Twenty years ago, Baylor’s decision to hire a little-known 32-year-old bundle of energy named Scott Drew to lead its men’s basketball program didn’t feel like the start of a Texas college hoops renaissance. These days, though, traces of the significance of that moment populate every corner of the 2023 NCAA tournament bracket.

If Baylor could rise from the ashes of a horrific scandal to become one of the country’s best programs, and if that success could shine a positive light on the entire university, then why couldn’t other schools go get their own Scott Drews?

“To me, it comes down to commitment,” Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork told me. “And it comes down to the right coaches. Coaches are the leaders. Coaches are the ones that recruit. They’re the ones who build the programs. If you look at the quality of coaches the state of Texas has, that’s been the starting point of great basketball. You have to embrace high expectations.”

That’s what has happened with transformative coaches like Kelvin Sampson at Houston, Buzz Williams at Texas A&M, and Jamie Dixon at TCU. Texas Tech followed the same blueprint when it lured Chris Beard from Arkansas–Little Rock in 2016. Beard led the Red Raiders to the Elite Eight in his second season and to the national championship game in his third before being hired away by Texas in 2021 (and then getting fired in January).

These coaches have rewritten both the expectations for and perceptions of college basketball in Texas. In a state where football might always be king, it’s the basketball programs that are dominating their sport, especially in recent NCAA tournaments.

“Texas for such a long time was known as a great football state,” Drew told me. “And it’s great that it’s being known for basketball as well. That’s a great compliment to everyone in the state. To me, it goes back to great AAU programs; great high school teams, coaches, athletes; and how much the state has invested in facilities.”

Longhorns interim coach Rodney Terry said the Big 12 in particular, and the state of Texas in general, “is probably the most competitive I’ve ever seen it, from top to bottom.”

“There’s not one night where you think, ‘Man, we have a breather,’ ” he added. “If you don’t bring your A game every night, you’re in trouble.” That quality is why this NCAA men’s tournament has such a Texas flavor. Houston and Texas are in. So are TCU and Texas A&M. Baylor is back, as usual, along with a couple of long shots: Texas A&M–Corpus Christi and Texas Southern, if it survives a play-in game Wednesday night.

Drew’s success at Baylor has provided a blueprint, of sorts, for all of them. No program in the country was in worse shape after a 2003 scandal in which one player shot and killed another. Drew took the job despite friends and peers telling him he had no chance of succeeding in Waco. Even as Baylor went 21–53 in his first three seasons, Drew was stringing together one first-rate recruiting class after another.

His breakthrough was a 21–11 season in 2007–08, and Baylor has been on the national stage ever since, with eleven NCAA tournament appearances and the 2021 national championship. Drew is a reminder that, as Bjork said, hiring the right coach changes everything.

Drew swats away the suggestion that the rise of Texas basketball can be somehow traced to his arrival in Waco. “If people talk like that about Baylor, that’s extremely humbling,” he said. “God’s really blessed our program with great players, great coaches, and they’ve helped make the program successful. 

“And then, obviously, your administration, your fans,” Drew said. “It takes a team to win. Again, it goes back to the whole state in general, and how they’ve helped develop young student athletes, and in the resources and facilities they’ve spent to help our high school players be the best they can be.”

Baylor will open its new basketball home—the $213 million Foster Pavilion—early next year. This is another requirement for putting a school on basketball’s big stage: shiny new facilities to attract fans and recruits. Texas opened the doors to its $375 million Moody Center last season. Texas Tech completed a $32.2 million practice facility two years ago, and Houston spent $85 million to renovate its arena and practice facility.

In each of those cases, though, the school’s success began with the hiring of a coach. A basketball coach. In a football state. What in the name of Darrell Royal is going on here? 

“We’ve always had great athletes in the state playing basketball,” said Terry, who got the interim gig at Texas when Beard was suspended on December 12 and fired on January 5 after being arrested and charged with felony domestic violence. (Charges were ultimately dropped, and Ole Miss hired Beard this week.)

Terry, 54, grew up in Angleton, in southeast Texas, where his father was a public-school teacher who also coached football and basketball. Over the years, Terry has seen basketball go from an afterthought in Texas to a near-dominant sport. “I think the one thing that has changed from fifteen or twenty years ago is we have more basketball coaches,” he said. “Twenty-five years ago, you had guys that were football coaches coaching basketball.”

Other things have changed. “When we were growing up, you played every sport,” Terry said. “You played football. You played baseball. You didn’t have guys spending the summer playing basketball, the way they do now. As early as the ninth grade, guys are specializing and just playing basketball.”

Two factors have contributed to this change. Grassroots basketball is played at such a high level that colleges in the state don’t need to look far from home to build their rosters. Four of the Houston Cougars’ top five scorers spent their high school careers in Texas. On the other hand, the state’s college programs and facilities are so good that they attract recruits from all over the country.

Texas A&M’s roster has seven Texans, including leading scorer Wade Taylor IV, in addition to players from six other states, Canada, and the Dominican Republic. “In the past, people thought of basketball as sort of a bridge between football and your spring sports, particularly baseball,” A&M’s Bjork said. “People thought, ‘We’ll go inside for a couple of months, and then we’ll get back outside.’ That’s not the way we’re approaching it at A&M. Aggies want to win at everything. You want it to be a showcase where people come to campus, they come inside your building, and they support your team. Reed Arena was packed for every SEC game.”

In the 2023 Rivals 150—a ranking of the top 150 high school basketball players in the nation—17 are from Texas high schools. Six of those in-state prospects have committed to Texas colleges, including two to Houston. Asked about the quality of high school basketball in the state at last week’s SEC tournament, A&M coach Williams told reporters: “A lot of those kids have been coached. . . . Those guys were coached long before they ever got to Texas A&M.”

Lake Highlands High School coach Joe Duffield just finished a season in which his team won the class 6A state championship, and his best player, guard Tre Johnson, solidified his position as the top player in the nation on the 2024 Rivals 150. “I would argue that basketball in Texas, and especially in the DFW area, is the best in the nation,” Duffield told me. “There’s a lot of different factors.” He ticked off a list that included an array of youth programs in which kids have “year-round training and competing.”

“The biggest thing is that our kids compete against each other all the time,” he said. “There’s such a deep talent pool with the Metroplex being as big as it is. These kids are playing against each other competitively from a young age, and it’s just that whole ‘iron sharpens iron’ [thing]. We went to Florida to play in a tournament and took a couple of losses. But I think it really opened our eyes to say, ‘Hey, we were just as good as these really good teams, the best in the nation.’ ”

Great college basketball isn’t a new thing in Texas, even if it suddenly feels that way. Fifty-five years ago, Houston and UCLA played “the Game of the Century” in front of 52,693 in the Astrodome. Fifteen years later, Houston was a miracle Lorenzo Charles dunk away from winning the 1983 national championship game over North Carolina State. Tom Penders took the Longhorns to the Elite Eight in 1990, and Rick Barnes got them to the Final Four in 2003. Texas made the NCAA tournament sixteen times in Barnes’s 17 seasons in Austin, including five trips to the Sweet Sixteen. Kim Mulkey won three women’s national championships during 21 seasons at Baylor, and Gary Blair led the Aggies to one in 2011.

But it has never been like this in the men’s game. This is the third straight year in which three Texas teams have gotten top-five seeds in March Madness: number one Houston and number two Texas in the Midwest region and number three Baylor in the South. All of them followed the Baylor model: they hired the right coach and went all in on facilities. 

An in-house analysis conducted at the University of Houston showed that the Cougars’ four NCAA tournament games in 2022 were worth between $15 million and $18 million in media exposure for the school. Success in the Big Dance turns on the faucet for donations and enrollment applications and builds an institutional pride that’s impossible to quantify. Although it’s difficult to determine the exact value basketball success brings to Texas colleges, all the schools seem to want a piece of the action.

“Athletics can provide the energy and the fuel to really uplift the entire university, uplift the entire region,” Bjork said. “Athletics is not the most important, but it’s the most visible.”