So as I sit down to write this column, it’s Tuesday at around 5:30 p.m., which means it’s about 48 hours until my bracket is busted.
Not just mine, of course. Mine, yours, everybody’s.
Hence the Madness of March. But if you think you’re bummed when your bracket slides through the shredder before the NCAA tournament’s first weekend is complete, you ought to try being one of the teams whose season vanishes – poof! – into thin air.
For the past few seasons, both the Baylor men’s basketball team and the Baylor Lady Bears have experienced far shorter runs than they’d hoped for or anticipated.
It’s been different for both programs, but equally unsatisfying. Kim Mulkey’s Lady Bears have established a reputation as one of the four or five elite programs in women’s basketball, a consistent juggernaut that snatches up Big 12 titles like they’re free cookie samples at the grocery store.
But lately they’ve been “only” elite, if that makes sense. There is absolutely no disgrace in reaching the Elite Eight year after year, but Baylor wants more. Mulkey wants more. Those seniors – Nina Davis, Alexis Prince, Khadijiah Cave and Alexis Jones – want more, because more would be different, and thus a lot more enjoyable , than the past three trips that ended a win shy of the final gym.
Watching someone else trim the nets is a death by a thousand cuts. Translation – not much fun.
As for Scott Drew’s Bears, they’re a bit tired of being Cinderella’s dance partner. (And watching helplessly as Cindy tramples her glass slipper across their mugs.) Baylor has endured early exits in each of the past two seasons. The Bears lost as a No. 3 seed to 14th-seeded upstart Georgia State in 2015 and then stumbled against 12th-seeded Yale last year. Lately they haven’t been in the NCAA tournament long enough to unfluff their hotel pillows.
Ah, but hope springs anew with the return of another March.
The seeds are planted. The Lady Bears are the No. 1 seed in the Oklahoma City Regional, and won’t have to travel more than 300 miles to reach the Final Four. Drew’s Bears are the No. 3 seed in the East Regional, and also will benefit from a relatively short 5.5-hour trip to Tulsa, Okla., for the tournament’s first two rounds.
It’s not just the latitude and longitude of the arenas that sparks Baylor’s renewed optimism. It’s the length of their front lines and the breadth of their team chemistry. It’s their fire.
For the Dallas-or-Bust Lady Bears, a 30-3 record signals that they’re pretty tough to beat. As usual. Baylor owns a formidable inside presence, led by 6-foot-7 sophomore Kalani Brown, daughter for former NBA banger P.J. Brown. The Lady Bears are capable of keeping teams honest with the 3-pointer, and they should benefit from the return of Jones, their always-dangerous senior sharpshooter. Mulkey declared Jones “good to go” for the NCAAs after missing five games with a bone bruise in her knee.
Obviously Baylor is beatable. West Virginia showed that in the Big 12 tournament final. But it required a sizzling shooting show from the perimeter in order to beat the Lady Bears. Seriously, the Mountaineers’ Tynice Martin ignited like the Human Torch. Baylor’s defense excels at contesting every shot, thus making such offensive explosions extremely rare.
Like sushi bar rare. If all the offerings were flying fish.
For Baylor to reach its quest of being one of the last four standing, it needs to play just a little bit better than the past three years. The Lady Bears have been right there on the doorstep. One more win, that’s all they need. One more basket, even.
“Just keep doing what you’re doing, make one more bucket than you made last year, because you only lost by two (to Oregon State),” Mulkey said. “I don’t remember what it was the year before. But we’re right there. There’s no secrets to what we do.”
The expectation level is slightly more subdued for the Baylor men. That’s not intended as a slight. Upsets are more prevalent on the men’s side – parity is firmly entrenched – and it’ll be far more surprising if the Bears reach the Final Four.
I’m not saying they can’t, mind you. Only that an Elite Eight trip for Drew’s team – which would be the program’s first since 2010 – would be viewed a lot differently, both internally and externally. Going from unranked at the tipoff to a regional final by year’s end? That’s one for the scrapbook.
Like Mulkey’s team, the Bears have had to overcome injuries in the backcourt, as Manu Lecomte returned last game from an injured ankle. They’re blessed with splendid team chemistry and a defense that covers the court like a can of wax. Johnathan Motley and Jo Lual-Acuil are longer than a church business meeting.
Baylor’s chances of forging a deep run hinge on the team’s outside shooting. One word for it: Inconsistent. It may seem like a common-sense statement, but when the Bears’ shots are falling they’re infinitely a better team than when they’re not.
So, if they can make shots, they’ve got a shot. Both Baylor teams do.
Forty-eight hours till full bracket upheaval.
Can Baylor avoid being among the busted?