No. 3 seed Baylor (-7) faces test against hot USC
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TULSA, Okla. -- The seeding seems irrelevant as Baylor and USC prepare to face off in the second round of the East Region.
Officially, it will be the third-seeded Bears versus the 11th-seeded Trojans when they tip off in the late game Sunday evening at the BOK Center.
But Baylor (26-7) likely won't be thinking of USC (26-9) as a double-digit seed.
For one thing, the Trojans are hot.
On selection Sunday, USC received the blessing-in-disguise slot in the First Four. That meant the Trojans had to play Providence for the right to move on to Tulsa and face SMU.
But once USC defeated the Friars, the Trojans suddenly had history on their side. Teams seeded No. 13 or higher who played in a play-in game are now 7-6 since the tournament expanded to 68 teams in 2011.
USC used the momentum from its win over Providence and kept rolling against SMU, though it took a winning flourish in the final minutes.
The Trojans trailed most of the game against SMU until forward Bennie Boatwright nailed a 3-pointer to put the Trojans in the lead with 2:10 left in the second half.
Moments later, after SMU answered, USC guard Elijah Stewart sunk a trey that put the Trojans ahead 66-65 with 36 seconds left.
It proved to be the game-winner that allowed USC to celebrate an upset victory.
However, 3-point marksmanship aside, the real hero was the Trojans' 2-3 zone defense in the second half.
USC went to the zone with 13 minutes remaining when the Mustangs had pulled in front by nine points. SMU scored just 15 points the rest of the way, giving the Trojans just the window they needed.
"We took their middle away and then the short corner, and we were rotating well out of it," USC coach Andy Enfield said. "So we gave up a few offensive rebounds early. But we noticed we could probably defend them better in zone than man, so we stayed with it and it kept working."
Interestingly, Baylor made the opposite switch in the second half with similar results.
The Bears have come to be known for their zone defense under coach Scott Drew. Like USC, Baylor uses its size to mitigate opponents easy inside baskets.
But after 14th-seeded New Mexico State hit a barrage of 3-pointers late in the first half and led Baylor, 40-38, at halftime, the Bears played man-to-man for most of the second half.
It worked. Baylor dominated the first 10 minutes after halftime, opening up a 16-point lead when guard Al Freeman hit a pair of free throws with 10:04 left.
In doing so, the Bears got out of a first-round slump. Baylor lost to 12th-seeded Yale a year ago and 14th-seeded Georgia State in 2015.
The Bears clearly didn't want to repeat recent history.
"I thought second half, maybe it was our depth, maybe the sense of urgency, but we did a great job of getting back, taking care of the ball so they couldn't get in those transition opportunities," Drew said. "And then (we) really defended the arc a lot better."
Whether or not Baylor and USC will throw their tall, shot-blocking zones at each other remains to be seen. But the second-round contest presents plenty of appeal in the teams' similarities.
"They're long, athletic," Enfield said. "They have guards that can shoot, and there's a reason they're a 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. They're just an outstanding basketball team, but so are we, so it should be a great game."