With its heritage and championships, Kansas unquestionably sits at the top of the Big 12 basketball hierarchy.
In the conference’s history, Texas traditionally has been second-best, and several other programs have jumped into the first or second spot on occasion.
Of that group, Baylor isn’t the first to come to mind, but with a West Regional semifinal Thursday in Anaheim, Calif., against Wisconsin, the Bears are playing in their third Sweet 16 since 2010. From the Big 12, only the Jayhawks have played in as many over that span.
And on their previous trips, Baylor didn’t stop at the Sweet 16, falling to eventual national champions Duke in 2010 and Kentucky in 2012 in the Elite Eight.
This Baylor team looks like previous editions — long and athletic — but only three rotation players from the 2012 team play this season, and three-point specialist Brady Heslip is the Bears’ lone starter.
The roster essentially turned over, but the Bears are back, although this season was an uphill battle after they started the Big 12 season 2-8. Part of the problem was a turf-toe injury to starting point guard Kenny Chery.
“When we got everybody healthy, I think everybody was committed to play better defense,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said.
Baylor has won 12 of its last 14 games, and reached the final of the Big 12 tournament before losing to Iowa State. Eight of those victories came against teams that made the NCAA Tournament, and before their slump to open Big 12 play, the Bears defeated Kentucky and Dayton, who are also both in the Sweet 16.
“The slump happened, and it was only halfway through the year,” Heslip said. “We didn’t feel like there was so much pressure.”
The Bears’ NCAA Tournament play has been eye-opening. A No. 6 seed, Baylor dominated No. 11 seed Nebraska in the first game and then crushed third-seeded Creighton and Doug McDermott, the leading contender for national player of the year, by 30 points.
“Definitely one of our better games of the year,” Drew said.
The Bears have played to their strengths during the run. They’ve been among the nation’s top teams at the rim in recent weeks, dominating the glass and playing superb defense, mostly with their zone. Only one of Baylor’s last 14 opponents has managed to shoot 50 percent from the field.
And led by Heslip, the Bears are knocking down their threes. They were 11 of 18 from behind the arc against Creighton.
This might be the most complete Baylor team in Drew’s 11 seasons. He’s loaded up front with Jefferson, Isaiah Austin and Royce O’Neal, who is solid around the perimeter. Bruising forward Rico Gathers comes off the bench.
Heslip and Chery form a superb backcourt, especially when Chery is knocking down jumpers, as he did last weekend. Gary Franklin is the veteran off the bench who has won games for the Bears.
Next for Baylor is No. 2 seed Wisconsin, a team that rolled American and rallied past Oregon to reach the Sweet 16. The Badgers have changed their personality somewhat and have been an offensive-minded team, and now must face one of the best defensive teams remaining in the field.
“They have quickness and length inside to protect the rim,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “They’ve certainly showed that here toward the end of the season.”
If Baylor pulls it off, it will the program’s ninth NCAA victory in five years. Throw in the team’s NIT championship last year and the team’s run to the NIT final in 2009, and the Bears have the highest postseason winning percentage of any college basketball team in that time.
Players who have passed through the program in recent years know how to win in March.
“I definitely think the experience is helpful,” Drew said. “But it doesn’t guarantee anything. That’s what makes March Madness.”