Few people believed in Scott Drew’s basketball team as November approached.
Baylor didn’t get a single vote in the Associated Press or coaches Top 25 preseason polls. Losing an NBA lottery pick in Taurean Prince and one of the nation’s top rebounders in Rico Gathers, this had all the makings of a rebuilding year.
Instead the Bears have rebuilt all the way to a Sweet 16 matchup against South Carolina at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Madison Square Garden.
“I’m always a glass half full kind of guy, so I’m optimistic that if we do X, Y and Z things will work out,” Drew said. “But you never know how the chemistry will develop and you never know about injuries. We got dinged up at the end of the year but fortunately they weren’t season ending injuries, and that’s one reason we’ve been able to reach the success we’ve had.”
Since the Bears were picked fifth in the Big 12 race and weren’t on the national radar, it’s been easy for Drew to motivate his squad. The Bears won their first 15 games to attain their first No. 1 ranking in school history on Jan. 9, and finished in a second place tie in the Big 12 with West Virginia and Iowa State.
“Coaches use everything for motivation, but it’s easier to motivate when you don’t receive a lot of awards and a lot of attention,” Drew said. “I definitely thought we had a chance to have a great year. But you never know who is going to step up and perform. We’ve definitely been on the best-case scenario side of things.”
This will be Drew’s fourth appearance in the Sweet 16, and the first since 2014. It might also be the third-seeded Bears’ best shot at reaching the Final Four since they’re the highest remaining seed in the East region that has been whittled down to No. 7 South Carolina, No. 4 Florida and No. 8 Wisconsin.
Drew’s two previous Elite Eight teams were knocked out by No. 1 seeds and eventual national champions, including Duke in 2010 and Kentucky in 2012. But Drew doesn’t pay a lot of attention to seeding because he’s seen so many upsets during March Madness.
The Bears were first-round NCAA tournament upset victims the last two years, losing to No. 14 seed Georgia State in 2015 and No. 12 seed Yale in 2016. Those losses have only made Drew more grateful to get back to the Sweet 16.
“You appreciate it more after the last two years of getting knocked out quicker,” Drew said. “You can get spoiled when you win. But the longer you’re in this, you understand nothing is promised. Now we’ve been blessed to stay longer in the tournament, and it makes it more special.”
With talent, athleticism and great chemistry, this year’s team has some similarities to Drew’s previous three Sweet 16 teams.
The Bears have a certain NBA draft pick in All-America forward Johnathan Motley. The 2010 team featured lottery pick Ekpe Udoh while the 2012 squad produced a school-record three NBA draft picks that year, including Quincy Acy, Quincy Miller and Perry Jones.
But the biggest difference in this year’s team might be its depth. The Bears attack opponents in a lot of ways and pull production from numerous players off the bench.
They’ve got a double-double machine in Motley and a 7-0 shot blocking ace in Jo Lual-Acuil. Terry Maston has given the Bears a big lift off the bench by amassing 19 points and nine rebounds in both of Baylor’s NCAA tournament wins.
After scoring 22 points against Texas Tech on Feb. 13, Maston had scored just two points in Baylor’s previous six games before the NCAA tournament.
“Terry is one of those rhythm guys,” Drew said. “If he gets in a rhythm, the basket looks really large for him. He also benefited from teams not being that familiar with him. He looked very comfortable out there, he rebounded well and was tremendous on the defensive end.”
They’ve got versatile guards in Manu Lecomte, Al Freeman, King McClure and Jake Lindsey. Lecomte made the difference in Baylor’s 82-78 win over USC by scoring all 12 of his points in the final minutes.
Meanwhile, Freeman came off the bench to score 21 against New Mexico State and McClure buried five 3-pointers to match his career high with 17 points against the Trojans.
“I don’t know if this is the deepest team we’ve had but we’ve had people come off the bench who have stepped forward in different games to allow us to be successful,” Drew said. “It’s a little more challenging from a coaching aspect because you don’t have the usual suspects in every game. You have to find out who’s hot and who’s blending well.”
Tying everything together is the team’s lone senior, Ish Wainright. He epitomizes the unselfish character of the team by contributing in various ways whether it’s passing, rebounding, scoring or playing lockdown defense. The rest of the team has taken its cue from Wainright’s team-first attitude.
“Ish does a great job of having a relationship with everybody on the team,” Drew said. “They allow him to lead, and they support him. It starts with the fact that Ish is such an unselfish person. They can see he’s excited about his teammates’ success. It’s easy to follow someone who cares about you and not about himself.”
Getting back to Madison Square Garden is a treat for Drew, who led the Bears to two NIT appearances at the fabled arena. The Bears finished second in the 2009 NIT before winning the 2013 title. He’s glad this year’s players will get to experience the Garden with a shot at making the Final Four.
“Some of our former players who played at Madison Square Garden have shared their experiences with these guys,” Drew said. “They’ve passed on their thoughts and wisdom to them. I know everyone’s excited and wants us to continue to have success there.”