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Big 12 Champions: Scott Drew and Baylor Basketball Complete the Greatest Turnaround in College Sports

Nobody from 2003 would believe that Baylor basketball won the Big 12

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

After beating the No. 6 team in the country, Baylor clinched an outright Big 12 title. To anyone with a time machine from 2003—there’s a lot of history we should probably change if the technology exists—that might be crazier than anything else that’s happened in one of the wildest stretches in human history.

Before Scott Drew arrived at Baylor, its team accomplishment could be summarized in a paragraph. The Bears made the Final Four in 1948 and 1950. Baylor made the NCAA Tournament in 1988. That’s it. America went to war with Iraq more in 12 years than Baylor made the NCAA Tournament in 57 years.

The terrible history doesn’t explain just how terrible of a situation Scott Drew inherited. To Baylor fans, the story has been told too many times. But it can be told at least once more here. In 2003, a Baylor basketball player killed another player. Then the head coach engaged in reprehensible actions and lying smears to avoid NCAA penalties. That tragedy led to severe consequences.

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at West Virginia
This was the future Scott Drew envisioned when he took over a terrible Baylor program in 2003.
Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Taking over a team devoid of much talent, Drew’s team couldn’t play non-conference games in his third season. Two seasons later, Baylor made the NCAA Tournament. Two years after that it made the Elite Eight.

To survive in college basketball is to adapt. Drew broke through by landing McDonald’s All-Americans. He earned the unfair moniker as an elite recruiter and a terrible in-game coach. While it’s always tough to pinpoint why ridiculous narratives take hold, my guess is that folks who barely watched Baylor thought, “They have McDonald’s All-Americans, they should be champions.” That thought obfuscated that while Baylor certainly landed some talented players, it didn’t have five-man lineups that out-talented the rest of the league.

After the Blue Bloods started securing the country’s top recruits, Drew had to innovate. And that’s a testament to his skill and why he has a great chance to end up in the Hall of Fame. Bereft of the McDonald’s All-Americans that supported his 2010 and 2012 teams, he landed junior college players and transfers. While the Bears’ players at 18 weren’t as good as some of the other team’s players at 18, they were plenty good at 21 and 22. Following Tweety Carter and Pierre Jackson, every Baylor point guard has made an All-Big 12. That includes junior college players like Kenny Chery and Lester Medford, and transfers like Manu Lecomte and Makai Mason.

Few great turnarounds follow a straight path. Rarely does someone go from nowhere to the top. Along that journey something will go wrong. Two times, it seemed like Drew’s run might end before he could conquer the Big 12.

Creighton v Baylor
Featuring McDonald’s All-American, Isaiah Austin, Baylor made the 2014 Sweet 16
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

In 2014, Baylor started 2-8. With Chery battling an injury, Gary Franklin—a Cal transfer—started at point guard in Stillwater and faced future longtime NBA player Marcus Smart. Franklin led Baylor to a 74-67 victory. That same season Brady Heslip, another transfer looking for more minutes—this time hailing from Boston College—made a three as time expired to force overtime and beat Kansas State. Those Bears, featuring another 2-star transfer in Royce O’Neale—now a starter on the best team in the NBA—finished the regular season 8-1. As a seven seed, which dictated playing four games in four nights, they made the Big 12 final. And in the NCAA Tournament, Baylor blasted No. 3 seed Creighton by 30 points in what is likely the greatest offensive display in Baylor history.

Few coaches could lead a program through that 2-8 stretch and come out the other side with an NCAA Tournament win. Drew built the kind of culture that could handle that pressure and make it possible for Baylor to win. It’s the kind of culture and developmental program that’s helped 3-star recruits like Ekpe Udoh and Taurean Prince become lottery picks.

Things appeared to be off course in 2019 too. After missing the NCAA Tournament in 2018, Baylor started the next season with a home loss to Texas Southern. It added another home loss to Stephen F. Austin. To make matters worse, Baylor’s best player (Tristan Clark) went down with a knee injury that would end his season and eventually his career.

Baylor v Syracuse
Makai Mason and Mark Vital hug after Baylor’s victory over Syracuse in the 2019 NCAA Tournament
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Facing that daunting challenge in 2019, Drew and his staff huddled and decided to play a more guard oriented offense. They moved Mark Vital, a sophomore, to the five. He battled the biggest players in the league, and somehow, this small lineup with an Ivy League graduate, a freshman transfer in Jared Butler, and a Mississippi State transfer (Mario Kegler) not only made the NCAA Tournament, they won a game in it. How? By once again deciding to do whatever it took to win. They elected to take 65% of their shots from beyond the arc against Syracuse’s zone. That was over 20 percentage points higher than any Baylor team has ever attempted from three in the NCAA Tournament. And that crazy idea—that the easiest shots near the rim wouldn’t be the best shots on that night—proved prescient as Baylor knocked off Syracuse.

Last year the Bears reached a new level. The team won 23 consecutive games, the most ever by a Big 12 team. They won in Allen Fieldhouse for the first time ever. But they couldn’t get over the hump and win the Big 12. Kansas proved a little too good. With the heartbreak of COVID-19 curtailing the season, Baylor never got the chance to make the Final Four or officially earn the first No. 1 seed in school history. That was a shame, given that team featured another junior college player in Devonte Bandoo who won Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year. They also had Freddie Gillespie, a former Division III player who became a walk-on at Baylor. He won the Big 12’s Most Improved Player award and was the No. 2 pick in the G-League Draft.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Tech at Baylor
Freddie Gillespie went from a walk-on to an All-Big 12 selection after leaving a D-III school and connecting with Baylor’s special assistant & direcot of player development, Jared Nuness
Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

This season everything seemed to fall in the Bears way. Butler elected to return to school and won the Preseason Big 12 Player of the Year award. Davion Mitchell didn’t test the waters; he’s now a first round pick on nearly every NBA mock. Macio Teague and Mark Vital both returned. With Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, a UNLV transfer, and Adam Flagler, a Presbyterian transfer, added to the mix with Matthew Mayer (possibly a first round pick in the 2022 NBA Draft), nothing seemed capable of stopping Baylor.

The Bears won their first 18 games. They won 17 of them by double digits. But then eight Baylor players contracted COVID-19 in early February. When Baylor returned, it barely beat a two win Iowa State squad. Then it lost by 13 at Kansas. Suddenly things started looking bleak. Jared Butler said, “My family told me that ‘you looked like you lost your whole family after the Kansas game. You looked so defeated.”

That same adaptability that helped Drew in prior seasons made it possible for Baylor to come back and beat West Virginia. Down seven in the second half at the No. 6 team, the Bears rallied to win in overtime. They did it by going back to that same small lineup that powered them when Clark went out—Vital at the five—this time aided by a surrounding lineup where every player is at least three years removed from high school.

After the game, Drew was quick to give credit to his staff and players. He said, “First I’ve learned from my dad—a Hall of Fame Coach—and he says you’ve gotta adapt what you do to your personnel.’ And to be honest, our staff has done a good job putting our players in position to be successful, and obviously if you don’t have capable players you’re not winning. One thing that me personally, I was on Coach Huggins radio show, and I think I’ve grown a lot over 18 years as a coach. And when you compete against the best, night in and night out, I’ve learned a lot from so many good ones.”

He’s right to credit others too. Baylor Associate Head Coach, Jerome Tang, has been with him the whole way, and it’s unbelievable that he hasn’t landed a heading coaching gig. He he was voted the Big 12’s best assistant in a poll of the league’s coaches by Jeff Goodman of Watch Stadium and the Field of 68. John Jakus has been a brilliant offensive mind and understands the international game as well as anyone. Al Brooks helps mastermind the defense and knows where the game is going as well as anyone. I could go on about the rest of the staff, but a key point in coaching is building a winning staff, and Drew has certainly done that.

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at West Virginia
Mark Vital elected to return to Baylor and won the Big 12 title as a senior
Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

The Bears have also won by building incredible relationships. Baylor’s motto is JOY—Jesus, Others and then yourself. It refers to the order that players and staff should have for their priorities. While the non-religious might scoff at the mantra, it’s worked for Baylor and the players. Drew’s program is the place where plenty of players have decided to come back for one more season rather than transfer or go pro. From LaceDarius Dunn to Cory Jefferson to Prince to this year’s cadre: Vital, Mitchell, Butler and Teague, plenty of men have foregone professional opportunities for one more chance to put on a Baylor jersey and play for Drew.

There have been other great rebuilds. Kansas State football was truly pathetic when Bill Snyder took over. Other coaches have lifted programs to unbelievable heights. But none of those situations combined the atrocious history of Baylor basketball—though shouts to Bill Henderson for what he did in 1948 and 1950—and the NCAA penalties Baylor faced.

Drew dealt with all of that and built a winner. Then he faced the kinds of challenging seasons that proved he had the durability it takes to win.

This kind of rebuild should have never happened. When Scott Drew landed in Waco, he was giddy to take a job others thought him a fool for craving. But he secured the position and has won an outright Big 12 title. Nobody besides Kansas—not even Texas with its bevy of resources and Kevin Durant—has won an outright Big 12 title since 2004. Baylor has ended that streak, and Scott Drew has completed the greatest turnaround in college sports history.