2017 March Madness: Baylor into Sweet 16, and they deserve this shining moment
TULSA, Okla. – There was something close to relief being expressed in one corner the BOK Center Sunday night.
Baylor fans, players and coaches did that Sic ‘Em thing where the claw the air. They danced. They got soaked with water. The result was nothing new – Baylor has now been to four Sweet 16s in the last eight years – but it was something different.
A lot different.
Something close to relief.
“Its been a hard, probably, nine months for a lot of people,” said Baylor AD Mack Rhoades.
He was speaking of course of the sexual assault scandal that still hangs over the school. Rhoades was also unabashedly celebrating with the best of them in that corner of the arena after the Bears beat USC 82-78 to cruise into the East Regional in New York.
Baylor hasn’t been able to feel this kind of – what is it? – joy in a while. The win marked the highest athletic achievement for the school since the Pepper Hamilton report dropped May 26.
In that moment, a Sweet 16 couldn’t be sweeter.
“I think there is a little bit of this being our shining light,” said Zack Kulesz, a 2005 Baylor grad waving a team flag as the Bears left the floor. “These guys are really good guys.”
You know that if you spend any time around them.
“Love, from everybody,” is how guard Ish Wainwright described Sunday. “We saw KU fans cheering for us.”
That was after Baylor coach Scott Drew ducked his head into the Kansas locker room to congratulate the Jayhawks on their own.
And yet the disclaimer always has to be mentioned.
“We’re empathetic for any and all of the victims,” Rhoades stressed.
Of sound mind and body, Rhoades left Missouri in July for the same job at Baylor. In essence, that was trading one mess for another. A general malaise had settled over Mizzou and its athletics in the aftermath of the November 2015 protests.
Something different and sinister was hanging over Baylor. It is something the school has not dug out of yet. Rhoades still thinks he’s in a better place.
“It felt good for [the fans],” he said Sunday. “In no way does it make us forget about what transpired in the past. We’re still dealing with that.”
Amid that celebration, the two biggest transfers on the floor may have been Rhoades and Baylor guard Manu Lecomte.
Miami coach Jim Larranaga took Lecomte out of Belgium four years ago basically sight unseen.
“I probably had one video, four minutes of highlights,” Lecomte said. “Not even a full game.”
Frustrated at playing off guard beside ace Miami point guard Angel Rodriguez, Lecomte transferred. He chose Baylor because of its history of flashy point guards from Tweety Carter to Curtis Jerrells to Kenny Chery to Lester Medford to Pierre Jackson.
Lecomte is on his way to becoming the next one. He became Baylor’s second-leading scorer this season. Wainwright giggled through a story recalling Lecomte abusing Medford in a practice.
As Lecomte drained 10 threes in a row, Medford changed shoes, “because Manu was torching him in practice.”
In any given game, the 5-foot-11 Lecomte is the smallest player on the floor. But on Sunday, he was on the verge of being the biggest disappointment.
With 4:40 left against USC and his team trailing, Lecomte’s combined NCAA Tournament line was 3-of-15. He made four of his next five shots and scored all 12 of his points — one of them being a four-point play after being fouled on a three.
“We wouldn’t have won without him,” Terry Maston said.
“I want to prove to the people out there that size doesn’t matter,” Lecomte said.
Baylor as an underdog in the environment that surrounds the school? Sure, just keep it to basketball. For the 13th time, the Bears overcame a second-half deficit to win. Consequently, Baylor is now 13-0 out of conference. Gonzaga and UCLA are the only other schools in the country undefeated in non-conference play.
Yeah, they’re in the Sweet 16, too.
“We haven’t proved anything yet,” Wainwright said. “But everybody is still going to root again us. I feel like nobody wants to see us succeed, so we’re going to continue to play with a chip on our shoulder and prove to everybody we can actually play basketball.”
Wait, that sort of bile is usually saved for the sport’s overlords – Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina. Why Baylor?
“All the stuff that’s going on,” Wainwright said.
He didn’t have to elaborate, but he did.
“Just that name across our chest. We can’t get rid of it. We can’t do anything about it.”
They can, though, celebrate for this week and perhaps moving forward, ass Baylor is now the highest remaining seed in the East with Duke and Villanova both out. Following the school’s biggest athletic achievement of the last nine months, it was more than OK on Sunday to root on the Bears.
“They’re also part of the cure,” Kulesz said. “This is not the Baylor that’s been portrayed nationally. That’s not us.”