PREVIEW: Defense key for Baylor in NCAA tourney opener vs. UC Santa Barbara

Photo Credit: Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

PREVIEW: Defense key for Baylor in NCAA tourney opener vs. UC Santa Barbara

Baylor was a top seed but failed to reach the second weekend of last year’s NCAA Tournament.

This time around, the Bears have earned a No. 3 seed but come limping into the tournament, having lost four of their last six outings. They will meet No. 14 seed UC Santa Barbara, champions of the Big West Conference, in first-round South Region play on Friday in Denver.

The Bears lost to eventual national runner-up North Carolina 93-86 in overtime in the second round last March. This year, Baylor would draw either Creighton or North Carolina State in the second round, provided it takes care of business in the Round of 64.

Baylor (22-10), the 2021 national champion, was ranked fifth in the country to begin the season. The Bears received an important lift when Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua returned to the lineup in February, one year after a severe leg injury.

But the rugged Big 12 had the last say. Baylor lost by double digits to Kansas and Kansas State, then ended the season with two straight losses to Iowa State, the latter in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament.

Baylor’s issue all season has been its defense. ranks Baylor 104th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, by far the worst of any tournament team with a top-four seed.

“One of our struggles this season is a lot of teams get to the paint and score on us, second-chance points or straight-line drives,” LJ Cryer, a veteran of the 2021 national championship team, said in late February. “We’ve just got to eliminate those and transition buckets. Every team that’s beat us in the Big 12 has taken advantage of those areas.”

Freshman Keyonte George has been critical to the Bears’ season with his team-high 15.8 points per game. Adam Flagler (15.5), Cryer (14.5), and Jalen Bridges (10.3) also average double figures.

Freshman Langston Love missed the past two games with an eye injury but could return for the tournament.

UCSB (27-7) is preparing for its second NCAA Tournament appearance in three years.

The Gauchos started the season 20-4 with some good nonconference wins over Fresno State and Appalachian State. They hit a rocky patch in February with three straight double-digit losses in conference action, but they’ve turned it around with a seven-game winning streak.

“I am just so happy for our players to be able to experience March Madness; it is the greatest spectacle in all of sports, in my opinion,” coach Joe Pasternack said in a statement. “With the adversity our guys went through this season — losing two of our top six players due to injury and losing three straight games because of that. The way our guys responded to that shows so much character and competitive spirit.”

The injuries were to starting guard Ajare Sanni, who scored 6.5 points per game and reserve forward Koat Keat Tong, who supplied nearly 4.0 rebounds per game. Both had knee injuries in mid-February, and neither has returned.

UCSB relies upon Ajay Mitchell, who leads the team with 16.4 points, 5.1 assists, and 1.4 steals per game; Miles Norris, a forward shooting 38.8% from 3-point range with 14.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per game; and Andre Kelly, a grad transfer from Cal with 9.5 points and a team-high 6.5 boards per game.

–Field Level Media

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