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March 20, 2013

NIT: Baylor faces Long Beach State in opener

WACO, Texas — When Baylor guard Gary Franklin first saw the NIT bracket, the California native got excited. He initially thought the Bears' matchup against Long Beach State meant a chance to go play only about a half-hour from home.

The 49ers (19-13), whose roster includes two of Franklin's teammates from a high school championship team, will instead be in Texas on Wednesday night for a first-round game.

"The only disappointing thing for Gary is he wanted the game back home,'' Bears coach Scott Drew said with a smile, adding that they were able to get an early scouting report from him.

Baylor (18-14) is back in the NIT four years after making it to Madison Square Garden, then losing to Penn State in the championship game.

The Bears, who since their NIT runner-up finish in 2009 have made it to two NCAA regional finals, had bigger aspirations this season than a No. 2 seed in the NIT.

"You want to be in the Big Dance. At the same time, it's something you can't control as of right now,'' said senior guard Pierre Jackson, the Big 12's top scorer (19.8 points per game). "At least we're still playing, still got a chance to play for a championship.''

Which is more than Kentucky can say. The Wildcats, the No. 1 seed on the Baylor side of the NIT bracket, were upset 59-57 by Robert Morris in their opener Tuesday night.

Within minutes after that game ended, Jackson tweeted one word: "Wow...''

After a school-record 30 wins last season, which ended with a loss to eventual national champ Kentucky in a regional final, the Bears had three players taken in the NBA draft last summer, including underclassmen Quincy Miller and Perry Jones III.

Still, with Jackson and 7-foot-1 standout freshman center Isaiah Austin, Baylor was 19th in the preseason AP Top 25 this season.

"I wish we were 19 right now,'' Drew said, when asked how he viewed this season. "I think one thing is you never really view things until things are over. You look at a couple of years ago when we went to the championship game of the NIT and how things finished out there. That year ended well, and hopefully we can do the same here.''

Long Beach State, which has lost four of its last six games, is playing in the postseason for the third consecutive season.

Along with former prep teammates Keala King and Tyler Lamb, Franklin also knows a lot of the other Long Beach State players since he plays a lot of pickup games there when at home.

The loss by the Wildcats eliminated the possibility of a rematch with Baylor. It also means that the Bears could play three consecutive games at home, if they keep winning, before the final two rounds in New York.

Baylor won 64-55 in December at Rupp Arena, its first-ever non-conference road win against a Top 25 team. That also ended the Wildcats' nation's-best 55-game home winning streak and was their first home loss under fourth-year coach John Calipari.

Baylor last played at home in the regular-season finale, an 81-58 victory over Big 12 champion Kansas, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

But the Bears lost five of six games before that. They were then the No. 3 seed at the Big 12 tournament, but they fell behind by 20 points in their opener against Oklahoma State and a valiant comeback attempt came up short when Jackson's potential game-winning 3-pointer bounced off the rim as time ran out.

As high school seniors, Franklin and 49ers junior guards King and Lamb led Mater Dei to a California Interscholastic Federation title. All three went to different Pac-12 schools, and have all since transferred.

Lamb joined the 49ers two months ago from UCLA, and is still sitting out due to NCAA transfer rules. King started playing for Long Beach State in December after 1 1/2 seasons at Arizona State.

Franklin started 11 of California's first 13 games as a freshman before transferring to Baylor, where he was able to start playing midway through last season.

"Keala and I, and Tyler and I, had been friends since like fifth grade, so being able to play with each other in high school made things even more fun,'' Franklin said. "There were things off the court that you can't replace. ... But obviously winning a CIF title there with them, it was a lot of fun.''

Now they are opposite sides trying to take the first step toward an NIT championship.

 

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