Commentary

Upstarts Baylor, Saint Mary's enjoy ride

These unlikely Sweet 16 foes have similar stories, but don't call them Cinderellas

Updated: April 8, 2010, 1:37 PM ET
By Jeff Caplan | ESPNDallas.com

WACO, Texas -- How's this for calling scoreboard: Mike Krzyzewski 75, Baylor and Saint Mary's combined, 5.

That's NCAA tournament victories in the modern era, mind you, which for our purposes began after 1950. This past weekend, Baylor and Saint Mary's snapped a joint streak of 111 years without one.

No wonder cynics got snarky with the selection committee for supposedly soft-pedaling top-seeded Duke's South Region road to the Final Four. Once the Dukies surely dispense of hobbled No. 4 seed Purdue on Friday in Houston, all that's left to end Duke's catastrophic skid of five years without a Final Four berth is 3-seed Baylor or 10-seed Saint Mary's.

"A lot of people think Duke's the [South Region] favorite, but I think you can say so far in this tournament the favorite doesn't really mean too much," Saint Mary's big man Omar Samhan, who averaged 30.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in the Gaels' first two tournament wins in 51 years, said on a conference call. "Kansas was No. 1 for a long, long time, and I'd much rather be in our position than theirs right now."

[+] EnlargeOmar Samhan
Elsa/Getty ImagesOmar Samhan (50) of Saint Mary's likes the Gaels' chances to continue their run through the South Region. "A lot of people think Duke's the favorite," he said, "but I think you can say so far in this tournament the favorite doesn't really mean too much."

That the Bears (27-7), having ended 60 years of tournament torment, and the Gaels (28-5) face each other Friday night at Reliant Stadium is fitting, but also a shame. With their collective droughts over, one great story will come to an end.

"With both of us being in the same position," Baylor senior point guard Tweety Carter said, "you come in wanting to win."

Saint Mary's is a small Catholic school with an enrollment of about 3,000 located in the Bay Area of Northern California, nestled in the shadows of Pac-10 redwoods Stanford and California.

But it hasn't been just the state's big schools casting shadows. West Coast Conference foe Gonzaga is a card-carrying member of the NCAA tournament and a national darling. The Zags, by the way, are watching from home. The Gaels, who routed Gonzaga in the WCC tournament, then eliminated No. 7 seed Richmond and No. 2-seeded Villanova in the first two rounds, were picked to finish fourth in their league.

Baylor, a Baptist school located in the heart of Texas, has an enrollment of about 14,000, a fraction of that of the state's behemoth public universities. Baylor has long struggled to emerge from the towering shadows of Texas to the south and Texas A&M to the southeast.

Truth be told, the Bears' basketball program in the past two decades more often has languished in the shadows of its own transgressions.

This season has changed so much for both programs. Stanford didn't make the tournament, and California was bounced in the second round by those bracket-coasting Dukies. On the intimate Saint Mary's campus in Moraga, Calif., Samhan said, fans are stopping their cars and honking to say congratulations as lines wind down the street to buy Sweet 16 T-shirts from makeshift vending tables.

"It's awesome," Samhan said. "It's one of those things where a lot of people at our school this time of year -- and I'm sure it's the same at Baylor -- have to cheer for other teams. To be able to cheer for their own team, to be able to call their friends at other schools and say, 'Hey, that's my team,' or if they're alumni and joke with their buddies, it's something special, and both communities take great pride in it.

"I know the Dukes and Carolinas are in this position a lot, and maybe their fans take it for granted sometimes. Our fans don't. Our fans realize how special this is and how lucky they are to be a part of it."

Bears fans have been described as "giddy," and surely they snickered as the Longhorns unraveled and went one-and-done in New Orleans. A&M lost an 11-point second-half lead to Purdue to prevent a maroon invasion to rival the gold-and-green brigade headed to Houston. Kansas State and Baylor, picked to finish 10th in league play, are the last two standing of the Big 12's seven tournament teams.

"What Baylor's been through, it means a lot, it means a lot to this program what we've done, but we can't dwell on it right now," said Carter, considered the key recruit to really launch coach Scott Drew's program. "We can't enjoy it right now because we've still got basketball left."

Two seasons ago, the Bears returned to the NCAA tournament after 20 long years as an 11-seed. Aggressive efforts in recruiting have paid off with a tied-for-second-place finish in the Big 12 and a best-ever No. 3 seed. The Gaels, bolstered by the recruitment of five Australian players, made the tournament in 2005 and 2008. Both teams played in the NIT last season.

"They've been knocking on the door, and we've been knocking on the door," Drew said. "I think both of us just entered together."

The winner walks on through to its first Elite Eight on Sunday with a once-unimaginable spot in the Final Four on the line. Standing in the way -- presumably -- will be one of the most storied programs in college basketball history. Samhan rejects the label of Cinderella. He has predicted the Gaels ultimately will cut down the nets. The resurgent Bears believe they can, too. And if not now -- regardless of size, conference or perception -- both vow to be back.

"Until recently, you didn't have as much parity because you had fewer programs with more dominance," Drew said. "The scholarship reductions over the years, the NBA rule and more TV exposure for a lot of programs has helped, too, with national recruiting.

"Parity in college basketball is here to stay."

What an opportunity for Baylor and Saint Mary's to call scoreboard.

Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

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