INDIANAPOLIS — The red glare coming off the scorer’s table couldn’t match the one coming from Davion Mitchell’s eyes minutes before Baylor throttled Gonzaga and ended the Bulldogs’ undefeated dream season.
Baylor had just gone through its team introductions. Now it was time for the top-seeded, top-ranked, 31-0 Zags to be introduced. While most of his other teammates moved in place or walked around their teammates, Mitchell stood still. In the dark. Arms crossed. Gonzaga-red from the videoboard on the scorer’s table lighting up his face as he eyed the prey.
Gonzaga had no idea what was coming.
Less than five minutes later, it sure as hell did. Mitchell — who hit the game’s first shot and set the tone for a definitive roasting that would come over the next two hours — came into the game like they were fired out of a cannon. Blink and it’s 11-1, Bears. Turn your head and now it’s 16-4. Baylor gave Mark Few’s team its largest deficit of the season less than 10 minutes into the night and never looked back.
Gonzaga was shell-shocked.
Baylor’s men’s basketball team captured its first national championship in program history with an 86-70 stamp-out that amounted to one of the most impressive title-game performances in recent college basketball history.
Final Four hero Jalen Suggs had foul trouble early and was wobbled immediately thanks to Mitchell. Drew Timme had his table overturned multiple times. Most Outstanding Player Jared Butler finished with a game-high 22 points and seven assists. Here in Indianapolis, where UNLV’s undefeated run expired vs. Duke in the 1991 Final Four and where Kentucky’s chase for immortality vanished vs. Wisconsin. Monday night was Gonzaga’s turn to see its perfect season go kapoof.
And there was Scott Drew. Leaping into the arms of his staff. College basketball’s happiest coach on his happiest night. When it was over, Drew brought everyone into a huge circle on the court. They kneeled down and said a prayer in thanks.
The greatest program reinvention in men’s college basketball history was complete.
Drew took the Baylor job in 2003 when the program was near disintegration. The job Drew’s done at Baylor is beyond impressive. There was no set of instructions when he got there. This was not a rebuild; what Baylor could be, in 2003, was a figment of Drew’s imagination.
“I don’t know if I was the first choice,” Drew told CBS Sports last season, shortly after the Bears had climbed to the top and were No. 1 in the country.
But Baylor was his first choice. Just 32 years old then, Drew was doe-eyed but determined. A widely shared video by the Baylor men’s basketball Twitter account shows Drew’s hope and vision all the way back in 2003, when he said winning a national championship under his tutelage was possible.
He probably honestly believed it then, and he probably honestly was the only person on earth who did.
Coming off a scandal that included the murder of a player by one of his teammates and a cover-up by the former coach that included the defaming of the murdered player, Baylor was a radioactive job. Drew was down to six scholarships his first year. A walk-on’s dream. And they played.
An NCAA investigation from the Dave Bliss era would eventually lead to sanctions that didn’t even allow the program to play nonconference games in Drew’s third season. The Bears went 4-13. The NCAA’s punishment was one-of-a-kind for men’s basketball.
Within two years Drew had Baylor in the NCAA Tournament, the first of what is now nine appearances – and after Monday’s flogging of Gonzaga, the school’s first national championship
“The guy at Baylor.”
A quote that’s stuck with me for almost 10 years. It’s July 2012 and I’m leaning against the wooden bleachers at the Nike Peach Jam. There are a few coaches holding court and gossiping while half-watching another game larded with four- and five-star prospects.
Who’s the biggest cheater in college basketball?
“The guy at Baylor,” one of them said.
He pointed, too. Drew was sitting on the other side of the gym, dressed as he almost always is on the recruiting trail: long-sleeve black shirt with big-lettered BAYLOR in neon-green.
“We’re all human,” Drew told CBS Sports last year. “Everybody would rather be complimented than criticized. When you get criticized, no it doesn’t feel good. But at the same time, in coaching you’re either criticized because you can recruit but can’t coach or you can coach and can’t recruit. Over time you hopefully show you can do both.”
Drew grew the ire of institutional pillars early in his career. Bobby Knight went after him, and so did Rick Pitino and Rick Barnes. He was too happy, too peppy. Seemingly: too phony. This reputation dogged Drew for years. Ten years back, Baylor’s success landing a few highly rated recruits led to some coaches casually accusing him of cheating because of who he tried to hire on his staff and a few players he landed.
“We went through a three-year NCAA investigation, and I think that’s when people stopped making allegations about us,” Drew said. “It’s not fun to go through, just so you know.”
It got so bad, people connected to recruits would go to Baylor looking for handouts. Sometimes $30,000 or $50,000 dollars. A car, a job, anything. Drew said none of it ever happened. But he was a case study in how rumormongering can help set back, if not ruin, a program. Whether or not cheating actually occurred at Baylor under Drew’s watch, who’s to say in full. For more than a few years, Drew’s reputation was tarnished. He was slandered behind his back by many. I know because I heard it.
“I couldn’t control that noise, or what other people might say,” Drew said. “I know the truth.”
He changed his style. He never changed his outlook. Drew became less interested in landing the best players and instead pivoted toward getting the best players for Baylor. A quiet reinvention took place. He was willing to take anyone from anywhere. And so he did.
Davion Mitchell from Auburn.
MaCio Teague from UNC Asheville.
Adam Flagler from Presbyterian.
Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua from UNLV.
A once-chubby kid named Jared who’d go on to put on an all-time performance in the biggest game of Baylor men’s basketball.
Baylor became the third team in men’s basketball history to knock off an undefeated in a national championship game, joining 1961 Cincinnati and 1979 Michigan State. It did so by bringing in an eclectic combination of mature, muscular, mentally focused players who were capable of transforming the program.
Drew’s optimism never wavered. He never let the noise get to him. And now, Baylor’s playing as well as any power-conference program in the spot. It’s one of only two schools in a power conference in the past 13 years to win at least 18 games every season. The other is Kansas.
A 21-day COVID pause might have been the only thing standing in the way of an undefeated season. The Bears lost two games, both of which came after the team emerged from its cocoon.
Baylor might’ve gone undefeated. But even though it didn’t, it will take knocking off the undefeated in the ultimate game.
Few people expected Scott Drew to make it to 2008 at Baylor. Then 2008 became 2012, and then 2016. But it’s 2021 and he’s still going. He’s on top of college basketball. He might the biggest smile in the sport now, but he also has the worst grip; the man has seemingly never held a grudge. Less than five minutes after winning the national championship, Drew made his way over to the press bay parked 20 feet behind the baseline. He took a minute to thank the media for its coverage and belief in his program, in him.
For years, this act irked some. Drew never changed, and because of it, his program ascended. On Monday night it scaled the mountaintop, and in ending perfection, showed the closest thing to it.
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