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As he bounced off the floor the other night in Tulsa, celebrating a berth in the Sweet 16, Baylor athletics director Mack Rhoades paused for a moment.
"We needed this," he said -- and then he was gone, headed for the tunnel, stopping only for hugs and high-fives. But a few moments later, in a corridor beneath the arena, Rhoades and others acknowledged the meaning was more than the typical March narrative.
The sexual assault scandal that has enveloped Baylor led to the ouster last summer of the school's president and athletics director -- and most notably, football coach Art Briles -- and might indicate systemic issues that go beyond athletics to the university as a whole.
It also seemingly has no end. New allegations keep emerging in lawsuit filings. Two newly hired football staff members were fired in recent weeks for transgressions unrelated to the initial scandal but which were seen by some as further indication of an endemic culture problem.
In the face of all that, the basketball team's success provided a rare positive moment -- or at least, a respite -- for its fans. Baylor (27-7), No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament's East Region, beat Southern California on Sunday to advance to the Sweet 16. The Bears will face No. 7 South Carolina on Friday at Madison Square Garden. And they're carrying more than the banner of a basketball team.
"We want to put Baylor in a good light," coach Scott Drew said. "We want to make our fans and Baylor Nation excited, to give them something to cheer about. We control what we can control, and that's our effort and how we conduct ourselves and the way we represent the school."
No one involved in Drew's program has been implicated in any of the allegations. But they know any conversation about the scandal is tricky and that every discussion must begin with an acknowledgment: "I love my school as much as anybody," sophomore guard Jake Lindsey said. "But (one) victim of sexual assault at Baylor or anywhere is one too many."
'We just play basketball'
They're not under the illusion that they'll change the school's tarnished image by winning games. Lindsey and his teammates know all too well that anyone and everyone associated with Baylor has been tainted. All season, they routinely encountered vitriol from opposing fans at road games -- chants of "No means no! No means no!" at West Virginia, posters with messages such as "Countdown to the next rape" at other places, and so on.
"You go on the road, and people chant stuff about us that isn't true," said Lindsey, shaking his head. "That's someone's daughter you're talking about."
Lindsey suggested an exercise. Go to Twitter and search "Baylor." Or just check the mentions from the official men's basketball handle (@BaylorMBB).
"You'll see some Twitter robots just retweeting stuff," he said. "You'll see people commenting on the game. But you'll see just hateful (stuff), just people casting stuff on the young guys like us. We just play basketball. You've got to block it out, because you're a competitor and a winner. But why does it have to be that way? Why can't the focus be on the victims instead of painting us in that light?"
Maybe, some think, that's a small price and Baylor's reputation is in tatters for good reason. But these basketball players in the fluorescent yellow uniforms had nothing to do with any of it.
"That's not who we are," said senior guard Ishmail Wainright -- even as he knows that, for some, there's no separating the good guys from the bad or basketball from what is largely football's scandal.
The Baylor women's team -- a perennial national powerhouse -- might be on a similar path through the postseason, though the comments last month by their coach are problematic. Kim Mulkey took the microphone at the Baylor women's last home game and defiantly suggested if anyone said they wouldn't send a daughter to Baylor, "you knock them right in the face," and went on to say Baylor's problems "are no different than the problems at any other school in America."
She later apologized, several times.
But there's not much benefit of the doubt left for anyone associated with Baylor. For many, Mulkey's words showed Baylor still doesn't get it, that officials and others affiliated with the school have a persecution complex rather than appropriate remorse over a deep and wide scandal.
Drew, by contrast, is an eternal optimist who's bubbly to the point of being effervescent. An example: Before Baylor took the floor Sunday for its Round of 32 game against USC, he zipped into the Kansas locker room to congratulate the Big 12 rivals for advancing to the Sweet 16. "Good luck, you guys! Get 'em next week!" Then he turned and ran out, headed for the court and Baylor's impending tip-off.
He says his players have handled criticism well -- even when it shouldn't have been directed at them.
"I know what our guys are like, and I know what they care about," Drew said. "They love Baylor, and they want to represent it the right way."
Said Rhoades, "They've handled it every step of the way with class. I'm proud of them. These kids have had to endure a lot. They've done nothing but the right stuff -- and off the court as well."
Chasing school history
On the court, they've played some of the best basketball in school history.
The Bears shot from unranked in the preseason to No. 1, then earned a No. 3 seed. They are long and athletic and play with a freewheeling verve. And now they're in the Sweet 16 -- and as the highest remaining seed in the East Region, they have a great shot at going even further.
"I think we needed it," said Rhoades, who left Missouri for Baylor last summer, pledging to help bring change. "Our university needed it. Our kids, these players that have done things the right way since they've been here. So it's a proud moment for Baylor, and it feels good, mainly for our kids but also for our university and our fans."
Lindsey, a finance major from Houston who is the son of former Baylor player and current Utah Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey, recognizes the oddity, even incongruity, of the idea that a run through the NCAA tournament means much in the larger Baylor picture.
"Winning carries a great feeling," he said. "It's weird, because, in a perfect world, winning would be irrelevant from a reputation of a school. But it's not a perfect world. To think that maybe someone gets a better image of Baylor because we won a few games, or maybe they don't say anything vile, or maybe it just impacts somebody, I mean, that's worth any sacrifice. But it's crazy."
Lindsey also knows it isn't going away anytime soon.
If the Bears escape New York this week, beating South Carolina and then either Florida or Wisconsin to reach the Final Four for the first time in program history, their arrival in Arizona will essentially be accompanied by the debut of a two-hour documentary about the school's other terrible scandal, the 2003 murder of a basketball player by a teammate and the attempted cover-up by former coach Dave Bliss.
The Showtime documentary is to be released March 31. Its title: Disgraced.
And as it dredges up history, it will inevitably refocus attention on more recent events.
"We can't control it," Lindsey said. "I just hope we continue to be about the right things. I've been a Christian my whole life, and I've never prayed so much. That's not saying prayer is equivalent to morality, but there are good things happening (at Baylor). Lives are being changed. People are being helped. It's just hard to overcome a national perception.
"All we can do is handle things the right way and say the right things."
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