‘You’d better be ready to play’: Bears look to quash repetitive first-weekend woes

Both programs are looking to make it past the round of 32 for the first time since the 2020-21 season. Assoah Ndomo | Photographer | Lilly Yablon | Photographer

By Michael Haag | Sports Editor

As exciting as it may have been for both Baylor basketball teams to hear their names called on Selection Sunday, they know there’s no time to celebrate.

On one hand, the men’s and women’s programs have built themselves up to one of the best tandems in the country. Thus, being a part of the NCAA Tournament is seemingly the expectation in Waco.

Like former two-time All-American Jared Butler says in Baylor’s hype video before every men’s home game, “Here, expectations are high, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Even with sights set on a deep run year after year, neither squad has attained it over the last few seasons. In fact, the men and women haven’t made it beyond the round of 32 since the 2020-21 season, which is when the men won the national championship and the women were a controversial no-call away from potentially advancing past the Elite Eight.

However, it’s been slim pickings since, and men’s head coach Scott Drew said that’s due in large part to today’s parity across the country.

“If you look, what was it, … 18 top-ranked conference seeds didn’t even make the championship game?” Drew said. “So you can take all the seeding and throw it out the window. You’d better be ready to play. This is not a four of seven [series]. The best team doesn’t always win. It’s who’s best for that 40 minutes.”

While the men have suffered back-to-back second-round exits in the Big Dance, the Bears are one of four teams to win a game in four straight NCAA Tournaments (Gonzaga, Kansas and Houston). Drew said that in itself proves the difficulty of the postseason.

“It’s hard to win a game in the tournament,” Drew said. “I mean, it’s hard to get there. It’s hard to advance. Everything’s hard about it because there’s good teams, good players.”

That’s why women’s head coach Nicki Collen said she’s keeping her group focused on its upcoming round of 64 contest against either Vanderbilt or Columbia at 5 p.m. Friday. Collen said the thought of playing No. 4 seed Virginia Tech — the host team of the Portland 3 Regional — in the following round does creep in, but it shouldn’t be at the forefront of their mind.

“I’ve seen Virginia Tech play a lot, but I think everyone’s asking the question, ‘Is [Elizabeth] Kitley going to play?’” Collen said. “And I don’t think it matters until we get past that first round, so I really am not going to be too worried about whether she plays or whether she doesn’t until we can put a first round W on the board, which is the most important thing.”

Collen’s Bears (24-7) were named a No. 5 seed for the Portland 3 Regional in Blacksburg, Va., securing their 20th-straight NCAA Tournament appearance and 22nd selection overall. But even though they have their game slot, they won’t know their opponent (winner of Columbia-Vanderbilt) until Wednesday night.

That aspect is the “toughest part of the draw” to Collen, who said she can’t even take a good guess.

“In this case, I can’t predict, because I haven’t watched either team enough to think, ‘OK, this is a team that should win,'” Collen said. “And it’s not always about who’s the most talented team. It’s what matchup can you exploit, because that’s what the NCAA Tournament is about. Sometimes it’s about the best team advancing. Sometimes it’s purely matchups.”

The Baylor women — who are 55-18 all-time in the NCAA Tournament, including 15 trips to the Sweet 16 — are coming off a five-point quarterfinals loss to Iowa State in the Big 12 Tournament on March 9.

They opened the year 14-0 — their second-best start in program history behind the 40-0 national championship squad in 2012 — before losing six of their next 10. Then, they finished the regular season on a five-game winning streak.

The Bears are in a similar spot as last year, traveling to a neutral site that could turn into a road test. In 2023, they played the first two rounds in Storrs, Conn., where they ultimately lost to the home team, the UConn Huskies.

Sophomore forward Darianna Littlepage-Buggs said she needs to be more intense on that type of stage this year.

“It’s March Madness — everybody’s good,” Littlepage-Buggs said. “I wasn’t scared last year, but it being my first time, I didn’t know what to expect.

“But actually being there, reality kind of hit, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m here.’ But it’s still exciting to me. I’m always going to be like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m here again.’ But I just think that really being confident — at least for me — because I can do it. I have the skills to do it.”

Meanwhile, the Baylor men were given a No. 3 seed for the second straight year, making the Bears the only team in the nation to earn a top-three seed in four straight NCAA Tournaments. Baylor is in the West Region, where it will face No. 14 seed Colgate at 11:40 a.m. Friday at FedExForum in Memphis on TruTv.

The winner will play the victor of No. 6 Clemson and No. 11 New Mexico, who also square off Friday.

The Bears also fell in the Big 12 Tournament at the hands of the Cyclones — this time in the semifinals — but they were still given the No. 9 overall seed, indicating they are the top-ranked three-seed.

Baylor managed a top-three finish in the Big 12 after replacing four of its five starters. The large number of newcomers actually gives Drew confidence going into March Madness, though, as he knows they will be hungry to seize the opportunity.

“We don’t have many guys [who] have been in the NCAA Tournament, and some of them — I mean, like RayJ Dennis — it’ll be his only chance to play in it,” Drew said. “And when players are excited about something, that’s the first step, because they’re motivated and they’re locked in. And really for the first time, they’ll know what it’s like to not be ready, because if you’re not ready, you realize that this might be the last time you put on the uniform.”