1. The Baylor Bears are going dancing. Selected as the #3 seed in the Western Region, Baylor opens the final stretch of their season against the champions of the Sun Belt Conference, Georgia State. Even more importantly than that though, the Bears will be making a huge program first. This is the first time the Bears have been selected to back-to-back NCAA tournaments. A ridiculously insane curse of NEVER being selected to the tournament in an odd numbered year (1946, '48, '50, '88, 2008, '10, '12, and '14) has been ended. It was one of the strangest facts about Baylor basketball, with a history full of twists and turns. The Bears are going dancing in 2015, and do so as a strong favorite to go to at least the Sweet 16. Their first opponent will be the 13th seed Georgia State Panthers, who are making their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2001.
The Panthers, 24-9 on the season, won the Sun Belt Conference Tournament as the #1 seed. They beat Georgia Southern in the championship game that had more fireworks after it that during. A 38-36 slogfest of a finale featured just 26 made shots between the two teams as brick after brick was thrown up. The most entertaining part of the game came after the final whistle, where Georgia State head coach Ron Hunter blew out his Achilles tendon celebrating the victory with his son, star guard R.J.Hunter. With crutches in tow, Hunter celebrated the victory with his team, and his first trip to the NCAA tournament as a head coach. Hunter has been at Georgia State for the past 4 seasons, after a successful 13 year run at IUPUI, a conference rival of Valporaiso where the Drew family has prominently coached at.
2. This is a team with two very dangerous weapons on the outside, and a key guy down low that brings size and rim protection to their defense. The Panthers are led by the aforementioned R.J. Hunter, a 6-foot-6 guard who averages 19.8 points per game to go along with 3.6 assists and 4.8 rebounds. He is a big-time guard, with a possible NBA future. Hunter is a volume shooter, especially from outside. He has made just over 30% of this 3's this year, but was closer to 40% last year. The Panthers don't take a lot of three-pointers, but it is a good bet that Hunter will be the one hoisting them up. He has over 45% of the teams 3-point makes in the season.
His back-court mate is Ryan Harrow, a former Kentucky Wildcat. Harrow started his career at NC State, where he played in 29 games, averaging 9.3 points and 3.3 assists. The talented guard then transferred to Kentucky for 1-year, where he played a starting role for John Calipari. After the season though, another transfer was in store for him, as he made his way down to Georgia State. The past two seasons have seen the former Georgia High School Player of the Year take on a larger and larger role for the Panthers. He scored 18.7 points per game and chipped in 3.7 assists and 1.4 steals. Harrow is a legitimate power conference point guard with a good first step and developing 3-point shot. He never made over 30% of this three-pointers before this season, which saw him make 39% on 105 attempts. With these two star guards, teh Panthers have the talent to matchup with almost any back-court in the country. A third guard might be even more recognizable however, as former Louisville reserve guard Kevin Ware is the current starter at point guard for the Panthers. Ware became known across the country as a Cardinal while suffering a gruesome compound leg fracture during the NCAA tournament. Ware has become a valuable part of the Panther attack, averaging 7.7 points per game as their starting point guard.
3. A key to any mid-major or smaller team to being able to compete with the larger power-5 schools is their ability to get capable big-men down low. The Panthers have such a player, 6-foot-10 Curtis Washington. The former USC player has spent his last two years as a Panther and has become a reliable big-man for them. He is their only post man taller then 6-foot-7 and he plays a key role in the middle of their zone defense. According to KenPom.com, Washington has the 28th highest block percentage in the nation at 10.2%, so he is a very good rim protector. However, in their zone defense, the Panthers struggle mightily at securing rebounds, being one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the nation.
This will be a matchup of two zone based defenses, with the Panthers playing more of a traditional 2-3 zone. Washington is the key to it down low, but the Panthers will rotate quite a bit at the guard and other forward spots. They are a team that gets a ton of steals (13.7% steal percentage, 4th highest in nation according to KenPom) and
4. As a whole, the Bears draw could have been a lot better and a lot worse. I do think they got some benefit being the #3 seed out west. If they were bumped down to the 4th seed in the South, they could have been matched up with 5th seed Utah, who is much better than their seed would indicate. I also think their match-up against Georgia State is not too dangerous, all things considered. They are a good team, but one that struggles to score at times. They are not a dangerous team behind the arc, and they play a style of play that the Bears are very used to. This is not a team that will be foreign to the Bears, in terms of what they want to do on both sides of the ball.
Even the round of 32 does not feature a team that truly should scare Baylor fans. 6th seed Xavier is a very young team with a balanced attack, while BYU and Ole Miss will battle each other Tuesday night in the play-in game. BYU might be the most dangerous team out of that trio, with Tyler Haws and an explosive offensive attack that gave Gonzaga fits in the WCC Championship game last week.
5. The news is not all good however, as the Bears received little luck with the two teams seeded above them in the Western Region. Top seed Wisconsin is one of the best offensive teams in the nation, and a team that easily dispatched the Bears in 2014 during the round of 16. They feature one of the best players in the game in Frank Kaminsky to go along with a very tough team around him. Arizona is on the other side of the spectrum, as they feature one of the best defensive attacks in the nation. Ranked as high as #2 this year, the Wildcats haven't lost since February 7th and are on a roll right now. Stanley Johnson is one of the most talented freshman in the nation, leading one of the most talented teams outside of Lexington.
Overall, the odds of the Bears playing into the second weekend appear to be strong, at least on paper. They have good matchups in the first weekend and will be favored against all comers. However, running into a team like Arizona in the Sweet 16 or Wisconsin in the Elite Eight make a Final Four trip a long-shot. That isn't to say it still won't happen; it's March and it is Madness after all.