TULSA, Okla. – Reeling off one impressive nonconference win after another, Baylor felt like it was in the middle of an extended party that stretched from the Ferrell Center to the Bahamas to a night playing before the soldiers at Fort Hood.
Then came the grind of the Big 12, a two-month stretch that took a physical and mental toll on the Bears.
As the NCAA tournament begins, the Bears want to get back to that freewheeling team that put together a season-opening 12-0 nonconference run that led to the first No. 1 ranking in school history in early January.
No. 3-seeded Baylor faces No. 14 New Mexico State in the East regional at 11:40 a.m. Friday at the BOK Center in Tulsa.
“There was a time when we looked at it a little like a job and we weren’t having fun,” said Baylor senior guard Ish Wainright. “Now we’re back to having fun. We’re back to being our goofy selves, joking around a lot and that’s a good thing. So you’ll see a lot of smiles and a lot of laughs on the court.”
The Bears should also have plenty of motivation after losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament the last two seasons to lower seeded teams. In 2015, No. 14 Georgia State went on a late run to pull off a 57-56 win over Baylor in Jacksonville, Fla. Last year, No. 12 Yale stunned the No. 5 Bears, 79-75, in Providence, R.I.
Wainright said the Bears haven’t focused on those two losses as they’ve prepared for New Mexico State.
“What happened the last two years?” Wainright said. “We haven’t really talked about it. We know what we need to do. This is a new season and New Mexico State is a great team.”
Unranked in the preseason polls, the Bears caught the attention of the college basketball world by beating four Top 25 teams, including No. 4 Oregon, No. 24 Michigan State, No. 10 Louisville and No. 7 Xavier.
But since improving to 15-0 after winning the first three Big 12 games, the Bears have gone 10-7 including a 70-64 loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 tournament.
Stepping outside of conference play again, the Bears hope to go on another big run. If Baylor beats New Mexico State (28-5), it will play again Sunday against the winner of Friday’s first-round game between sixth-seeded SMU and No. 11 seed USC.
The Bears face a considerable challenge against a New Mexico State team that qualified for the NCAA tournament by beating Cal State-Bakersfield, 80-70, in the WAC championship game.
Baylor has some history against New Mexico State since the two teams played the last two seasons with the Bears taking a 66-55 win in 2014 and an 85-70 win in 2015. Paul Weir was an assistant coach on both of those New Mexico State teams before taking over the head coaching position this season.
“I think Paul is playing a smaller lineup, doing a great job especially in transition ,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “They really push the ball. But I see more similarities than differences, and that’s a positive because it’s an outstanding program.”
Led by three players averaging double figure scoring, the Aggies are ringing off 78.9 points per game and shooting 46.8 percent from the field. Guard Ian Baker is averaging a team-high 16.6 points and 4.1 assists while guard Braxton Huggins is averaging 13.6 points while nailing a team-high 84 3-pointers.
Forward Eli Chuha is a big threat inside with 12.4 points and nine rebounds per game and forward Jemerrio Jones also gives the Aggies production in the paint with 9.9 points and 8.5 rebounds per game.
“They’re very similar to a lot of teams we play from the standpoint of a lot of athleticism,” Drew said. “They’ve got great length, they play up and down and are very good on ball screens.”
Weir knows combating Baylor’s size and zone defense will be difficult. The 6-10 Johnathan Motley is one of the best players in the country as he averages 17.3 points and 9.9 rebounds and 7-0 Jo Lual-Acuil has amassed 9.2 points, seven rebounds and a team-high 2.6 blocks per game.
“Obviously, Baylor is a terrific basketball team,” Weir said. “They’ve got as much size as we’ve probably seen this year and are a very good offensive rebounding team. So we have our work cut out for us as far as mitigating that size the best we can.”
Baylor guard Manu Lecomte is healthy and ready to play after playing 24 minutes against Kansas State in the Big 12 tournament. After missing the final two regular season games against West Virginia and Texas with a sprained ankle, Lecomte hit five of seven shots and scored 13 points in 24 minutes against the Wildcats.
Drew is looking forward to seeing the return of the Baylor team that played with such a sense of joy at the start of the season.
“I think some of the grind of the season wears you out ,” Drew said. “But that’s the beauty of the NCAA tournament. Everybody gets a breath of fresh air. Different venue, different excitement, and playing different teams.”