The glee was apparent.
It’s always readily visible for NCAA-bound teams on Selection Sunday, as an adrenaline rush typically accompanies the unveiling of one’s name on the TV screen. But the giddiness was more bubbly than ever for Baylor, a team that looked dead in the water in mid-February but now finds itself floating to the Riverwalk.
After a momentous late-season surge that included a run to the Big 12 tournament final, the Bears landed a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament when the brackets were revealed Sunday. Even better, they’ll pack up for a short trip the AT&T Center in San Antonio, facing 11th-seeded Nebraska (19-12) in the first round of the West Regional at 11:40 a.m. Friday on truTV.
The Bears could have landed just about anywhere, so they were overjoyed with the idea of playing just three hours down the road.
“We’re playing in San Antonio. Love it,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “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 the 2010 NCAA tournament) 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.”
For at least one Baylor player, it really will feel like a home game. Sophomore Taurean Prince grew up in San Antonio and played his high school ball at San Antonio Warren, so he jumped out of his seat in jubilation when Baylor’s landing spot was flashed at the team’s private watch party Sunday.
“I saw that we’d have a chance to go to San Antonio, but I didn’t really think we’d go,” Prince said. “It’s my first time playing back home since high school . . . so I’m excited. I’ve already been asking (teammates for tickets). 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.”
It marks the fourth NCAA tournament trip in the last seven years for Baylor (24-11), and one of the most hard-earned of them all. The Bears were lagging behind at 2-8 in the Big 12 at just past the conference midpoint, but finished with the force of a Cory Jefferson dunk. Baylor won 10 of their last 12 games, including three in the first three days of the Big 12 tourney in Kansas City, Mo.
“You can’t dwell on the past. When we were 2-8, what were we going to do?” senior guard Brady Heslip said. “Feel sorry for yourself 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.”
Baylor’s first-round foe is plenty familiar, given that the Huskers and Bears were conference foes as recently as 2011 before Nebraska bolted for the Big Ten. The Huskers finished fourth in the Big Ten in the regular season, and feature one of the country’s better scorers in forward Terran Petteway, who averages 18.1 points per game.
“It sounds like just another Big 12 game to me,” Jefferson said. “A physical game, so it shouldn’t be anything we’re not used to.”
If the Bears win that opening round game, they’d play the winner of Creighton and Louisiana-Lafayette in the round of 32 Sunday. Creighton’s Doug McDermott, a recent Sports Illustrated coverboy, leads the nation in scoring at 26.9 points an outing.
From there, the Sweet 16 teams in the West regional will move on to the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. The top seed in the West is Pac-12 champion Arizona (30-4), which won its first 21 games of the year, while the No. 2 seed is Wisconsin (26-7), the second-place finisher in the Big Ten.
Meanwhile, AT&T Stadium in Arlington — formerly known as Cowboys Stadium — serves as the host for this year’s Final Four. That’s a fact not lost on the Bears, who would like nothing more than to play four NCAA tournament games within the borders of Texas.
The way they’re playing, they believe it’s within the realm of possibility.
“For us, location was really important. . . . It’s as good as it could be,” Drew said. “At the end of the day, we know where the Final Four site is too, and we like that. So we’d like to keep doing what we need to do to have an opportunity to play in that.”