After winning seven of its last eight games, Baylor doesn’t have to worry about squeezing into the NCAA tournament any longer.
It’s all about seeding now.
The Bears hope to position themselves higher in the NCAA tournament by making a strong showing in the Big 12 tournament beginning with Wednesday’s opener against TCU at 8:30 p.m. at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.
“We all know that how we finish here will affect who we play and the seeding for the (NCAA) tournament,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “The better we do now will put us in better position for the NCAA tournament, so this tournament is important for us. We’re playing our best basketball of the year and we need to keep that going.”
Most NCAA tournament bracketologists have the Bears as an eighth or ninth regional seed, which means if they win their first game they’ll likely play a No. 1 seed in their second game. Moving up to a sixth or seventh seed would be more advantageous.
A long run in the Big 12 tournament would look good in the eyes of the NCAA tournament selection committee when the 68-team field is announced Sunday.
The Bears have reached the Big 12 tournament championship game twice under Drew in 2009 and 2012, and lost both times. If the Bears reach Saturday night’s championship game, it will be their fourth game in four days.
“It’s never easy,” Drew said. “But guys are used to playing four games in four days in AAU ball. They’d rather play than practice, and after the third game it’s all about the same. It’s as exciting of a Big 12 tournament as we’ve had. Eight teams could win it.”
Seeded seventh in the Big 12 tournament, the Bears (21-10, 9-9) will face a 10th-seeded TCU squad that they hammered twice during the regular season. With Taurean Prince coming off the bench for 23 points, the Bears blew away the Horned Frogs, 88-62, on Jan. 11 at the Ferrell Center.
The Bears were just as dominant in the Feb. 12 rematch in Fort Worth as they ran away with a 91-58 win behind the hot shooting of Brady Heslip with eight 3-pointers. The Bears controlled the boards in both meetings against the Horned Frogs, who finished the regular season with a 9-21 overall record and went winless in the Big 12 at 0-18.
“They cause a lot of problems like everybody else,” TCU coach Trent Johnson said. “They’re a worse matchup for us because of their length and strength, and they can shoot it. They’re an NCAA tournament caliber team. Hopefully, we’ll give ourselves a chance.”
TCU’s best player is guard guard Kyan Anderson, who ranks sixth in the league with a 17.1 scoring average and scored 29 points in the second meeting against the Bears. Freshman center Karviar Shepherd is averaging 8.8 points and a team-high 6.8 rebounds per game.
If the Bears beat TCU, they’ll advance to Thursday night’s second-round game against second-seeded Oklahoma. No. 3 Texas and No. 6 West Virginia are also on Baylor’s side of the bracket.
The Baylor players don’t feel nearly as much pressure heading into this year’s tournament as last season when they knew they had to beat Oklahoma State in the first game to have a shot at the NCAA tournament.
The Cowboys pulled off a 74-72 win that sent the Bears to the NIT. The Bears won the last five games to win the NIT championship, but they know they’re NCAA tournament bound this season.
“Last year, we were fighting to get in the tournament and obviously we didn’t make it,” Baylor forward Cory Jefferson said. “This year, we know we’re good to go. Doing well in this tournament and winning it would add that much more.”
BEAR FACTS: Baylor forward Cory Jefferson has been named District VII player of the year by the United States Basketball Writers Association. The award includes Division I players from Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas. Former Baylor guard Pierre Jackson received the honor last season.