If you feel like you’ve watched this movie before, you’re not alone. The sequel is shaping up to be just as suspenseful and thrilling as the original.
Baylor’s 2013-14 team looked long past dead when it opened Big 12 play with a 2-8 record. After winning the NIT the previous season, it seemed like a return trip to that tournament was the Bears’ best case scenario.
But the Bears had bigger plans. They won seven of their last eight Big 12 regular season games and then won three more to vault into the finals of the Big 12 tournament before losing to Iowa State.
Earning a sixth seed in the NCAA tournament, the Bears roared past Nebraska and Creighton before losing to Wisconsin in the Sweet 16.
When the Bears lost seven of their first nine Big 12 games this season, Scott Drew kept bringing up that turnaround season four years ago. How those Bears never quit fighting despite some close losses that might have destroyed some teams’ confidence. How they turned a dismal looking season into something special.
These Bears listened, and could be on the same path.
Just 11 days ago, the Bears were last in the Big 12 with a 2-7 record. Three-point losses to Kansas, West Virginia and TCU and a two-point loss to Oklahoma pushed them into a huge hole that could have shot their confidence to pieces.
But the Bears started climbing back with an 81-67 win over Iowa State on Feb. 3 that featured a 23-point outburst by senior forward Terry Maston off the bench. Then they went to Stillwater and won their first road game of the season as Manu Lecomte scored 18 points and Nuni Omot came off the bench for 14 in a 67-56 decision over Oklahoma State.
With 9,323 fans pouring into the Ferrell Center, the Bears pulled off their biggest win of the season when they beat then-No. 10 Kansas, 80-64. With Lecomte scoring 18 and Omot contributing 17, the Bears won their first game over the Jayhawks in five years, snapping an 11-game losing streak in the series.
Facing a tough two-day turnaround Monday night, the Bears traveled to Austin to face a Texas team that was just as desperate as them to win. In a workmanlike, sometimes ugly game, the Bears managed to pull out a 74-73 win when center Jo Lual-Acuil rebounded Lecomte’s missed drive and slammed it home with 8.2 seconds remaining in double overtime.
Now instead of missing clutch shots, the Bears are making them. Instead of wilting down the stretch, the Bears are playing their best basketball. The Kansas game was a perfect example. When the Jayhawks rallied to cut Baylor’s lead to 58-56, the Bears finished with a 22-8 run to seal the win.
Drew has settled in on an effective eight-man rotation that features Lecomte, Lual-Acuil, Jake Lindsey, Tristan Clark and Mark Vital in the starting lineup and Maston, Omot and King McClure coming off the bench. Following four straight wins, the Bears are now 16-10 overall and 6-7 in the Big 12, and their confidence is soaring.
“I think we’re really turning it around in conference after the first half and we’re just clicking right now on offense and defense,” said Maston, who scored a career-high 26 points against Texas. “Our zone has been really tough and Manu is really leading us. He’s hitting big shots and Jo is getting big rebounds and being a force in the paint. Everybody is doing their role and we’re doing it really well.”
The Bears’ hope of making the NCAA tournament for the fifth straight year is no longer some unrealistic dream. They’ve vaulted to No. 53 in the NCAA RPI, which means they’re at least closing in on the bubble.
They can play their way into the NCAA tournament with games coming up Saturday against No. 7 Texas Tech, Tuesday against No. 20 West Virginia, Feb. 24 against TCU, Feb. 27 against No. 23 Oklahoma and the regular season finale March 3 at Kansas State.
If the Bears win three of the next five games, a 9-9 Big 12 finish would likely guarantee an NCAA tournament berth. The Bears are just 1-8 against Top 25 teams this year, but they’ll likely have several opportunities to improve that record in the next two weeks.
Playing Texas Tech, West Virginia and Oklahoma at the Ferrell Center should bring out some of the biggest crowds of the year. These are the kind of high-profile games that make college basketball fun. Every game means a lot to the teams involved as they jockey for NCAA tournament position.
Whether the Bears can repeat their remarkable 2014 season-ending run remains to be seen. The Big 12 is so competitive from top to bottom that any of Baylor’s remaining games could swing either way. But the template is out there and the Bears appear anxious to follow it.