INDIANAPOLIS — How many times have you heard the four words that defined Baylor men’s basketball over the last 18 years?
The arc of the story, the actual details of it, never really mattered when it came to Scott Drew. Maybe it was rooted in the whispers of recruiting impropriety early in his career that never amounted to anything, even when the NCAA looked into them. Maybe it was his relentless positivity that bordered at times on smarm. Maybe it was a few embarrassing NCAA Tournament losses that built the narrative, even though the real miracle was that Baylor basketball had been good enough to be favored in those kinds of games to begin with.
Whatever it was, you heard it for nearly two decades: Scott Drew Can’t Coach.
Let it be known that on Monday night, in a football stadium in the state where he grew up, with his father and brother — both college basketball coaches — standing and gyrating in the stands, there’s a new set of words that will forever define Baylor Basketball.
Scott Drew is a National Champion. And by the time the journey was complete, in the final moments of an 86-70 evisceration of No. 1-ranked Gonzaga, any narrative that had previously knocked Drew for the work he’d done at Baylor looked awfully silly.
Because what had been a season-long collision course to the national championship game between the two best teams in college basketball turned into one-way traffic. What started as Gonzaga’s quest for perfection became a full-scale submission. What looked like a potential classic instead became a showcase for the relentlessness, the abounding energy and the marvelous skill on which Drew had built this team over the last two years for exactly this moment.
‘We didn’t even have to be lucky’
“You don’t get these opportunities often, and we were on a mission to make the most of it,” Drew said. “In the coaching fraternity, getting to a Final Four is very similar to winning a national championship — there’s usually some luck that goes into it. We didn’t even have to be lucky because our guys were so dominant this entire tournament.”
Indeed, in Drew’s masterpiece of a championship game, it was never close, never truly competitive, never really in doubt. For all the talk about Gonzaga’s historically good efficiency numbers and its attempt to become the first undefeated national champion since 1976, the best team in college basketball was hidden in plain sight — right up until a barrage of 3-pointers, defensive deflections and thumping drives to the rim in the opening minutes Monday made it obvious for everyone.
“They punched us in the mouth right at the get-go,” Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert said. “It took a long, long time for us to recover and start playing them even again. But then it was too late.”
Aside from a very brief moment in the second half when Gonzaga pulled within nine points, the game was basically drama-free. Gonzaga was so utterly turned around on both ends of the floor — “We were kind of playing sideways,” coach Mark Few said — that it resorted to playing a zone defense, something it had done for only a handful of possessions the entire season.
It worked for about two minutes, until Drew called a timeout, got guard MaCio Teague flashing into the middle for mid-range jumpers and busted it up with haste. So much for the can’t coach thing, eh?
“We didn’t even look at the scoreboard,” Baylor guard Jared Butler said. “I looked up at halftime and we were up 10. I knew at some point we were up big because we were scoring, they’re not scoring. It was just electrifying in that type of moment in a big game and everybody stepped up. Everybody was clicking on all cylinders, and that’s what it takes to win.”
There was a time in Drew’s career when so many people in college basketball gleefully said he would never figure out how to win at this level.
Though he had pulled Baylor out of one of the worst scandals in college sports history when he arrived in 2003 and shocked the sport just by getting to the NCAA Tournament five years later, there were detractors every step of the way.
In those early days, when Drew chased the kind of high-level recruits who normally wouldn’t have considered Baylor, or when he hired an AAU coach as an assistant to try and land a player, his competitors would suggest it wasn’t on the level.
Then when he got some of those players and they didn’t necessarily light the world on fire, the reputation was that he couldn’t get them to the NBA.
Even when Baylor went to Elite Eights in 2010 and 2012, making another step up the ladder, the conventional wisdom never gave Drew credit for much more than rolling the balls out.
It was ridiculous of course, all of it. Even a decade ago, what he’d accomplished at Baylor to rescue the program from the Dave Bliss scandal was one of the great rebuilding jobs anybody had ever pulled off.
But with Drew, all anyone wanted to talk about was losing to Georgia State and Yale in back-to-back NCAA Tournaments in 2015 and 2016, as if he’s the only one who ever got an upset pulled on them in the first round.
“To me, (winning a championship) never defines a great coach,” Drew said. “Just like there’s so many players, NBA players who never won an NBA championship and great college players that never went to a Final Four. I value coaches. Do they make their players better spiritually, academically, character-wise? Are you preparing them for life?”
Even if Drew thought he was succeeding in those metrics, he did make some key adjustments in his program that led directly to Monday’s championship. Instead of chasing the flashy recruits, he reoriented his philosophy around older players, many of whom had started their college careers elsewhere, including guard Davion Mitchell (formerly of Auburn), Teague (formerly of UNC-Asheville) and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua (formerly of UNLV).
He also got rid of the zone defense that Baylor used to play almost exclusively and rebranded the program on an aggressive man-to-man and 40 minutes of in-your-face ball pressure. The result was a team of physical and emotional grown-ups with three guards who could all drive it down your throat, score off the dribble and shoot the lights out at any given moment.
“Personnel-wise, if you looked at our teams in the past, we were so long with 6-9, 6-11, 7-foot across the frontline,” Drew said. “Now we have more guards. My dad’s a hall of fame coach for a reason. He taught me the good coach adjusts your style to the personnel you have.
“And we had some unbelievable defenders this year, and those guys can flat-out defend and guard. We wanted to let them get after it, and we thought that would better suit our team. Credit to (the assistant coaches) for doing a great job implementing it. And because of that, we’ve been successful.”
But perhaps the biggest coaching challenge of Drew’s career arrived on Feb. 5 when the Bears, who were 17-0 at the time, went into a three-week pause due to COVID-19 cases within the program. The lack of practice time and loss of continuity was evident when Baylor came back for the final five games of the regular season, with losses to Kansas and Oklahoma State in the Big 12 tournament semifinals.
In a way, though, it might have taken some of the pressure off Baylor. With a full week to do nothing but practice before the NCAA Tournament began, Drew saw the defensive intensity and togetherness that had carried his team through most of the season slowly get back to its previous level. Then as Baylor got deeper in the tournament, they started making shots again. They finished with one of the most dominant Final Four performances ever, beating Houston by 19 and Gonzaga by 16 in games that were visually even more lopsided than the scores.
“Our team has been special,” Drew said, but really, so has this entire 18-year run to build a national champion in Waco, Texas.
Monday night began with talk of potential perfection. But as Baylor showed, it wasn’t about a win-loss record. It was about the parts working together when everything is on the line. By that standard, nobody was more perfect than the team Drew put on the floor Monday night.
Can he coach? Nobody will ever have to ask that question again.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Baylor’s Scott Drew is a national champion; his doubters look foolish
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