Conference: Big 12 (At-Large)
Record: 25-7 (12-6)
NCAA Tournament Seed: 3 (East)
How they got to the Big Dance
Baylor’s path to the NCAA Tournament certainly was not a conventional one. On Oct. 31, the Bears received a grand total of zero votes in the initial AP Top 25 Poll. Ten weeks later, the team was ranked No. 1 in the country behind a 15-0 start. Baylor’s unexpected rise to the top of the Big 12 was matched only by the unexpected stardom of Johnathan Motley. The junior nearly doubled his scoring and rebounding output from his sophomore campaign, while leading the way for the upstart Bears. Baylor came out of the gate firing on all cylinders by downing three top-10 opponents in its first eight games, including Louisville and Oregon. Six conference losses, including two to top-seeded Kansas, slowed the Bears’ sizzling hot start following an undefeated out-of-conference slate. Their slow finished continued when they fell to Kansas State in their first game of the Big 12 Tournament.
Why they’re a legitimate contender
Baylor has not made a Final Four in 67 years. Back in 1950, there were eight teams in the NCAA Tournament. Now, there are 68. So, what makes this team different? Johnathan Motley. Baylor has had great players over the last few years, including lottery pick Taurean Prince, but Motley’s scoring and rebounding presence is something that the Bears have lacked during the last two NCAA Tournaments. Those were two tournaments in which they were bounced in a first round upset. Defensively, Baylor presents one of the most difficult matchups in the country. Pairing Motley with 7-footer Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. gives the Bears one of the most intimidating, and most talented, frontcourts in the tournament.
Why they’re not a legitimate contender
Baylor has had talented teams in the past, but when the calendar turns to March, the Bears always seem to go into hibernation. Over its last 11 games, Baylor owns a pedestrian 5-6 record. If recent performance is any indication, it could be another disappointing season in Waco. Since entering conference play, Baylor has not had a whole lot to measure itself against, in terms of fellow championship contenders. The only two teams that come to mind in the Big 12 are Kansas and West Virginia, who the Bears are 1-3 in against this season. The Big 12 is solid, but there are better conferences and better teams that the Bears could run into during the tournament. And from what we’ve seen so far, they have not shown the ability to win those games consistently.
Player to watch: Johnathan Motley
It has already been said, but Johnathan Motley became a superstar for Baylor this season. The junior is averaging 17.3 points and 9.9 rebounds per game, while also dishing out 2.4 assists. The strides that he has made from his sophomore to junior year are difficult to put into words, but few envisioned the rise of the potential first round draft pick. Motley had 15 points and seven rebounds in last year’s stunning loss to 12th seeded Yale. In a larger role this year, to go along with some extra motivation, expect Motley to continue to play like the superstar that he has become.