Midway through the 2013-14 college basketball season, it appeared doubtful that the Baylor Bears would have a resume worthy of NCAA Tournament selection. The Bears started the season going 12-1, including a big win over Kentucky, and at one point were ranked as high as No. 7 in the nation.
It didn’t look like Baylor would be a prominent factor in the Big 12 league race and could be in line for a high seeding in this year’s NCAA Tournament. But that was about the time when the Bears whole season began to crumble around them.
After splitting their first two conference games, the Bears dropped five league games in a row and six out of seven. That dropped them to 2-8 in the Big 12 and 14-9 overall. Then, almost as suddenly, Baylor was able to right its listing ship, and the Bears closed out the season winning 10 of its last 12 games and came very close to winning out and capturing the Big 12 Tournament title.
All of that adds up to a No. 6 seed in the West Regional, along with fellow Big 12 teams Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. The Bears draw former Big 12 school Nebraska on Friday at the AT&T Center in San Antonio. The Cornhuskers, now out of the Big Ten, are the 11 seed. Nebraska (19-12, 11-7) finished fourth in the Big Ten this season after being picked at the beginning of the season to finish 12th in the 12-team conference.
Nebraska was 9-9 at the midpoint in the Big Ten season before hitting a stretch in which it won 10 of the next 13 games.
Sophomore forward Terran Petteway was a big reason why the Cornhuskers fooled the prognosticators and won some big games in the Big Ten this season. Their conference victims included Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State, all NCAA Tournament bound. Petteway led the Big Ten in scoring with an average of 18 points a game and is one of three Cornhusker sophomores who have been a major factor in Nebraska’s turnaround.
The combination of Petteway, Shavon Shields and Walter Pitchford have accounted for more than 60 percent of Nebraska’s scoring and 55 percent of the rebounding in 2013-14. Pitchford has averaged 15.8 points in his last three games.
Baylor has great size and length on the frontline with 7-1 Isaiah Austin and 6-9 Cory Jefferson. Austin set a Big 12 Tournament record last week with 18 blocks in four games. The Bears were second in the Big 12 in scoring defense this season, and they led the conference in three-point-shooting percentage at 39 percent. Senior guard Brady Heslip led the conference in three-point shooting, both in three-pointers made and three-point percentage (47 percent).
The Bears are 17-3 this season when they score more points inside than their opponents and 14-2 when they shoot fewer than 20 three-point shots. And they are 24-5 when they hold their opponents below 50-percent shooting.
Nine of Baylor’s 11 losses this season have been against teams that are in the NCAA Tournament field this year.
Friday’s game will be the 23rd meeting all-time between Baylor and Nebraska. The Cornhuskers lead the all-time series 12-10.
My pick: Baylor 73. Nebraska 62