DESTINATION: SAN ANTONIO: Sixth-Seeded Bears Playing Nebraska in NCAAsMarch 17, 2014
By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider
Location, location, location.
Once Baylor's name popped up on the NCAA Championship bracket in San Antonio, Texas, everything else was a blur for head coach Scott Drew.
"We're playing in San Antonio. Love it!" said an elated Drew, whose Bears (24-11) were picked on Sunday as the No. 6 seed for the West Regional and facing a familiar foe in 11th-seeded Nebraska (19-12) in a second-round matchup at 11:40 a.m. Friday at the AT&T Center in San Antonio.
"It's great that our fans will be able to drive now, because they make a big impact on the game. I remember when we were in Houston (in 2010) and the great advantage we had. I couldn't be more excited to be in San Antonio. It's a weekend for Baylor Nation on the Riverwalk, let's go!"
Four years ago, the Bears used a very obvious home-court edge at Houston's Reliant Stadium to destroy Saint Mary's, 72-49, in the Sweet 16 before falling to eventual national champion Duke, 78-71, in the region final.
This year's Road to the Final Four could begin and end in Texas. The Final Four is April 5 and 7 at the Dallas Cowboys' AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
"For us, location was really important," said Drew, whose team is making its fourth NCAA tournament appearance in the last six years. "Playing where your fans can get to, that's a big, big advantage, and I know we'll have a lot of support with Baylor Nation in San Antonio. . . . It's as good as it can be. At the end of the day, we know where the Final Four site is, and we like that, too. So, we'd like to keep doing what we need to do to have an opportunity to play in that."
A month ago, even the whisper of that would have stirred a good belly laugh.
After getting blown out at Oklahoma, 88-72, on Feb. 8, the Bears were 14-9 overall and 2-8 in the Big 12 Conference, one place out of the cellar. But they won 10 of their next 11 games before losing Saturday's Big 12 Championship final to 16th-ranked Iowa State, 74-65.
"You can't swell on the past," said senior guard Brady Heslip, who has hit a mind-boggling 112 3-pointers and ranks second on the team with a 11.8-point scoring average. "When we were 2-8, what are you going to do: Feel sorry for yourself the rest of the season and not do anything? It obviously wasn't too late. We had the right attitude, the guys stayed positive, the coaches corrected what we needed to correct, and we became a totally different basketball team."
With road wins over Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Kansas State down the stretch and tournament victories over TCU, 17th-ranked Oklahoma and Texas, Baylor is arguably one of the hottest teams in the country.
"When we play like that, I definitely feel like we're one of the best teams in the country," said 6-9 senior forward Cory Jefferson, who is averaging a team-best 13.5 points and 8.4 rebounds. "This is where we expected to be. Everybody else on the team believed it, that we were going to be here. And that's why we got here, because nobody gave up."
Drew credits the Bears' late-season run to "the leadership and the guys' chemistry for sticking together."
"I want to thank all of Baylor Nation, the supporters who kept believing in us and cheering us on," he said. "It's a great way to round up and now put ourselves in position where we're in the NCAA tournament, playing great basketball. We know we have to play even better to advance in the NCAA tournament, but we're very excited about that opportunity."
The only one in the room more excited than Drew might have been 6-7 sophomore forward Taurean Prince, who hails from the Alamo City.
"I'm pretty sure y'all all saw that," said Prince, who leaped high off the Stone Room floor when the selection was announced. "It's a great chance to go back home and play in front of my family and friends. . . . This is my first chance to go back home and play, so I'm very excited."
Prince, an all-area pick at Earl Warren High School, said he was already hitting up teammates for extra game tickets for the second- and third-round matchups in San Antonio. "Some of them are using them, but some of the guys from out of state, I'm going to get them to give them up."
Baylor will face former Big 12 rival Nebraska in Friday's opening game. The Cornhuskers lead the all-time series, 12-10, but the Bears have won five of the last six meetings and are 3-1 in neutral-site matchups.
Picked to finish last in the preseason Big Ten coaches' poll, Nebraska was a surprising fourth-place finisher at 11-7 in league play and racked up a pair of top-10 wins over Wisconsin and Michigan State. The Cornhuskers are making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1998 and are 0-6 in six previous trips.
"It's a good start, but just a start," said second-year head coach Tim Miles, who has taken teams to the NCAA Division I, Division II and NAIA tournaments. "We have to look where we were, where we are now and where we want to be. Let's say we win and make a run. Is that good enough? No, it's not good enough. You want to be a team that can do that every year."
Nebraska is led by 6-6 sophomore guard Terran Petteway, a Texas native from Galveston Ball High School who spent his freshman season at Texas Tech. The first-team all-Big Ten selection is averaging 18.1 points and 4.9 rebounds per game.
Despite their recent exit from the Big 12, following the 2010-11 school year, the Cornhuskers play like a typical Big Ten team - very physical and defensive-minded. They average just 67 points per game, but only give up 64.9.
"Sounds like another Big 12 game to be, a physical game, so it shouldn't be anything we're not used to," Jefferson said.
Drew said playing against former Big Ten coaches like Kansas State's Bruce Weber (Illinois) and Texas Tech's Tubby Smith (Minnesota) should help the Bears prepare for that physical style of play.
"The Big 12 prepares you for any style, because you face so many different styles," he said. "At the end of the day, it's all excellent coaching and great players, so hopefully the Big 12 will be able to show just how good we've been, preparing ourselves for this moment in the NCAAs and all of us being successful."
The Big 12 got seven of its 10 teams in the NCAA tournament field - all single-digit seeds - and three of them are in the West Regional that feeds into Anaheim, Calif.
Baylor would face the winner of Friday's matchup between third-seeded Creighton (26-7) and 14th-seeded Louisiana Lafayette (23-11) on Sunday, with the winner advancing to the Sweet 16 in Anaheim.
The 16th-ranked Creighton Bluejays finished second in their first year in the vastly revamped Big East Conference and lost to Providence, 65-58, in Sunday's tournament final, possibly moving them down a spot in the seeding. Doug McDermott ranks first nationally in scoring with 26.9 points per game and is one of the NCAA's all-time leading scorers playing for his dad, Creighton head coach Greg McDermott.
Top-seeded and fourth-ranked Arizona (30-4) has a possible scary third-round pairing against a ninth-seeded Oklahoma State team (21-12) that has played well since the return of Marcus Smart. Also in that part of the bracket is fifth-seeded and 21st-ranked Oklahoma (23-9), which opens against 12th-seeded North Dakota State on Thursday in Spokane, Wash.
Heslip, who talked about "cutting down the nets in Dallas" after Baylor's loss to Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament final, said the team's goal is still to make it to the Final Four.
"The goal at the beginning of the year is to win a national championship. If a team tells you they're not playing for that, then there's no point in playing," he said. "Everybody's goal is to get in the tournament. We got that done. . . . We get prepared for the game and take it game by game, but our goal is to be in Dallas, and we expect to be there."
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