Livin’ the dream: No. 3 seed Baylor MBB readies for NCAA Tournament, No. 14 seed Colgate

Although the Bears began this season with just one returning starter, head coach Scott Drew has built a team that is staying calm and collected entering the tournament. Camie Jobe | Photographer

By Foster Nicholas | Sports Writer

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The only team in the country to be a No. 3 seed or higher in each of the last four NCAA Tournaments, three-seeded Baylor men’s basketball did so with four new starters.

Now, the Bears roll into a round of 64 matchup against No. 14 seed Colgate, which is scheduled for 11:40 a.m. on Friday at FedExForum in Memphis, Tenn.

As the Bears (23-10) hucked up shots on Thursday afternoon, head coach Scott Drew was in every drill, encouraging his players and dropping down to do push-up punishments just as they have to. Even in his 21st season at the helm, March Madness is never business as usual for Drew since he knows it’s a dream come true for his players.

“One thing that is exciting as a coach, whenever you have as much turnover, there’s a lot of first-time experiences for everybody,” Drew said. “And you always remember your first-time experiences more than year two, three, four and five. It’s a blessing to go through some of this stuff with the guys for the first time.

“As a staff, we can shed some more wisdom, knowledge on what they might be feeling, going through. At the same time, there’s that youthful energy of first-time experience and things.”

In the weeks leading up to the season, change was a point of emphasis for Baylor, as senior forward Jalen Bridges was the only returning starter. However, as the culture grew and chemistry built, the storyline that could have been used as an excuse never actually rattled the Bears, according to Bridges.

“It really wasn’t a hurdle,” Bridges said of integrating new faces. “Guys like RayJ [Dennis] and [Jayden] Nunn and Yves [Missi] and Ja’Kobe [Walter] — it’s a credit to them, their work ethic. They wanted to get better. They wanted to learn the system. … Just guys coming in ready to compete and ready to win.”

In an unusual twist of events in March, the lead-up process was a bit different, as storylines of Drew’s potential suitors to the East aggressively pursuing him led most of the Bears’ narrative. The longtime head coach silenced the rumors in the days leading up to the tournament, and his players only confirmed how committed Drew had been to the program and how he had created the culture to touch historic and consistent numbers.

“I feel it’s something about Coach Drew,” Bridges said. “He doesn’t always want the most talented player; he wants somebody who is going to be an immediate culture fit. I feel like, especially with the freshmen that we got and the transfers that we got, that allows to us keep things rolling and keep getting back here.”

Focused solely on the task, freshman center Yves Missi and freshman guard Ja’Kobe Walter said they’re treating each step of the tournament ladder as the final destination. As two Baylor players experiencing their first March Madness and maybe their last (both are projected first-round picks in the 2024 NBA Draft), they said soaking up the moment has been crucial to staying locked in.

“Every game is a championship game,” Missi said. “You want to win. You keep going. You keep playing. Every game is important, so I’m just looking forward to playing against Colgate.”

Baylor will clash with a Colgate (25-9) team that features the nation’s No. 11 scoring defense (63.2 PPG allowed) and holds its opponents to just 29.8% shooting from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, the Bears’ 38.8% mark from deep is ninth-best in the nation, and they rank No. 6 in offensive efficiency. Although Baylor will be without redshirt sophomore guard Langston Love, the team feels confident its first weekend woes will cease.

Raiders head coach Matt Langel said the Bears’ roster is loaded with talent and that it will be a tough test for his team, which is making its fifth straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

“Baylor presents a lot of difficult things to prepare for, not just their 3-point shooting,” Langel said. “I don’t know if you’re going to be able to take away all their threes. I think what we’re going to try to do is make them as contested as possible. I think that that’s what we’ve tried to do over the course of the season, is not let the best shooters get the most open shots.”

Tipoff in the round of 64 is scheduled for 11:40 a.m. on Friday at FedExForum in Memphis on TruTv.