Baylor fans were delirious with joy after CBS waited to the last minute to announce that the Bears had made the 2008 NCAA tournament.
They hugged and danced on the floor at the Ferrell Center. Every Baylor player and coach felt a deep sense of accomplishment because they did what many observers deemed impossible.
Five years after taking over a program decimated by scandal, Scott Drew led the Bears to their first NCAA tournament appearance in 20 years. But could he build off the success? Would this NCAA berth be an anomaly or would the Bears make annual postseason runs?
When the Bears hit the floor against Nebraska Friday in San Antonio, it will be their fourth NCAA tournament appearance under Drew. In nearly 100 years of basketball before the Drew era, the Bears had reached the tournament just four times.
Drew hasn’t just sustained Baylor’s program, he’s taken it to unforeseen levels.
“Building a program is obviously very hard, but sustaining a program in men’s basketball is probably one of the toughest things to do,” Drew said. “Forty-three percent of Division I players transfer, and you have players leaving (for the pros) after one, two or three years. The fact that we’ve been able to average that many wins is a real tribute to the players who have enjoyed Baylor.”
BU’s career leader
With Baylor’s 86-69 win over Texas in the Big 12 tournament semifinals last Friday, Drew became the winningest men’s basketball coach in school history with 202 wins. In 11 seasons, he surpassed Bill Henderson’s 201 wins from 1941-61.
After winning just 36 games in his first four seasons, Drew has averaged nearly 24 wins in the last seven years. Some of Baylor’s biggest wins have come in the postseason, a place the program had seen no success for decades.
The Bears reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament in 2010 and 2012 while making the NIT championship game in 2009 and winning the NIT title in 2013. In the last five seasons, Baylor’s 15-3 postseason record is the best in the nation.
Before the current run, Baylor hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game or an NIT game since reaching the NCAA national championship game in 1950. Drew credits the success to players who have developed a great bond throughout the season and are willing to go to war for each other.
“At the end of the year, players who like one another fight for each other the hardest,” Drew said. “We’ve brought in players who are good people and care about Baylor and each other. At tournament time, we’ve been successful because we’ve been able to give that little bit of extra effort.”
Baylor’s success has led to signing top five national recruits like Perry Jones, Quincy Miller and Isaiah Austin. Jones and Miller helped the Bears reach the Elite Eight in 2012 before heading to the NBA while Austin played a key role on last year’s NIT championship team and this year’s squad.
“There’s no question that making Elite Eight runs and winning the NIT championship opens the door for players,” Drew said. “They know about you. You have more options in recruiting, which leads to better players talent-wise and a better fit for Baylor. Then other top recruits can go to Baylor without people saying, ‘Why are you going there?’ ”
But Drew couldn’t have attained such a high level of success without seniors who stuck in the program for the long haul like Tweety Carter, LaceDarius Dunn, Quincy Acy and Cory Jefferson. After playing a reserve role for three years, Jefferson has blossomed into one of Baylor’s most productive players and leaders for the past two years.
“Cory has made as much of an impact off the court as he has on the court,” Drew said. “It’s not just his points and rebounds, it’s his leadership in the locker room. People respect him and look up to him. You need experience to win in the NCAA tournament, and 22 year-olds are usually going to beat 19 year-olds.”
While Drew hasn’t built his program with transfers, some who have come to Baylor have made a major impact. Center Ekpe Udoh transferred from Michigan to become a leader on Baylor’s 2010 Elite Eight team. Sharp shooting guard Brady Heslip has been one of the top 3-point specialists in the country for the last three years after transferring from Boston College.
Point guard Pierre Jackson transferred from College of Southern Idaho to help the Bears reach the 2012 Elite Eight before keying last year’s NIT title run. Kenny Chery has been a worthy successor to Jackson this season after transferring from State Fair (Mo.) Community College.
“Pierre opened a lot of doors because so many smaller guards love to watch him play,” Drew said. “Junior college players know the success Pierre had, so it was easier to recruit the next one.”
Not derailed by 2-8
After opening this season with a 12-1 nonconference record and reaching No. 7 in the country, Drew’s run of success appeared in jeopardy when his team opened Big 12 play with a 2-8 record.
When it seemed like the Bears had bottomed out, Drew kept encouraging his team to keep the faith.
“Coach Drew is always very positive, and he reinforces that,” Heslip said. “When we were 2-8, what are you going to do? Feel sorry for yourself and not do anything? It obviously wasn’t too late. We had the right attitude, the guys stayed positive, the coaches corrected what we needed to correct, and we became a totally different basketball team.”
The Bears have won 10 of their 12 games and reached the Big 12 tournament finals before losing to Iowa State. Though they enjoyed winning last year’s NIT title at Madison Square Garden, they didn’t want to go back to the NIT for a second straight year.
“Nobody at all wanted to go back to the NIT,” Austin said. “We knew we were in trouble and had to win several games in a row to make the (NCAA) tournament, so we all locked down. It was all the people who told us we weren’t going to make the tournament that motivated us.”
Though his team rallied for a 74-65 win over Baylor in the Big 12 tournament championship game, Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg likes the way the Bears are playing and believes they can do some damage in the NCAA tournament.
“They’re very poised to do something special and make a long run in the tournament,” Hoiberg said. “They absolutely controlled games against great Oklahoma and Texas teams and did the same against us. We were fortunate to stay in that game with defense. But they pose so many problems with the way they play. They’re very difficult to prepare for with their defense. They have unbelievable length, and that’s something you can’t simulate in practice.”
Baylor seniors like Heslip and Jefferson who have been to the Elite Eight would like to make that next step to the Final Four. Especially since it’s just two hours up the road at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
“The goal at the beginning of the year is to win a national championship,” Heslip said. “If a team tells you they’re not playing for that, there’s no point in playing. Our goal is to be there, and we expect to be there.”