Baylor, Nebraska riding surge into NCAA tournament
SAN ANTONIO (AP) Writing in Baylor or Nebraska to win Friday means picking between two teams that were written off not all that long ago.
The Cornhuskers and Bears were a combined 2-11 in conference play earlier this year. Baylor was getting blown out in the Big 12 and Nebraska basketball was irrelevant as usual while fans waited for football season.
How both turned around and wound up in the NCAA tournament amazes even them.
”When we were 1-5 in the league, I wouldn’t have bet you any amount of money we were going to make it,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said Thursday.
No. 11 seed Nebraska (19-12) is among the nation’s biggest surprises this season, reaching its first NCAA tournament since 1998 after winning 10 of its last 13 games. The Cornhuskers have never won on this stage – they’re 0-6 in tournament history – but the school believes they’re building a potential power under Miles, the Big Ten coach of the year in his second season.
Expectations were always higher for No. 6 seed Baylor (24-11). But it took a surprising surge through the Big 12 tournament last week for the Bears to get off the bubble and into the tournament, which Baylor missed last season after reaching the round of eight in 2012.
Iowa State finally stopped Baylor in the championship game, but only after the Bears had won 10 of its previous 11.
”Very pleased to have that NCAA banner behind us,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said with relief after the first practice in San Antonio.
The winner will face either third-seeded Creighton or No. 14 seed Louisiana Lafayette. That sets up the potential for an in-state showdown between the Cornhuskers and Bluejays this weekend, but Nebraska isn’t looking ahead.
The Cornhuskers are still relishing getting this far.
”It’s really big. I don’t think a lot of people thought we were going to be in this position this fast,” Nebraska forward Shavon Shields said. ”So for us, I just kind of think we’re learning as we go on.”
Five things to look for when Nebraska plays Baylor:
IN THE ZONE: Baylor has gone away from man-to-man defense and arrives at the tournament playing plenty of zone. The Bears finished the season letting opponents shoot 42.4 percent from the field, which was middle-of-the-pack in the Big 12. Miles said he expects Nebraska to encounter some man but mostly expects to face a zone.
AUSTIN POWER: Baylor’s Isiah Austin is coming off a record 18 blocks in the Big 12 tournament. The 7-foot-1 center is the anchor of a big Baylor frontcourt that Nebraska knows will be one of its toughest matchups. ”You think you’ve got a layup, and all of the sudden they’re blocking it off the backboard and going down,” Miles said.
EARLY RISERS: Unlike the Cornhuskers blowing an 18-point lead to Ohio State their last time out, Baylor seldom relinquishes fast starts. The Bears have lost just four games since 2011 when leading at halftime – though the most recent was last week in the Big 12 championship.
NO SAPPY REUNION: Nebraska is facing an old conference foe for the first time since ditching the Big 12 in 2011. The Cornhuskers have few fond Big 12 memories and this rematch isn’t making either side nostalgic. ”It’s not a rivalry,” Baylor guard Brady Heslip said. ”It’s a new opportunity.”
PETTEWAY POUNCING: Terran Petteway led the Big Ten in scoring at 18.1 points per game. It’s his first season playing at Nebraska after the Texas native transferred from Texas Tech, where the sophomore said ”things didn’t go well for me” but declined to elaborate Thursday. He’s scored more than 20 points in five of his last eight games.
Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber