Baylor back, Yale enjoying rebirth in NCAA tourney field
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — For Baylor, going to the NCAA Tournament is beginning to become the expectation.
Yale will be getting reacquainted with it for the first time in more than 50 years.
The West Region’s fifth seed, the Bears (22-11) enter their first-round matchup with the 12th-seeded Bulldogs (22-6) Thursday battered, but unbowed by a brutal Big 12 schedule that included seven tournament teams.
Baylor is making its third straight appearance in the NCAA field — the first time in school history that’s happened.
But there is also the still very raw wound of how it exited last year via a last-second 3-pointer by Georgia State’s R.J. Hunter that literally knocked his father and coach out of his seat in one of 2015′s most memorable tournament moments.
“Everything that we played for this season was fueled ... from that moment when we got bounced last year,” senior forward Rico Gathers said. “Just being back in that moment once again, it just motivates us to not let that happen again.”
Seven of the nine players from Baylor’s team are back, and it has one of the most balanced scoring attacks in the country with five players averaging at least nine points per game.
Baylor coach Scott Drew said he knows the returning players want to turn the page.
“They were motivated to have an opportunity to get back to the NCAA Tournament and have a different memory,” Drew said. “It doesn’t guarantee any success this year...but definitely I think it played a part in their motivation this year, and they’ve done a great job, our upperclassmen with leadership all year long, and that’s why we’re here.”
Yale is making its first appearance in the tournament since 1962, which is also the last time it went through the Ivy League with only one loss.
The run hasn’t been without its distractions, though. Yale went 7-1 in its final eight regular season games without former team captain Jack Montague, who was expelled from the university last month stemming of a sexual assault allegation from 2014.
Bulldogs senior forward and Ivy League player of the year Justin Sears said he doesn’t think the incident has been a distraction for the team.
“Not at all,” Sears said. “Like I’ve said before basketball is a sanctuary. We go to one of the hardest academic schools in the country, and when we step on the court all the outside distractions are gone.
“This is the game we love to play. And when I step on the court, I’m not thinking about anything except putting the ball in the basket and helping my team win.”
OWNING THE BOARDS: Yale is relatively small in the front court, with the 6-foot-8 Sears as its tallest starter. But the Bulldogs haven’t been pushed around on the glass, ranking second in the nation by outrebounding opponents by 11.1 rebounds per game. Baylor ranks 15th in the country in that category, with a 7.9 per game margin.
NEW YEAR: Along with the three consecutive tournament appearances, Baylor has gone 95-47 during Gathers and senior forward Taurean Prince’s four years, averaging 24 wins per season. But Prince said even with all the success Baylor has had during their tenure, they aren’t looking past anyone. “I’m really not going to bank on what we’ve done in the past,” he said. “This is basically our first appearance this year, even though what we’ve done in the past had nothing to do with what’s going to happen tomorrow.
SING ALONG: Bulldogs leading scorer Brandon Sherrod sat out last season to spend a year singing with Yale’s famed Whiffenpoofs, the world-renowned a cappella group. He returned this season to start all 28 games and is the team’s leading scorer. He said it is an easy choice of whether he’d rather be singing in Carnegie Hall or playing in March.
“I think I’ll go with playing in the NCAA Tournament,” Sherrod said. “It’s been a long time coming for the school and something I’ve dreamed about since I was a pre-freshman coming into Yale, watching Selection Sunday, and seeing guys be a part of media day here has always been a dream of mine. And it’s nice to see those dreams coming true.”
The AP’s college basketball page: www.collegebasketball.ap.org
Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower