NEW YORK — They’ve been friends since 2007 when Scott Drew was on the verge of making his first NCAA tournament appearance with Baylor and Frank Martin was beginning his first college head coaching job at Kansas State.
Even after Martin left Kansas State for South Carolina in 2012, they’ve stayed in touch throughout the years. They played each other in 2013-14 as the Bears won both games in Waco and Columbia, S.C.
But by far their biggest matchup will be Friday night when the third-seeded Bears and seventh-seeded Gamecocks play in the East regional Sweet 16 at 6:30 p.m. at Madison Square Garden.
The winner will advance to the Elite Eight on Sunday against the winner of the late Friday game between No. 4 Florida (26-8) and No. 8 Wisconsin (27-9).
Martin has always respected how Drew has built the Bears from the ground up as they prepare for their fourth Sweet 16 appearance.
“I’m extremely proud of how Scott has been able to maintain Baylor as a national winner,” Martin said. .“Everyone thinks, OK, Baylor is going to take a back seat this year. They lost so and so, but then there’s another guy who jumps in there and all of a sudden becomes their guy.”
Drew has seen how Martin has made the Gamecocks relevant with their first Sweet 16 appearance since 1973 after beating No. 2 seed Duke, 88-81, in the round of 32.
“We became close when he was at Kansas State and I have a lot of respect for him,” Drew said. “We had so many games that went down to the wire. Either they won at the buzzer or we won at the buzzer. I just always admired how hard his teams played and how well they played.”
Baylor assistant Tim Maloney is an old friend of Martin’s, and has played a big part in keeping Drew in contact. Drew isn’t even afraid of Martin’s famous stare which could make a grown man cry for mercy.
“People say, ‘Is he really like that in person?’” Drew said. “He’s so intense. But he’s just a gentle giant with a big heart and a really good guy.”
Since they know each other so well, there should be considerable familiarity when the Bears (27-7) and Gamecocks (24-10) play in the Sweet 16. Martin coached under Bob Huggins at Kansas State in 2006-07 and utilizes a similar, hard-nosed defensive style that keeps teams from getting into an offensive rhythm.
“They pressure the ball,” said Baylor guard Ish Wainright. “Their defense is amazing. They have a lot of help side defense. They know their principles and that’s what makes them even better.”
Baylor’s defense was the best in the Big 12 but will certainly be tested by South Carolina guard Sindarius Thornwell. The versatile 6-5 senior was named SEC player of the year after leading the Gamecocks with 21.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game.
Thornwell broke loose for 29 points and 11 rebounds against Duke.
“The whole team will be defending him,” Wainright said. “He’s a great player, I’ve known him since high school. He can do everything. They do a great job feeding him the ball where he likes it. But everyone on their team is great, not just him.”
While Thornwell is by far the highest scorer on the team, three other Gamecocks average in double figures including guard PJ Dozier with 13.8 points per game, guard Duane Notice with 10.3 and forward Chris Self with 10.1.
The Bears hope their bench can continue to make a difference like it did in the first two NCAA tournament wins over New Mexico State and USC.
The bench scored 42 points against New Mexico State as Al Freeman hit 21 points and Terry Maston collected 19 points and nine rebounds. Maston put up the same numbers against USC and Jake Lindsey added six points against the Trojans.
The Bears will play at Madison Square Garden for the first time since winning the NIT in 2013. The Gamecocks played at the famous arena earlier this season, dropping a 67-64 decision to Seton Hall on Dec. 12.
Drew doesn’t want his team to get too wide-eyed by playing at the Garden, but it’s a big deal to the players.
“It’s real cool, especially being in an historic place,” Wainright said. “We all walked in and were just in shock, Madison Square Garden. Not too many people can be here.”
No. 3 Baylor vs. No. 7 South Carolina
Event: NCAA East regional
Tipoff: 6:30 p.m. at Madison Square Garden
Records: Baylor 27-7, South Carolina 24-10
Series: Baylor leads, 4-2
Last meeting: Baylor, 69-65 (2014, in Columbia, S.C.)