Dealing with injuries to key players all season, Baylor is thrilled that it’s projected to make the NCAA tournament.
Reaching the 68-team field will be no small feat considering that center Tristan Clark went down with a season-ending knee injury in early January and senior guards Makai Mason and King McClure have been battling injuries that have kept them in and out of the lineup for more than a month.
Advancing in the tournament will be tough since Baylor will likely earn a ninth or 10th seed when the bracket is unveiled at 5 p.m. Sunday on CBS. If the Bears win their opening game Thursday or Friday as a ninth seed, they would face the possibility of playing a No. 1 seed in the second round.
But that’s OK with the Bears. They just want another chance to play in the NCAA tournament after barely missing the cut last season following a school-record four straight appearances.
Regionals will be held in Tulsa, Des Moines, Salt Lake City, Columbus (Ohio), Columbia (S.C.), Hartford (Conn.), Jacksonville (Fla.), and San Jose (Calif.). The First Four play-in games will be played Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio.
“It’s like a dream come true,” McClure said. “Everybody wants to play in the tournament. Last year we barely missed it, but this year we’re back. It’s a great feeling to be a part of something like that.”
McClure and Mason are the only two Baylor players with NCAA tournament experience. Scoring 31 points for Yale in the 2016 NCAA tournament, Mason put a quick end to Baylor’s postseason as the 12th-seeded Bulldogs pulled off 79-75 upset in Providence.
After missing most of the last two years with injuries, Mason is looking forward to returning to the NCAA tournament as a starting guard for the team he helped eliminate three years ago.
“It’s been a pretty long road, so just to get the chance to compete on that stage again it’s what you dream for as a kid and that’s what you’re working for pretty much your whole basketball life,” Mason said. “So just to get to that moment, especially with this team that’s kind of been doubted all year, is going to be a pretty special moment.”
Losing their top four scorers from last year’s NIT team, the Bears were picked ninth in the Big 12 preseason coaches poll and seemed to prove doubters right with dismal nonconference home losses to Texas Southern and SFA.
Just when it seemed like the Bears were starting to gain some cohesiveness in a 73-70 win over Iowa State in the second Big 12 game on Jan. 8, Clark went down with his season-ending knee injury. Doom and gloom pervaded the Ferrell Center.
Remarkably the Bears reinvented themselves into a guard-oriented offense and reeled off six straight wins that were capped by Mason’s career-high 40-point explosion in a 90-64 blowout of TCU on Feb. 2.
But then Mason suffered a bruised toe that’s kept him out of two games and has hampered his scoring throughout the last month. McClure missed five games with a knee injury before returning to play the last three games. But he’s struggled offensively by hitting just four of 19 shots since his return.
The Bears (19-13) will come into the NCAA tournament on a four-game losing streak, including Thursday’s 83-66 loss to Iowa State in the first game of the Big 12 tournament.
But their 10-8 fourth-place Big 12 regular season finish, featuring two wins over Iowa State and a win over Texas Tech, is a major plus on their NCAA tournament resume.
“That’s a blessing of being in the best conference in America,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “You finish fourth and 10-8, and in the past teams with eight wins have gotten in. You go through this grind to have a chance to reap the spoils, and hopefully it works out for 80 percent of the league if not 70 percent.”
While the Bears would have liked to progress deeper in the Big 12 tournament, the rest should benefit Mason and King and some other players who are trying to manage injuries.
“You’ve got to look at the glass as half full, and that means Makai gets another couple days to take care of his foot,” Drew said. “Jared (Butler) gets a couple of days to take care of his knees. Mark Vital is nursing an injury.”
But the Bears know they must play better to have a shot to advance in the NCAA tournament. The hot shooting Cyclones buried 13 of 25 3-pointers and Baylor hurt itself by not getting back fast enough on defense.
“Hopefully we can get everybody healthy and get back to kind of how we were playing when we were playing really well,” Drew said. “We can work a couple of days on executing and trying to get back into a rhythm. We’ve been so blessed in previous years to basically have one or two starting lineups, and it seems like this year we’ve had more different lineups, different combinations, and I know that’s been tough on the guys, tough on us.”
Vital was a freshman last year when the Bears finished 19-15 overall and 8-10 in the Big 12, and lost to Mississippi State in the second round of the NIT. But he watched the Bears reach the Sweet 16 in 2017 with veterans like Johnathan Motley and Ish Wainright leading the way.
Now Vital wants to be one of those leaders.
“By me just sitting there watching that year and seeing the things I have to do when I’m on the floor, watching Ish and Mot and everybody, I picked up a lot,” Vital said. “So when we get to the tournament, I think I know what to do and I can motivate the guys.”