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How Baylor Basketball Became No. 1: Adaptability and Avoiding the Success Trap

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The Bears avoided a common pitfall to set up the best decade in program history

NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Baylor Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Following the unquestioned best decade in the history Baylor basketball, the Bears are set to be blow past their recent accomplishments. They’re ranked No. 1 by Jeff Goodman to start the season, and they rank top three in every national ranking.

The Bears are primed to have their highest accomplishments as Scott Drew approaches his 20th year in Waco.

Many institutions that achieve success eventually collapse. That principle is referred to as the success trap or the competency trap. The idea is that organizations become too focused on what helped them achieve their early success, and they fail to innovate as the world changes.

Most groups fall into success traps. Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute found that 88% of 1955 Fortune 500 companies were out of business by 2014. Dominant companies get replaced as they fail to respond to new changes. Blockbuster thought their market share meant they’d dominate video rentals for decades. They failed to appreciate Netflix would eliminate their business.

In sports, plenty of programs fall prey to the success trap. At LSU, Les Miles thought his pro style offense—that delivered winning seasons at Oklahoma State and a national championship at LSU—could win another title. But as the spread necessitated explosive offenses, Miles failed to adapt and LSU fired him. He know has the difficult task of winning at Kansas.

Avoiding success traps is incredibly difficult. In hindsight it’s easy to say, “Why didn’t Les Miles start running a more explosive offense?” or “why didn’t Blockbuster just buy Netflix?” But that’s the crux of the success trap. When things are going well, it’s hard to shift and anticipate how what once worked won’t succeed against new problems.

While the Bears responded well to challenges over the last decade, they worked through two big areas to achieve a No. 1 ranking last season. Those challenges allowed them to stay No. 1 during the 2019-2020 season longer than any team had since Kentucky’s 2015 super team.

Recruiting:

Scott Drew’s turnaround had many elements, but landing top recruits was essential. For all the time we spend talking about X’s and O’s and statistics, the most important thing is having great players. John Calipari wasn’t a much better coach in 2012 when he won the NCAA Tournament than he was in 2013 when his team lost in the opening round of the NIT. He just had Anthony Davis in 2012 and not in 2013.

The 2012 Bears completed the program’s second Elite Eight in three seasons. The 2012 team’s average starter was just 2.1 years removed from high school. Baylor started just one senior. With Perry Jones and Quincy Miller—two top 10 recruits—Baylor could win with young players. Miller even supplanted Anthony Jones, a senior who started on Baylor’s 2010 Elite Eight team as a sophomore.

NCAA Basketball Tournament - Colorado v Baylor
The 2012 Bears had the youngest average starting age for a Baylor team in the last decade.

After building two Elite Eight programs (both squads lost to the eventual national champion), the Bears seemed to have a set formula: land the country’s best players and surround them with a few veterans. But unfortunately Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and a few other schools secured more of the top prospects. Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor had Baylor in their top three, but they chose Duke. Trevon Duval also had Baylor in his final schools. Once again, he picked Duke. Texas landed multiple 5-star big men.

The Bears early formula dried up. So Baylor had to find a way to compete with the top picks in the NBA Draft heading to Blue Bloods. If Baylor had just hoped that they could survive a one year hiatus without one-and-dones, they’d have been disappointed. And they would have gone broke. The author Luca Dell’Anna notes, “Expected returns do not apply where ruin is a possibility.” And Baylor basketball risked ruin as the one-and-done talent started going elsewhere. They needed a new plan to keep winning.

The Bears responded by getting older and developing their recruits. 18-year-old Taurean Prince wasn’t as good as 18-year-old Kansas freshman Brannen Greene. But by the time Prince started playing major minutes as a junior, he was much better than the two were at 20. Prince entered Baylor as the country’s 188th ranked recruit. He left as the 12th pick in the NBA Draft.

Year-after-year the Bears produced by getting old and staying old. In 2011 and 2012, the Bears average starter was 2.4 years removed from high school. Over the rest of the decade, Baylor’s average planned starting lineup (the 2019 lineup before Jake Lindsey and Tristan Clark’s injuries would have been 3.2 years removed; the lineup ended up 2.8 years after Jared Butler and Mark Vital took over) was at least 3.2 years removed from high school. That extra year of experience helped. Johnathan Motley wasn’t ready to play as a true freshman. By his redshirt senior year in 2018, he won the Karl Malone award as the nation’s best player.

Defense:

Over the last 11 years, Baylor’s had top 25 KenPom offenses in 9-of-11 seasons. Only Duke and Kentucky have matched that feat. In the eight seasons Baylor either made the NCAA Tournament or won the NIT over the last 10 years, Baylor’s average offensive efficiency was 16th nationally.

Although they had some good years, Baylor’s defensive efficiency hadn’t been as strong. That’s going to happen some seasons. Basketball forces trade-offs. Play a skilled offensive player, and you might take the offensive boost knowing the player isn’t as strong on defense. Sell-out for offensive rebounds, and transition defense might tank your teams defensive efficiency. But regardless of the cause, Baylor’s adjusted defensive efficiency in the last decade was 47th. The Bears had four top 15 offensive seasons from 2012-2018, but the defense never ranked in the top 15 in any season before 2020.

NCAA Basketball: Oklahoma State at Baylor
Davion Mitchell and Mark Vital joined Freddie Gillespie on the Big 12 All-Defense Team. The Bears had three all defensive selections for the first time in program history.
Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

The Bears looked at their defensive numbers and the success of Texas Tech’s no middle defense and developed a modified version of that defense. The Bears ran a ton of zone over the previous decade; they rarely broke it out in 2020. Instead, the Bears turned to a modified version of Texas Tech’s no-middle defense. In that look, Baylor worked to force the ball toward the side of the court. With the ball on the side, offensive players have a much tougher time making quick passes. They’re also left taking difficult shots. Jordan Sperber has an excellent breakdown of the defense here.

The early days of the defensive transition were tough. Freddie Gillespie told me earlier this year there were, “So many days (when we didn’t think it would work). The first time I switched, I’d get cooked by Davion or Jared. The first time Davion had to front the post, (we thought), ‘never going to work. This is just too hard.’ There was a learning curve. An adjustment period. The coaches were just all very patient that we should work, and we’ll figure it out. They mentioned ‘we can’t coach effort.’”

That patience paid off. The Bears finished with the fourth ranked KenPom defense. That mark was 71 spots better than the 2019 defense. While Davion Mitchell, Mark Vital and Freddie Gillespie—all First Team All-Big 12 Defense selections—would help any defense, the Bears put those men in the best position to succeed. Drew and his staff did not rest on the idea that what had worked pretty well before would be good enough. Instead, they took a radical risk.

The Bears spent their summer working to make their defense as dominant as possible. If it failed, plenty of people would have clamored, “Why are they running a bad version of Texas Tech’s defense?” “Why can’t they just run the zone and focus on offense?” The Bears recognized that Mark Adam’s defense at Texas Tech made things different, and rather than wait—like Les Miles had to adopt the spread offense—Baylor realized what worked in Lubbock could be tweaked to work in Waco.

The Bears’ 4th ranked defense in 2020 blew away any previous Baylor defense.

That defense led to the best season in school history. The Bears won in Allen Fieldhouse against a Kansas squad that finished the season ranked No. 1. They won 23 straight games, the longest winning streak in Big 12 history. Even when their offense stalled, they locked in and were set to become a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.

The Culture that allowed those changes:

Baylor pulled off those two big changes by having a strong culture. The Bears worked with players like Johnathan Motley and Jordan Turner to let them know a redshirt would help their development. They landed Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell as transfers because the Bears worked hard to recruit them out of high school, and when they opted to transfer, the Bears could rely on their relationship during the recruiting period. They didn’t tarnish either for picking a different school. And when they needed a new home, Baylor was in a perfect spot.

Those changes have also helped the Bears start landing top-level talent again. The 2021 Baylor recruiting class is ranked fourth nationally on 247 and is the Big 12’s best. Baylor landed Kendall Brown, a 5-star with an exceptional first name, and the first five star commitment since Isaiah Austin in 2012. Brown lauded Baylor for their development of 2-star Royce O’Neale, now a starter on the Utah Jazz, and 3-star Taurean Prince, an NBA rotation mainstay and multi-millionaire for the Brooklyn Nets. The Bears could legitimately pitch, “Look at how O’Neale and Prince developed. Why can’t we help you get to the league too?”

The importance of the success trap is that what got you here may not get you there. Baylor’s had an unprecedented run of success, but the program wants to reach even loftier heights. They weren’t satisficed with the best decade in program history, and that’s why the next one should be even better.