on Feb. 27.
- The Gauchos’ graduate student guard Ajare Sanni is available after missing the last month with an injury, per Pasternack.
- Pasternack said freshman forward Koat Keat Tong won’t be available due to a leg injury.