Preview: New Mexico State vs. Baylor

Guard Chancellor Ellis practices with his New Mexico State teammates at BOK Center in Tulsa.
Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

Anyone scouring the 2017 version of the NCAA Tournament bracket looking for the next huge first-round upset will likely take a close look at the middle of the East Region.

No. 3 seed Baylor faces No. 14 seed New Mexico State on Friday morning (9:40 a.m., Arizona time) at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. The game sticks out as a potential shocker because the Bears (25-7) are a textbook example of a team that seems to have peaked too early.

Baylor defeated then-top-10-ranked Oregon, Louisville and Xavier along with then-No. 24 Michigan State in nonconference play in November and early December.

The Bears reached 15-0 by defeating Oklahoma State on Jan. 7 and they were rewarded with the No. 1 ranking the following week.

Since then, Baylor is just 10-7 and has fallen from the top of the polls to a No. 3 seed in the tournament. Most recently, Kansas State ejected the Bears from the Big 12 Tournament in the quarterfinals.

But Baylor coach Scott Drew doesn’t think his team has fallen off the map. Rather, he’s intrigued by another shot at the NCAA Tournament.

“I know with us, the way we lost to K-State, I’m sure people will think we’re a team that’s vulnerable,” Drew said. “And, you know what, everybody’s vulnerable. Everybody’s 40 minutes from going home. You’ve got great coaches, great players, it’s the best time of the year. And we’re excited to be a part of it and hopefully do what we need to do to be able to survive and advance.”

Baylor is in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth consecutive season and the seventh time since 2008, all under Drew.

The Bears advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2014, but No. 14-seeded Georgia State ousted them in the first round in 2015, and No. 12-seeded Yale did the same in 2016.

New Mexico State (28-5) will attempt to continue Baylor’s trend of quick exits.

The Aggies are starved for an NCAA Tournament win after having been here five out of the last six seasons without a victory.

New Mexico State last won an NCAA Tournament game in 1993 when it defeated Nebraska in the opening round. Since then, the Aggies have lost nine in a row on college basketball’s biggest dance floor.

First-year coach Paul Weir thinks this might be the season the Aggies get over the hump in March.

“I feel really good about our team,” Weir said. “We have great balance, we have a great group of kids. They believe in each other, and I feel that we’re there.”

Like Baylor, New Mexico State started fast this season before limping to the regular season’s finish line.

The Aggies were 22-2 after defeating Chicago State on Feb. 24. Then New Mexico State lost to CSU Bakersfield, Grand Canyon and Utah Valley during a four-game stretch.

But the Aggies bounced back in time to win the WAC Tournament, defeating CSU Bakersfield 70-60 in the championship game for the conference’s automatic bid.

College hoops fans looking for an upset will have to overlook the fact that the Aggies haven’t played a top 25 opponent all season and Baylor is coming out of a brutal Big 12 schedule.

But for those drama-seekers, it might come down to this: New Mexico State is hot and Baylor is not.