No. 5 Baylor begins its run to the NCAA Tournament when it squares off against surprising Kansas State in a Big 12 Conference tournament quarterfinal game on Thursday in Kansas City.
The Bears (26-4), seeded second in this championship, have dropped three of their past five games heading into the event. Baylor forged a Big 12-record 23-game winning streak this season and held down the No. 1 spot in the Associated Press poll for a school-record five straight weeks before faltering late in the campaign.
The Bears are still projected by many pundits to earn a No. 1 regional seed in the NCAA Tournament, but their recent losses won’t help their cause. Baylor finished second in the league.
“This hurts because we haven’t won a conference championship since 1950,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “No team had ever won 15 games before and not won the (Big 12) conference. But we’ll get refocused for the Big 12 tournament and the NCAA Tournament.”
Baylor’s last outing was a 76-64 loss at West Virginia on Saturday, the Bears’ worst loss of the season. Their three other losses were by a combined seven points.
Baylor picked up four conference awards this week, when all five Bears starters earned All-Big 12 honors, making Baylor the first team in the league’s 24-year history with five All-Big 12 team selections.
Drew was named Big 12 Coach of the Year, and Jared Butler was one of three unanimous selections to the All-Big 12 first team while MaCio Teague and Freddie Gillespie picked up All-Big 12 second-team honors. Davion Mitchell and Mark Vital were named to the All-Big 12 third team.
Gillespie was selected as the league’s Most Improved Player, Devonte Babdoo earned the Sixth Man Award and Mitchell was tabbed Big 12 Newcomer of the Year.
All those accolades point to a definitive favorite role for the Bears when they play 10th-seeded Kansas State in the third quarterfinal game at the Big 12 tourney on Thursday.
The Wildcats earned a spot in the quarterfinals with a 53-49 victory over seventh-seeded TCU on Wednesday. Cartier Diarra scored 13 points to lead Kansas State to the win, which was secured by a layup by Makol Mawien with 1:18 to play.
Mike McGuirl added two free throws with 1.2 seconds to play to cement the win the Wildcats, which led by as many as 17 points in the first half and ended the game with an 8-0 run.
Kansas State coach Bruce Weber understands that there’s no margin for error for his team. The Wildcats (11-21) will have to win three more games, and capture the tournament crown, to extend its season.
“I think there’s a lot to lose — you’re done (if you lose),” Weber said. “Our whole thing is that this is our last opportunity. You have a lot of dreams and hopes coming into the season. Things didn’t work out like we had hoped. Now, you have one last opportunity to step up and leave a little bit of a special legacy.”
Kansas State dropped both of its regular-season games to Baylor, losing 73-67 at home on Feb. 3 and 85-66 in Waco on Feb. 25.
“We finally made some plays,” Weber said. “We’ve been through games like this all year, losing six games by three points or less. We stayed focused and hit some shots down the stretch.”
–Field Level Media