The drama for Baylor wasn't quite as tense as two years ago when the Bears qualified for the NCAA Tournament as the last team announced.
Following a 25-7 run, which included a second-place tie at 11-5 in the Big 12, Baylor drew a three-seed and will open against Sam Houston State (25-7).
Now that the Bears commanded that kind of respect, can they make a concerted push through the bracket?
Quite possibly. Baylor is difficult to guard, with an experienced playmaker in Tweety Carter, a streaky long-range bomber in LaceDarius Dunn and a formidable inside presence in Ekpe Udoh. The Bears like to zone opponents defensively, and the presence of Josh Lomers and Anthony Jones gives them three players 6-10 or taller along the back line.
Most important is the confidence they take into the tournament. After winning eight of 10 to close the season, including five in a row before they were eliminated in the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament by Kansas State, the Bears are brimming. The success they enjoyed in the nation's top RPI conference, as well as their versatility, should make them a tough out.
Credit goes to Scott Drew. Although he doesn't endear himself to other coaches in the Big 12 -- walking out during pregame introductions at Kansas this season was his latest slight -- the seventh-year coach took over a program rocked by turmoil and scandal and built it into a contender.
Surprising effectiveness on the recruiting trail has been one of the big reasons behind Baylor's rise. But the improvement of Carter, who came to the Bears as a prolific scorer, yet will leave as an outstanding all-around player, is proof Drew and his staff can mold talent. The immediate impact of Udoh, a Michigan transfer, transformed the Bears from a team dependent on jumpers into a club that could finally rely on solid defense.
Although most categorize the 2008-09 season as a disappointment since Baylor placed ninth in the Big 12, its postseason push into the finals of both the conference tournament and the NIT boosted confidence. The Bears look to draw on that experience even more.
"I know how good it felt to win in the NIT," forward Quincy Acy told the Waco Tribune-Herald. "So I can only imagine how it's going to feel to win in the NCAA Tournament."
--Baylor remains a program treading on unfamiliar turf. This is the first time the Bears have qualified for the postseason in three consecutive seasons. They're still looking for their first NCAA Tournament win since 1950. The Bears received three berths from 1945-50 under coach Bill Henderson and reached the 1948 championship game.
--The current three-year stretch is the best in Baylor history, a 70-33 mark. Despite the 24-15 finish a year ago, which ended with an appearance in the NIT championship game, the Bears were picked to finish 10th in the Big 12 in a preseason poll of the league coaches.
COACH: Scott Drew, seven years at Baylor, second at NCAA Tournament.
KEYS TO VICTORY: Improvement both defensively, and on the glass, keyed Baylor's rise this season. The Bears will rely on their 2-3 zone, particularly with F Ekpe Udoh so adept at blocking shots after setting a Big 12 record with 124. But Baylor can also settle into a feisty man defense if opponents get hot from the perimeter. G Tweety Carter is superb running the floor. He led the Big 12 with a 6.1 average in assists and can also pop from outside. G LaceDarius Dunn must play within himself and not be content rushing jumpers, especially if he is cold. Playing through Udoh or any of the other bigs is essential.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We didn't get the respect we deserved. To go from a 10th-place prediction to the No. 3 seed in the Big 12 tournament is big for this team. We love each other and will do anything for each other." -- Baylor G Tweety Carter.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SCOUTING REPORT: Baylor is capable of playing with any team in the country because of the matchup problems it presents. C Ekpe Udoh is a defensive force, but can also influence games on the offensive glass. F Quincy Acy, a backup, registered 10 dunks in a game. Outside firepower is also plentiful, especially if G Tweety Carter and G LaceDarius Dunn each get hot. Dunn was as good as anyone in the Big 12 creating his own shot, while Carter is skilled creating opportunities as the league's assist leader. C Josh Lomers is an offensive liability, but takes up space as one of three players 6-10 or taller who start for the Bears.
Baylor 86, Texas 67 (Big 12 tournament quarterfinals).
Kansas State 82, Baylor 75 (Big 12 tournament semifinals).
vs. Sam Houston State, Friday, March 19, NCAA Tournament, first round.
--F Ekpe Udoh recorded his 14th double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds against Kansas State. He also committed five turnovers. Udoh led all scorers with 25 points against Texas.
--G LaceDarius Dunn scored 20-plus points for the 15th time with 26 against Kansas State on 9-for-17 shooting.
--G Tweety Carter struggled against Kansas State. He scored just eight points, roughly half his 15.7 average. He led all players with six assists, but had four turnovers.