When Baylor learned Sunday it would open the NCAA tournament in Tulsa, many of the players and coaches smiled, high-fived and fist-bumped each other.
They knew their best-case scenario had come true.
Tulsa is the closest regional to Waco and will allow more family members and fans to watch the third-seeded Bears when they face 14th-seeded New Mexico State on Friday in the first round of the East bracket at the BOK Center.
“Baylor Nation is going to follow us up there so it will be good,” said Baylor senior guard Ish Wainright. “We want to go as far as possible. We’ve got to focus, lock in. Don’t take anyone for granted. It doesn’t matter who we play, we’ve got to play like it’s our last game. We’ve got to play like we did at the beginning of the season.”
The Bears (25-7) will make their school record fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance. But after reaching the Sweet 16 in 2014, the higher-seeded Bears have lost in the first round of the last two NCAA tournaments.
No. 14 seed Georgia State upset the No. 3 Bears, 57-56, two years ago in Jacksonville, Fla. Last year, 12th-seed Yale shocked No. 5 Baylor, 79-75, in Providence, R.I. The Bears don’t want to let that happen again, so they’ll have plenty of motivation.
“It’s crazy,” said Baylor forward Johnathan Motley. “Anything can happen in the tournament. The first couple rounds there are always upsets. The first game is usually your hardest game. If we make it out of that I think we’ll be fine.”
Seeded third in the Big 12 tournament, the Bears made a quick exit with a 70-64 loss to Kansas State in the quarterfinals Thursday in Kansas City. But Baylor understands the NCAA tournament is a much bigger stage and the most important time to play its best basketball.
The Bears are familiar with New Mexico State since they’ve played twice recently at the Ferrell Center. In 2014, Baylor grabbed a 66-55 win before taking an 85-70 win in 2015.
New Mexico State (28-5) finished second in the Western Athletic Conference regular season before earning the automatic berth Sunday to the NCAA tournament with a 70-60 win over Cal State-Bakersfield in the WAC championship game.
The Aggies feature a balanced attack led by guard Ian Baker who is averaging 16.6 points and 4.1 assists per game. Guard Braxton Huggins is averaging 13.6 points and has nailed a team-high 86 3-pointers while forward Eli Chuha is averaging 12.4 points and a team-high nine rebounds.
Forward Jemerrio Jones is also a big threat in the paint as he’s averaging 9.9 points and 8.5 rebounds.
“From our games with them in the past, we know they’re very talented and well-coached,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “And it’s a team that traditionally has done very well. That’s why we’ve played them. We always know they’re going to be in the tournament and win a lot of games. So we are familiar with them.”
The Baylor-New Mexico State winner will advance to the second round Sunday against the winner of Friday’s game between No. 6 seed SMU and the play-in game between Providence and USC.
Baylor’s side of the East bracket also includes No. 7 South Carolina against No. 10 Marquette and No. 2 Duke against No. 15 Troy in Greenville, S.C. The No. 1 seed in the East is defending national champion Villanova. The Sweet 16 and Elite Eight will be played at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
“I know with us, the way we lost to K-State, I’m sure people will think we’re a team that’s vulnerable,” Drew said. “And you know what, everybody’s vulnerable. Everybody’s 40 minutes from going home. You’ve got great coaches, great players, it’s the best time of the year. And we’re excited to be a part of it and hopefully do what we need to do to be able to survive and advance.”
Drew wasn’t just excited his team made the NCAA tournament for the seventh time in the last 10 years, he was thrilled that his younger brother, Bryce Drew, guided Vanderbilt to the tournament in his first season at the school.
Vanderbilt is paired against first-time NCAA tournament entrant Northwestern in the West, so the Drew brothers won’t likely face each other.
“You know what, we would have loved them in the same region, just not play against them,” said Scott Drew. “But at the end of the day, both of us being in, that’s all you can ask for. Now, it’s March Madness.”
While Drew would have preferred being a No. 2 seed, he’s glad the Bears will be playing the regional reasonably close to home.
“I’m really excited about Tulsa,” Drew said.”The location, especially after going to Providence last year and Jacksonville before that, being closer so our fans can hopefully drive there, that’s huge.”