This weekend saw the end of both the Baylor men's and women's basketball teams, both on the doorstep of a Final Four birth. Two teams, in rather different circumstances, saw them end to an SEC team that they were favored to beat. It was a tough weekend to watch for Baylor fans, one that will have both programs thinking about the next step.
Baylor's men, ranked 3rd in the Eastern Region, advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament for the first time in 3-seasons. After two upset losses in the first round, the Bears knocked off New Mexico State and USC to get a date with 7th seeded South Carolina, a middle of the pack SEC team. The Gamecocks shot their way past 2nd seeded Duke, considered by many to be one of the favorites this year.
With the loss of top-ranked Villanova, the Bears were the highest ranked team left standing as they prepared to go to New York. A victory over South Carolina would set them up to face the winner of Wisconsin and Florida. Baylor, playing tremendous defense for most of the season, would be going against a Gamecock defense that was one of the best in the nation.
Where the Gamecocks struggled all season though, was on offense. That took care of itself in the first two rounds in Greenville, SC, and it took care of itself in New York as they tied the Bears up all night in limiting them to around 30% shooting for the game in a 70-50 blowout win over the Bears. The Gamecocks played their best full game of the tournament defensively, keeping a very strong Baylor offense from every really putting anything together. Before a 10-0 run to cut the lead to 11 points halfway through the second half, the Bears hadn't scored on back to back possessions since the beginning of the game.
It was a clinic, something you put on tape, defensively for SC. The Bears, perhaps playing with the expectations and pressure of the "top" seed and favorite, pressed and forced bad shots and never got the ball moving. A 22-point first half on 25 shooting (8-32) put the Bears in a hole. With South Carolina struggling to score at first as well, the game was close.
With the Bears missing so many shots, and not capturing the offensive rebounds for put backs, it put the Gamecocks into the open floor where their guards did their damage. While the shooting improved to 37.5%, the turnovers caught up with the Bears. It was a game where Baylor came out tight and performed that way.
While the men lost in the Sweet 16, the ladies ran away from Louisville to a 33 point victory to advance to their 6th Elite Eight in 7 years. It was their fourth straight Elite Eight, and they were looking for their first Final Four since the 2011-12 championship season. "Destination Dallas" was the theme all season for the Lady Bears. A team in the elite tier of college basketball, in the line behind UConn, the Lady Bears and Kim Mulkey have built the program that Scott Drew wants for his men. Their expectation is the Final Four, not just a hope or goal. Anything less is a disappointment.
Once again, disappointment reined for the Lady Bears, losing in overtime to the underdog Mississippi State Bulldogs of the SEC. A game that saw the Lady Bears struggle with 17 turnovers and their inability to stop MSU point guard Morgan William, who scored a career high 41 points.
It was a stark reminder for the Lady Bears of another Elite Eight loss in 2011, where Texas A&M used a group of smaller and quicker guards to dictate the pace and score at will on the bigger Lady Bears. It is no coincidence that current Mississippi State head coach Vic Shaefer was the lead assistant on that Aggie squad.
Unable to keep William out of the paint, or to keep up with her off the ball on screens, the Lady Bears normally tough defense folded. In addition, William used her quickness to put defensive pressure on the ball and force many of those 17 turnovers, including 7 from starting point guard Kristy Wallace.
It was a game where the Lady Bears played tight, like expectations to win were weighing on them. They were, as this program is expected to make it to the Final Four, especially with the next round just 90- minutes north of campus and a date with UConn on the horizon.
While the men talked about a great year that just came up short, there no such words coming from Mulkey and her team. ?"I just went in the locker room and apologized to the four seniors that I couldn't get them to a Final Four," Mulkey said. "I thanked them for four wonderful years of Elite Eight basketball. Many players and schools across the country would trade places with them in a heartbeat.
?"But, at Baylor, we have expectations that are higher than an Elite Eight, whether that's egotistical, fair, it is what it is. We have to keep feeding that monster we started 17 years ago."
The Lady Bears lost a tremendous opportunity. With two key seniors graduating in Nina Davis and Alexis Jones, and the Final Four not being a home game, Baylor and coach Mulkey might be kicking themselves for losing this one.
The two losses will be framed in very different ways for the two programs. For the men, it was a disappointing loss at the end of a surprising season that proved a lot of doubters wrong about Scott Drew and his program. The women though will be looked at again as a team that just could not take care of business and advance to another Final Four.
Those are the realities for Scott Drew, who has rebuilt this program in his 13 seasons to be one of the best and most consistent in the Big 12, and for Kim Mulkey who has built her program to be one of the few elite in the nation.