This 22–2 Baylor men’s basketball team is so talented and so deep, so confident and so well coached that it’s reasonable to look at the upcoming NCAA tournament as the Bears breakthrough moment. Remember when friends told Scott Drew that taking the Baylor job might end his coaching career?
Instead, it has established him as one of the nation’s best. This is the ninth time in the last fourteen seasons Drew has taken the Bears to the NCAA tournament, a stretch that includes four Sweet 16 and two Elite Eight appearances. This season, Drew has guided the Bears to a 22–2 record and the number one seed in the South Region. By any standard, Baylor has become one of college basketball’s gold standard programs.
Yet despite all that success and all those good vibes, the Final Four has remained out of reach — not just for Drew’s teams, but for the last seventy years of Baylor basketball. The university’s two previous national semifinal appearances came in 1948 and 1950, decades before the NCAA Tournament’s 1985 expansion to a 64-team field. This season is about turning around that history, thanks to a roster that includes arguably the country’s best backcourt, two national defensive player of the year semifinalists in Davion Mitchell and Mark Vital, and depth, depth, depth.
Prepare yourself for two Baylor narratives during March Madness. Both are legit. The first is that since Drew arrived in Waco in 2003, he has done one of the best coaching jobs ever—that’s ever—by transforming one of the most corrupt and least successful programs in the country into a consistent winner in the Big 12. Drew has created a culture in which players love playing for him and have such warm feelings that they return for alumni and team functions years after they’ve moved on to the NBA and pro leagues around the world. How he has built this is the secret sauce that separates elite coaches from all the rest.
One key to Drew’s success is that he out-hustles most of the competition. I was reminded of this while attending one of John Lucas’s elite camps at the University of Houston a few years ago. At lunchtime, I walked to a sandwich place across the street and bumped into a Baylor assistant coach. And then another Baylor assistant showed up. And then Drew himself. Other Big 12 head coaches may have attended the camp, but I didn’t see them.
Drew is a boyish fifty years old, so polite and soft-spoken that his competitive fires take people by surprise. Baylor alum Drayton McLane—the billionaire’s name graces the football stadium—calls Drew “one of those people you’re immediately drawn to and immediately like.” As Drew once put it: “I get it from my dad [Valparaiso University coaching lifer Homer Drew]. I’m a glass-half-full guy. My dad always treated everybody like family. I think he’s a great man, and I try to emulate that.”
Drew’s aw-shucks humility disguises the aggressive style that has ruffled rival coaches’ feathers along the way. When Bob Knight was coaching Texas Tech, he was once overheard berating Drew in a men’s room at a Big 12 meeting, and former UT Longhorns coach Rick Barnes once told the New York Times, “There’s a line that he knows that he can’t cross with me.” Asked whether he had anything else to say about Drew’s recruiting methods, Barnes said, “I wish I could.”
Sometimes, Drew steps over a line. He once mailed recruits a flier showing him standing between Knight and former Texas A&M coach Billy Gillispie with this question at the bottom: “Which of these Big 12 coaches has signed a McDonald’s All-American?” There was a red X across Knight and Gillispie. Among his recruiting tricks is a video presentation tailored for each player, and recruiting remains Drew’s top priority. “Coach always said, ‘We can be the best coaches in the world but we’re not going to win without talent,’” said former Baylor assistant Matthew Driscoll in Sports Illustrated.
Besides winning—that is, winning at least nineteen games for ten straight seasons—here’s part of Baylor’s recruiting appeal: 42 Drew players have played professionally in the NBA, NBA G League, or overseas. Baylor has had 10 players sign NBA contracts in the last ten seasons.
On the other hand, could Drew have succeeded by being anything less than maniacal? He was hired to restore the program’s dignity in the wake of Baylor player Carlton Dotson murdering teammate Patrick Dennehy in 2003. From that crime flowed a torrent of unsavory allegations about Drew’s predecessor, Dave Bliss.
Drew’s friends have said that one of the reasons Baylor appealed to him was that he’d be building a program from scratch. Drew’s first three teams in Waco went 21–53. In his third season, the Bears received the rare NCAA punishment of being barred from playing a nonconference schedule because of the previous coaching staff’s violations.
“It would’ve taken John Wooden a while to right that ship,” Kansas coach Bill Self told CBS Sports in 2017.
But even with the program in ruins at the beginning of his tenure, Drew managed to bring in recruiting classes ranked tenth, eleventh, and seventeenth by various national scouting services in his first three seasons. It was enough to infuse Baylor basketball with some sorely needed optimism.
Also, perception is a funny thing. Drew’s first Baylor team went 8–21 with a collection of walk-ons and players who stuck around after the scandal. That team played so hard and with such energy that fans could see that this new kid of a coach—he was 32 at the time—brought something special to the program. Drew’s breakthrough came in his fifth season (2007–2008), when the Bears won 21 games and reached the NCAA tournament for the second time in 58 years.
Here’s the other Baylor narrative you’re likely to hear during March Madness: Drew and the Bears have unfinished business in this tournament. Baylor was 26–4 when COVID-19 shut down college basketball last year. That team spent five straight weeks ranked number one—the longest since Kentucky in 2015—and strung together a 23-game winning streak.
In guards Jared Butler, MaCio Teague, and Davion Mitchell, Baylor had a backcourt capable of controlling games at both ends of the floor. When Butler returned to school after checking out his NBA options, Baylor was positioned to pick up where last year left off. Since transfers Teague and Mitchell became eligible in 2019, the Bears are 48–6. Baylor’s guards are why the Bears lead the nation in three-point percentage. Five Baylor players are shooting at least 41 percent from beyond the arc.
“They’re terrific offensively,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “They play really hard, and I think, defensively, their bigs have really helped them. They’re veteran, they don’t get rattled, they play at a great pace, and they’re terrific at playing in space.”
Defense? Baylor held its first nine Big 12 opponents to under 70 points and forced at least fourteen turnovers in 19 of its 24 games this season. Baylor’s other strength lies in Drew’s ability to summon waves of talent off the bench. Three Baylor reserves are averaging seven points or better, and on average, the Bears bench outscores opposing second units by more than ten points per game.
When Baylor’s plan A isn’t working, Drew has enough options to win with plan B—or C and sometimes D. That allows the Bears to check off box after box on the list of attributes teams need to make the Final Four. They rank seventh in the country in steals and sixth in turnover margin. They’re also one of the nation’s best offensive rebounding teams.
Baylor’s emergence is even more impressive considering the strength of Texas college basketball these days. At one point this season, Texas became the first state to have four teams in the Associated Press Top 10 at the same time. Only number two Baylor and number seven Houston remain in the most recent rankings, but two others—number thirteen Texas, the newly crowned Big 12 Tournament champions, and number twenty Texas Tech—appear capable of playing deep into March.
Gonzaga is March Madness’s overall number one seed, but Baylor is way more tournament-tested thanks to the Big 12. Also, Baylor is the first team since UNLV in 1990–91 to win its first seventeen games by eight points or more. Baylor is 6–2 against Top 25 teams, with the first of those losses coming at Kansas shortly after COVID-19 protocols shut down the Bears’ program for 21 days and the second owing largely to a transcendent performance from top NBA draft prospect Cade Cunningham, who led Oklahoma State to an upset over Baylor in the Big 12 Tournament on Friday.
Baylor rebounded from the Kansas loss returned with barely a hiccup, and if falling to the Cowboys last week means the Bears will have gotten some tournament jitters out of their system, then Drew’s team couldn’t be better positioned for the Big Dance.
“I think all the attention they get is deserved,” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said. “They can obviously win the whole thing.”