ATLANTA -- Baylor had every right to be concerned this past offseason.
The Bears went from the Elite Eight to no postseason at all. After losing Perry Jones III for the Big 12 tournament, when he was deemed ineligible for extra benefits, Baylor didn't receive an NIT bid. Didn't even receive a CBI bid.
The Bears were shut out after an Elite Eight appearance. And it hurt.
“We were upset by the fact that we weren’t even invited to the NIT,’’ said Baylor senior forward Anthony Jones. “We didn’t want our season to end the way it did last year.’’
But if Baylor wanted to be taken seriously, the Bears had to follow through with a rebound season in 2011-12 or else there would be serious questions about if this program was a one-hit wonder.
“That was the beginning of this season,’’ said Baylor coach Scott Drew of the postseason shutout. “We were devastated and disappointed. At the same time, that motivated us to all come back and finish what we knew we were capable of.’’
Well, a year later, the Bears are back in the Elite Eight after a 75-70 victory over Xavier, placing them in rare company of programs that will play in a regional final in two of the past three years. BU joins North Carolina, and perhaps Kentucky and Kansas later tonight.
And, for the second time in three seasons, there’s a good chance the Bears could face the potential champion to get to the Final Four.
Two years ago, the Bears lost to eventual champion Duke in the Elite Eight in Houston. This season they’ll likely have to get past Kentucky to get to New Orleans.
“Losing to Duke, and how close we were to winning a championship showed the team that we could compete for a national title,’’ Drew said. “The reality was that we weren’t that far from it.’’
This group is a much more experienced team than even the Elite Eight team in 2010, and certainly more so than last season.
And they didn’t have a force like Quincy Acy. He was there, but he wasn’t even close to the player he is now.
Acy was a dominant presence in spurts against Xavier on Friday. The Bears raced out to a 14-2 start and whenever the Bears wanted to re-assert themselves, Acy was there with a ferocious flush.
“Last year was our motivation,’’ said Acy. “We worked harder than ever before in the preseason. We had high motivation. None of us wanted to go out like that. Perry didn’t have a postseason.’’
Jones III made the decision to come back despite having to sit the first five games of this season. Jones III has had his enigmatic moments, but he also has proven to be a tough matchup. A few lobs in the second half were difference-makers for the Bears.
“We started to get stops and threw a different defense at them,’’ Acy said. “We still need to do a better job of holding leads. We still need to work on that.’’
The Bears have the length and athleticism to beat Indiana and certainly to match up with Kentucky.
“This is crazy, to go from sophomore year to the Elite Eight, to junior year no postseason and then back to the Elite Eight with a chance to go to the Final Four, it’s indescribable,’’ Anthony Jones said. “Senior leadership is the difference. Talent-wise, we’re a much better team.
“A lot of people in the country want to see this matchup,’’ Jones said of playing Kentucky. “We can take it up another level.’’
Drew has often been criticized for his coaching, and some rival coaches love to make it seem like he pulled off a get-rich scheme to put Baylor on the map so soon after the scandal that rocked the university.
After another Elite Eight in such a brief period, Drew is starting to quiet all the dissenters.
Few coaches reach one Elite Eight. Now Drew has been to two.
“We’ve been blessed,’’ Drew said. “I’ll tell you how much after Sunday.’’