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The Dagger

Bracket Flames: Sic ‘em, revived Baylor is tourney’s most dangerous sleeper

The Dagger

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Flatlined. Dead. Buried.

Just eight weeks ago, Baylor was trapped in an enormous self-dug hole with little hope of seeing light. At 3-8 in Big 12 play, including a pair of losses to Kansas and Oklahoma, the Bears resembled a group of bumbling Yogis not the projected grizzly sloth most expected in October.

Widely perceived to be a stiff challenger to favorites Kansas, Oklahoma St. and Iowa St. preseason, they roared out to a 12-1 start in non-conference action. Key wins against Colorado, then with leading-scorer Spencer Dinwiddie, Dayton and Kentucky, fueled a top-15 national ranking and elevated expectations around Waco. However, their ghastly record at the midpoint of the Big 12 season quickly humbled them. Jumpers clanged. Defense waned. Turnovers mounted. Losing became an all too familiar feeling.

But winning, naturally, cured everything.

The resurrection began in a spectacular stroke of team-wide brilliance. In a hard-fought battle against visiting Kansas St., the Bears, incredibly hungry and with their backs pressed to the wall, held off the Wildcats at Ferrell Center 87-73 in double overtime. Point guard Kenny Cherry messed around and logged a triple-double. Meanwhile, Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson pounded the paint, totaling 39 points and 18 rebounds.

Tide, turned.

From that point on, Baylor played with consistent energy, passion and determination, regaining its early season form. Over its final six regular season conference games, the Bears slowly, methodically climbed the mountain. Triumphs over Oklahoma St., Iowa St. and a sweep of Kansas St., propelled them to a 5-1 record during that stretch, a hot streak that unbelievably carried them back to even (9-9) in the Big 12.

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Capped by a strong showing in the Big 12 tournament – they shredded nets to the tune of 1.276 points per possession – Scott Drew's club is soaring. It's protected the basketball, made the extra pass, ratcheted up its zone D, generated numerous second-chance opportunities and morphed into one of the most prolific offensive forces in the country. Over their past 11 games, the Bears rank top-three nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. Continue to breathe fire, and a deep run in the Big Dance is inevitable.

Naysayers will contend Drew's alleged sketchy coaching skills are bound to cripple Baylor, a groupthink mentality steeped in ignorance. After all, he resurfaced a program once at the bottom of the deepest, darkest abyss. Recall he took the job in 2003 when the Bears were dealing with harsh sanctions, punishment stemming from a player-on-player murder, lies that followed and uncovered financial improprieties tied to ex-head coach Dave Bliss. Since then, he's repaired the school's image, brought in top-flight talent and won a ton of games (24 per year from 2008-2014), many in the postseason. The Final Four has remained elusive, but Baylor reached the Elite Eight in 2010 and 2012, losing both contests to eventual national champions.

A similar run could be in the offing this year.

Given its extreme length – Rico Gathers, Jefferson and Austin, all 6-foot-8-plus, comprise an intimidating front line – above average depth and Brady Heslip's ability to plunge daggers from distance (45.6 3PT%), it's a scary No. 6 seed in a wide open West region that could finally get over the hump, potentially flirting with its first Final Four appearance in 64 years.

Entering the dance, the Bears, once left for dead, are very much alive and kicking.

BRACKET FLAMES

Here are five additional underdogs (No. 7 seeds or lower) that could channel Cinderella:

Providence Friars (23-11, No.11-East)
Doing a jig for the first time in 20 years, Providence, a surprise sensation down the stretch, guaranteed its spot in the dance with an inspired win over sharpshooting Creighton. Almost impossibly, the Friars limited Doug McDermott and company to just 17 first-half points, their lowest output of the season. How did they do it? According to Ed Cooley, with a little bit of "crazy." Providence's deployed zone, an unthinkable defensive scheme versus a squad loaded with perimeter scorers. It's that kind of risk-taking combined with its well-rounded production that could propel it past North Carolina. The best free-throw shooting team in the field, they brutalize foes by drawing contact and cashing in. Bryce Cotton, a sensational distributor and scorer, is one of the premier point guards in the country. His leadership skills and clutch play in critical stretches should shine brightly on the big stage. Combine that with an above average defense, and the Friars could pull the rug out from under Carolina in Round 1. Watch out.

Oregon Ducks (23-9, No. 7-West )
It's been an uneven season for the Fighting Daffies. They raced out to a 13-0 start, beating the likes of Georgetown, Illinois and BYU en route to a top-10 national ranking. Then Elmer Fudd shot them in the face. Losers in eight of their next 11, the much improved Pac-12 cooked the Ducks, trending it toward the NIT. Credit to Dana Altman, he told his club to stay the course. That confidence booster eventually ignited a turnaround. Winners of seven of their last eight, including triumphs over a suspension-laden UCLA team on the road and home against Arizona St., Oregon has finally gained its non-conference form. During the streak, the Ducks torched the nets, cashed in at the line, limited turnovers and clamped down defensively. Most importantly, UNLV transfer Mike Moser has finally established himself as a consistent contributor in the post. In his last eight contests he averaged 15.6 points and 9.6 boards per game. If his game carries over into the second season, it would be no stretch to think Oregon could a couple of games in the Big Dance. His versatility matched with the prolific outside shooting of Jason Calliste (50.8 3PT%) and Joseph Young (41.6 3PT%), makes the Ducks one of the tourney's nastiest offensive teams. Currently projected the No. 7 in the West, the Ducks have a terrific shot at tasting sweetness.

Tennessee Volunteers (21-12, No. 11-Midwest )
Sneaking into the field despite falling short to Florida in the SEC tourney semifinals and registering just three RPI top-50 wins, the Vols could pack a nasty bite playing the role of underdog. Solid across the board, they are one of seven teams nationally to rank top-30 in offensive and defensive efficiency. Jordan McCrae, who should NBA executives should back up the truck for in short order, is the complete package. Blessed with a 7-foot wingspan, he's a stalwart defender, excellent catch-and-shoot gunner and often indefensible off the dribble. As a whole, the Vols are also relentless on the glass. There is no better rebounding team in the entire field. Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon are high-motor players who thrive on second-chance opportunities. Tn fact over 60 percent of UTs points have come on tips and taps. Tennessee is below average from distance, but given its ability to defend and control the paint, it poses a matchup problem to weak teams underneath, particularly Duke which it could face in the Round of 32.

North Dakota St. Bison (25-6, No. 12-West )
Bison is not only delectable on a bun, it's also downright tasty in a single elimination format. Few outside the Northern Plains have seen NDSU, but
the Summit regular season and conference tournament champions shouldn't warrant a blind eye. Statistically, there is no team in the entire Dance that shoots the ball with as much accuracy as the Bison. Their leading scorer is 6-foot-7 guard Taylor Braun. Long and lethal, he's totaled 20 or more points in a game 11 times, shooting 42.2 percent from three. He and prolific post-man Marshall Bjorklund are a dynamic duo wired to score. Dakota nets few threes and plays loose defensively (No. 141 in D efficiency nationally), but because it rarely commits turnovers and given its surgical interior offense and overall experience, they are more than capable of carving up a higher seed. The Bison may have the best shot of becoming this year's mid-major darling. Oklahoma will certainly have its hands full in Round 1.

North Carolina St. Wolfpack (Record: 21-13, No. 12-Midwest )
Stunned. When NC State was announced as one of the First Four, the college basketball community picked its jaw off the floor. Widely perceived to be on the backside of the bubble, the Selection Committee awarded the Wolfpack with a 12-seed, slighting Larry Brown’s SMU team. Many will instantly write off State as nothing more than a fortunate soul, a school that benefited from an allegedly superior conference. No matter where you stand, Mark Gottfried’s club earned a favorable draw. Its play-in opponent, Xavier, hasn’t inspired much confidence in March, losing three of its last four games. State isn’t exactly stiff defensively, but blessed with an otherworldly scorer in T.J. Warren, it’s more than capable of winning Game 1 and riding momentum through Game 2. The Wolfpack’s possible second-round matchup, St. Louis, is rather unintimidating. The Billikens, who won the A-10 regular season title, fell off the cliff defensively to end the season, very uncharacteristic. NC State suffers defensively – they rank north of No. 100 nationally in several defensive categories – but if Ralston Turner or Anthony Barber complement Warren nicely, it will overachieve.

TOURNEY TIDBITS

Fun facts/trends about the Big Dance:

• At least one No. 12 seed has advanced beyond the opening round 12 of the past 13 years. In the second round No. 12s are 20-21 (48.8%) all-time.

• A No. 16 has never defeated a No. 1, though Alonzo Mourning still wakes up in cold sweats about Princeton.

• Since 2000, No. 13 seeds have survived the opening round in just 23.2 percent of its attempts; No. 14s 7.1 percent.

• No. 15 seeds are 4-52 in opening-round games since 2000; 7-109 all-time. Last year, Florida Gulf Coast stunned the world.

• Notable conference tourney win percentages from less known conferences since 2000: Atlantic 10 (47.4%), West Coast (45.2%), Colonial (41.9%), Missouri Valley (41.3%), WAC (31.2%), Mountain West (30.9%)

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