Welcome to what may be the Lone Star State’s greatest college basketball season ever. Perhaps nothing can top last spring, when Baylor joined that legendary 1966 Texas Western squad as the state’s only other team to win an NCAA men’s national championship, but the emergence of elite college hoops programs throughout Texas in 2021–22 has the potential to eclipse that.
Coach Scott Drew’s Baylor Bears sailed through the 2021 NCAA tournament, winning six games by an average of 15 points, including an 86–70 drubbing of top overall seed Gonzaga in the title game. Beyond that, Baylor was so efficient and its players and coaches so likable that the Bears became a point of pride for plenty of Texans who’d probably never paid much attention to college basketball.
Toss in the University of Houston’s Final Four run and Abilene Christian’s upset of Texas in the first round, and it’s hard to argue that last March was anything but one of the most compelling and ultimately satisfying sports months in state history.
Now here’s the good part: that magnificent spring might turn out to be just an appetizer for this season, which began last week with six Texas teams seemingly capable of winning a national championship. Baylor and Texas have a puncher’s chance in both men’s and women’s hoops, while the Houston men and Texas A&M women also appear to be in the mix.
Intriguing story lines abound. One legendary coach is retiring; two others are changing addresses. Baylor is the gold standard. Having won three women’s national championships and one men’s national title in this century, the university has forced Texas, Texas A&M, and any other prominent school in the state with a reputation to keep up to invest in top-notch venues, coaches, and travel accommodations. Similarly, Houston hired one of the country’s great coaches in Kelvin Sampson and gave him first-rate facilities. In return, Sampson has put UH back on the national map.
Then, after last season ended with Drew and his guys bringing the trophy home to Waco, the real fun began. Chris Beard bolted Texas Tech to become the head coach at Texas. Kim Mulkey, who coached the Baylor women to three national championships, left for LSU. And just two weeks ago, A&M women’s coach Gary Blair, a towering figure who steered the Aggies to an NCAA title in 2011, announced this season would be his last.
So with the Texas, Baylor, and Houston men all ranked in the Associated Press top 15 and with Baylor, Texas, and A&M in the women’s top 25, basketball has never been a hotter story in Texas.
Here are nine of the season’s most compelling narratives:
1. Is there a better coach in the country than Scott Drew?
Baylor has won so much under Drew that it’s beginning to feel routine. These days, it’s almost forgotten that he took over a program mired so deep in scandal that some of his closest friends thought accepting the job in Waco would do irreparable harm to his career. So much for that. Drew has led the Bears to the NCAA tournament nine times in fourteen seasons, including five trips to the Sweet Sixteen. Baylor is one of only four programs, along with Duke, Gonzaga, and Kansas, to reach number one in the national rankings in three of the last five seasons, and the last time a Drew-coached team failed to win at least eighteen games was in the 2006–7 season.
2. Gary Blair’s final season at Texas A&M.
Blair’s coaching career began with three state championships at Dallas South Oak Cliff in the seventies and eighties, peaked with the Aggies’ 2011 national championship team, and will end, in all likelihood, with the Texas A&M women making a sixteenth straight appearance in the NCAA tournament. As usual, Blair’s roster is loaded this season, beginning with veteran guards Jordan Nixon and Kayla Wells.
3. Six players to watch.
Baylor senior forward NaLyssa Smith is a consensus first-team preseason All-American after averaging 18 points and 8.9 rebounds as a junior. Baylor guard/forward Matthew Mayer is that six-foot-nine hybrid player who may remind Mavericks fans of Dirk Nowitzki with his ability to play anywhere on the floor. (Or, he may be the guy they think of as the preseason All–Big 12 swingman with the epic mullet.) Another Baylor player to watch—there are several—is freshman forward Kendall Brown, a projected high first-round pick in next year’s NBA draft who came one rebound short of a triple double in Baylor’s win over Nicholls State on Monday. Guard Micah Peavy transferred from Texas Tech to TCU after one season and is a big building block for a team with eight Division I transfers. Guards Marcus Carr of Texas and Marcus Sasser of Houston are on every NBA team’s watch list.
4. Can Baylor go back-to-back?
Does a Bear attend university in Waco? No team has won consecutive men’s NCAA national championships since Florida in 2006 and 2007, so the odds are against ninth-ranked Baylor successfully defending last season’s title. Despite the loss of stars Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell, and MaCio Teague, Drew has restocked the roster with elite talent. Three holdovers—Mayer, guard Adam Flagler, and forward Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua—will have more prominent roles this season, and Drew welcomed three blue-chip additions in Brown, freshman forward Jeremy Sochan, and Arizona transfer James Akinjo. “We have enough returners coming back that they know what kind of culture we have and want to have,” Drew said. “We have enough new players where it gives you excitement.”
5. Will Chris Beard be an instant success with the Longhorns?
That’s the expectation after the former Texas Tech coach—who took the Red Raiders to the Elite Eight in 2018 and the national championship game in 2019—worked the transfer portal like a maestro to add six potential impact players to go with two starters remaining from departing coach Shaka Smart’s final UT team. Guards Marcus Carr, a transfer from Minnesota, and Devin Askew, from Kentucky, join returning Longhorns Andrew Jones and Courtney Ramey to give the Longhorns a potentially dominant backcourt. Texas is so deep that Beard’s challenge will be finding a rotation and a style of play that keeps everyone happy. (After top-ranked Gonzaga humbled Texas last weekend in one of the early marquee matchups of the NCAA basketball season, that last part looks like it’s still a work in progress.)
6. Nicki Collen takes over for Kim Mulkey at Baylor.
Much of college basketball’s twenty-first-century resurgence in Texas can be traced to the standard Mulkey set while winning three NCAA women’s national championships during 21 seasons in Waco. We may be years sorting out all the reasons she departed for LSU, but Mulkey’s departure left Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades with the task of replacing a 2020 Basketball Hall of Famer. He settled on Nicki Collen, formerly head coach of the WNBA Atlanta Dream. So far, Collen has pushed all the right buttons, and it doesn’t hurt that the Bears are loaded with talent and appear poised to make another deep March run.
7. Texas women are in the national championship conversation too.
Perhaps the most predictable outcome of last season was that the Longhorns women, under new coach Vic Schaefer, were one of the best and most entertaining teams in the country. Texas’s run to the Elite Eight set the stage for Schaefer’s second season, which got off to heckuva start last weekend with an upset of defending national champion Stanford. Schaefer’s teams have won at every stop in his coaching career, including his nine seasons as one of Blair’s assistants in College Station.
8. Kelvin Sampson changed everything at UH, including expectations.
Kelvin Sampson’s first challenge as head basketball coach at Houston was to convince school officials that the program was still capable of competing at the highest level. That’s the conversation he had before taking the job three years ago. Once UH committed to building facilities that would allow him to compete for recruits with the likes of Baylor, Texas, and other in-state powers, Sampson worked his usual magic with an aggressive, defense-first style that carried last season’s Cougars to the school’s first Final Four since 1984. Houston is good again this season—and entertaining too.
9. What will become of Texas Tech in the post–Chris Beard era?
Almost from the moment Beard announced his decision to leave Lubbock to become head coach at UT, Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt knew who he wanted to hire as Beard’s replacement: Red Raiders assistant coach Mark Adams, a West Texas native and Texas Tech grad. He was Beard’s top assistant for all of his five seasons with the school and is considered one of the best defensive coaches—and one of the best people—in the game. Thanks in part to Beard’s success, Tech’s facilities are as good as any in the country, and Adams will have a chance to keep the program competing at the highest level.