NCAA USC Baylor Basketball

Baylor forward Johnathan Motley celebrates with teammates late in the second half of a second-round game against Southern California.

When the NCAA tournament bracket was announced March 12, the East looked like the most beastly of the four regions.

Not only did the East feature defending national champion Villanova as the No. 1 seed, college basketball blueblood Duke was the No. 2 seed after winning the ACC tournament.

It looked like a pretty rough road for No. 3 Baylor to get past those two teams. Villanova and Duke would have had a homecourt advantage playing before a lot of their fans at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

Now the Bears don’t have to worry about taking on those two heavyweights for a shot at the Final Four.

They’re gone. Victims of March Madness.

No. 8 seed Wisconsin pulled off a 65-62 win over Villanova and then No. 7 South Carolina knocked off Duke, 88-81.

That left No. 3 Baylor as the highest remaining seed in the East region. The Bears will face South Carolina at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Madison Square Garden while Wisconsin will take on No. 4 Florida in the late game.

Baylor coach Scott Drew has historically done quite well against lower seeded teams. Despite opening round losses to No. 14 seed Georgia State two years ago and No. 12 Yale last year, Drew has gone 9-2 against lower seeded teams.

But seeding doesn’t mean anything to Drew. March Madness is the most fun and unpredictable sporting event in the world because upsets happen all the time. This isn’t UCLA pummeling everybody on its way to 10 national championships in the 1960s and ‘70s. Now it’s rare when all four top regional seeds make the Sweet 16.

South Carolina beat Duke behind a tremendous game by Sindarius Thornwell with 24 points, six rebounds and five assists.

Senior forward Nigel Hayes showed all of his NCAA tournament experience by scoring 19 points in the upset of Villanova. Hayes has been around so long that he collected 10 points and six boards as a freshman in Wisconsin’s 69-52 win over Baylor in Anaheim in 2014.

Florida played some old-school defense in a 65-39 win over Virginia to advance to the Sweet 16.

Any of the remaining teams in the East region can make the Final Four. There isn’t a clear cut favorite.

But Baylor has to like its chances. The Bears’ combination of experience, athleticism and depth is as good as any of the 16 teams still remaining.

The Bears have their star in All-American Johnathan Motley who produced double-doubles in Baylor’s 91-73 opening-round win over 14th-seeded New Mexico State and Sunday’s 82-78 win over 11th-seeded USC.

But they don’t just have to rely on Motley. Despite producing 19 points and 10 boards against the Trojans, Motley was in foul trouble much of the game and got his fifth with 1:39 remaining.

But other players came through. Scoreless until the closing minutes, point guard Manu Lecomte hit 12 big points down the stretch to close out the win.

Sophomore guard King McClure matched his career high with 17 points against USC. Nobody delivered bigger than forward Terry Maston who came off the bench to amass 19 points and nine rebounds in both NCAA tournament games.

The Bears have played tremendous defense all season, but weren’t a prolific scoring team in the rugged Big 12. That’s changed now as Baylor scored its most points in an NCAA tournament game with its 91-point outburst against New Mexico State followed by an 82-point performance against USC.

There are a lot of good signs as the Bears roar into the Sweet 16. This might be the year Drew breaks past the Elite Eight and reaches his first Final Four.

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