Baylor basketball can actually, really make it to the Final Four this year. Even Dick Vitale said so!
“This Baylor team is dangerous,” Vitale, the college basketball analyst, play-by-play legend, and longtime DiGiorno Pizza pitchman told DFW radio station 105.2 The Fan on Thursday. “Early in the year they were super, and then they went through a little slump. Well maybe now this will get them more revitalized. They’ve got a chance to help playing South Carolina [um, sic? We’re not sure what that means]. I think they’ve got a better chance beating them than they would have had beating Duke. I think the bottom line is they have a great opportunity with Duke and Villanova out of there. They have a phenomenal chance to get to the Final Four.”
Vitale is correct. Baylor is now the highest seed left alive in the East Region, so technically speaking they are the favorites to advance to the Final Four. Top seeds Villanova (number one overall) and Duke (number two in the East) both lost in the second round last weekend, clearing the way for the Bears to make a Final Four run.
But March Madness is always pretty funky, so Baylor fans shouldn’t rest easy. Despite the endorsement from Dickie V, the Bears are still facing an uphill battle, at least according to cold, heartless statistics. ESPN number freaks over at FiveThirtyEight has a pretty cool feature that uses stats to predict the probability each team has to advance. Using whatever voodoo magic they conjure up to gaze into the future, FiveThirtyEight gives Baylor just a 23 percent chance to make it to the Final Four.
Both potential Elite Eight opponents in the East would be a tough matchup for Baylor. There’s the eight seed, Wisconsin (FiveThirtyEight Final Four probability score: 27 percent), which is arguably the most experienced team in the entire tournament field. The Badgers toppled Villanova this year, made it to the Sweet Sixteen last year, lost in the championship game in 2015, and are led by stars Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes, both holdovers from the Wisconsin team that demolished Baylor in the Sweet Sixteen three years ago.
Then there’s Florida, the fourth seed in the East (FiveThirtyEight Final Four probability score: 34 percent), which dismantled a solid Virginia team in the second round, holding the Cavaliers to just 39 points. Much like Baylor, the Gators came into the tournament in rough shape, but they’ve really turned it around and look like one of the best defensive teams in the tournament.
Also, Baylor’s 2017 tournament resume isn’t that great. The Bears avoided a tough all-Texas matchup against SMU in the second round after eleven-seed USC eliminated the Mustangs in an upset, and the Trojans gave the Bears all they could handle last weekend despite being a much lower seed.
The Bears will need to be on the top of their game against the seventh-seeded Gamecocks. Led by Sindarius Thornwell, who is arguably the best player in America (inarguably the best-named player in America), South Carolina whupped a tough Marquette team by 20 points in the first round before roughing up Duke. They may have done Baylor a huge favor by eliminating the Blue Devils, but the Gamecocks almost certainly won’t be so helpful to the Baylor cause tonight. They play extremely tough defense and pressure opponents into turning the ball over. When you factor in the confidence they must have after knocking off Duke, you can bet they’ll be a tough out for Baylor in New York City. But if the Bears can take care of the ball and keep their star Johnathan Motley from fouling out—as he did against USC—then Baylor has a good chance of reaching the Elite Eight for the first time since 2012, then onto the Final Four for the first time in history.