Why Baylor's Scott Drew is the clear choice for college basketball's coach of the year

Feb 22, 2020; Waco, Texas, USA; Baylor Bears head coach Scott Drew reacts during the first half against the Kansas Jayhawks at Ferrell Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The coach who has engineered one of the most remarkable turnarounds in college basketball history refuses to praise himself. 

Scott Drew finds creative new ways to deflect credit even when asked questions designed to force him to reflect on his own achievements.

How did Drew transform scandal-tainted, tradition-bereft Baylor from a national laughingstock into a perennial NCAA tournament team? “We’ve been blessed to have not only good players but high-character people who have helped build our program.” 

What enabled Baylor to spend five weeks ranked No. 1 this season without a blue-chip recruit or projected NBA draft pick on its roster? “You really need to have self starters, guys that want to get in the gym on their own and get better.”

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Which of Drew’s adjustments contributed most to Baylor’s finest regular season in school history? “The longer I’ve coached, the better I’ve gotten at delegating responsibility. Many hands make light work, and our staff has done an unbelievable job with this team.”

Drew may go to great lengths to avoid patting himself on the back, but he can do nothing about the deluge of compliments others have heaped on him this season. He’s the most deserving candidate to be named college basketball’s national coach of the year, a tick ahead of Dayton’s Anthony Grant and San Diego State’s Brian Dutcher.

Never before has Baylor received better than a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Bears (26-3) will almost certainly be on the top seed line a week from Sunday when this year’s bracket is unveiled. 

Never before has Baylor finished better than a tie for second in the powerful Big 12 conference. The Bears can grab a share of first place if they win at West Virginia on Saturday and Kansas falls at Texas Tech. 

Never before has Baylor advanced beyond the Elite Eight since the NCAA tournament expanded to include more than eight teams. The Bears have 6-1 odds of winning a championship next month according to MGM, tied for the lowest along with Kansas and Gonzaga. 

Baylor’s path to basketball relevance began 17 years ago when the school hired Drew to revive a long-struggling program rocked by maybe the darkest scandal in college sports history. 

On August 8, 2003, Dave Bliss resigned as Baylor coach after the arrest of one of his players, Carlton Dotson, for the murder of teammate Patrick Dennehy. Hoping to cover up under-the-table payments that he had made in violation of NCAA rules, Bliss sullied Dennehy’s name after his death by concocting a story that Dennehy obtained the money by dealing drugs instead.

The mess that Drew inherited was even worse than he envisioned when he took the job. So many of Baylor’s top players transferred that Drew had to scour his own campus for potential walk-ons in an effort to have enough warm bodies to practice.  

Baylor won a total of four league games during Drew’s first two seasons and four apiece in years three and four, but by 2008 the Bears were no longer an easy win for their Big 12 foes. Drew gradually transformed Baylor into an unlikely destination for top recruits, first securing Rivals 150 prospects like Curtis Jerrells, Tweety Carter and LaceDarius Dunn and later landing McDonald’s All-Americans Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller and Isaiah Austin. 

As Drew began luring ballyhooed prospects a tier or two above those that Baylor had previously signed, other Big 12 coaches privately questioned how he was doing it and seethed about his unusually aggressive recruiting tactics. 

Drew once created a position on his staff for the AAU coach of John Wall in a failed attempt to land the future Kentucky star. Another time, Drew sent out a flier to recruits asking which of these Big 12 coaches had signed a McDonald's All-American before. Pictures of Bob Knight and Billy Gillispie were crossed out, leaving only a photo of the Baylor coach.

Complaints about Baylor’s recruiting prompted an NCAA investigation that concluded in 2012. The only violations that investigators unearthed were impermissible calls and texts from assistant coaches to recruits, a modest offense that only resulted in a two-game suspension for Drew but also substantiated some of the accusations he had faced.

Critics of Drew were also quick to point out that some of his most talented teams failed to live up to expectations. While Drew led Baylor to the Elite Eight in 2010 and 2012, his 2011 team did not qualify for the postseason and his 2013 squad settled for an NIT appearance.

Baylor’s inconsistency during that stretch inspired Drew to rethink his approach to recruiting. He has become more selective with who he takes, still targeting the occasional high-character five-star McDonald’s All-American but focusing more on scouring the next tier of prospects for hard workers who are driven to reach their potential. 

“What we’ve tried to do is identify who fits with our culture and chemistry,” Drew said. “If the right five-star guy, the right McDonald’s All-American, came along, would we take him? Absolutely. But we’ve put an emphasis on finding high-character guys who want to be in the gym, who want to get better and who care about winning.”

Baylor’s success at developing players during their redshirt years has also helped the program become an appealing destination for transfers who have to sit out a season. Transfers are often eager to follow in the footsteps of Ekpe Udoh, who left Michigan a role player and became a lottery pick at Baylor, or Johnathan Motley and Cory Jefferson, who also made big leaps as upperclassmen after taking a redshirt year.

The roster that Drew has assembled this season reflects his evolving recruiting philosophy and knack for player development. Not a single Baylor player was a consensus top 50 prospect in his recruiting class. Three of the Bears’ top players began their careers at other schools. 

Davion Mitchell left Auburn after his freshman year because he could not beat out Jerod Harper for the starting point guard job. He has blossomed into a defensive dynamo whose ball pressure is the catalyst for Baylor’s smothering man-to-man. 

MaCio Teague wanted to prove himself at a higher level after leading UNC Asheville in scoring as a sophomore. The 6-foot-3 guard has made a seamless transition from the Big South to the Big 12 and is averaging 14.1 points per game. 

Freddie Gillespie, a transfer from Division III Carleton College, is the quintessential example of Baylor’s knack for player development. The late-blooming 6-foot-9 former walk-on arrived at Baylor as raw as sushi three years ago and leaves as the Bears’ starting center and a fringe NBA prospect. 

“Our staff did a great job with Freddie, but at the end of the day, it took Freddie believing in himself and wanting to get in the gym and get better,” Drew said. “I always say that if you wanted to send Freddie mail his first year at Baylor, you could have sent it to the practice gym. I mean, he lived in there and that’s why he’s the player he is today.”

In addition to establishing a culture of grit and determination, Drew has also done an excellent job adapting to his roster and putting his players in position to succeed. Whereas Drew has traditionally favored a zone defense because of all the long, athletic wings he has coached, he was smart enough to recognize that this year’s smaller, quicker roster was better suited for aggressive man-to-man. 

Baylor’s formidable no-middles defense specializes in forcing the ball to the baseline, icing or switching ball screens and giving maximum effort recovering to shooters in scramble situations. The quick hands and lock-down perimeter defense of Mitchell is a big reason Baylor ranks fourth nationally in defensive efficiency, as is Gillespie’s ability to protect the rim or switch onto smaller guards and Mark Vital’s versatility to defend multiple positions.

“The best coaches are supposed to adapt to what they have rather than what they feel most comfortable teaching,” Drew said. “Having a smaller, more athletic lineup lent itself better to playing pressure man-to-man than it did zone.”

Dominant defense has helped Baylor overcome the injuries that have slowed standout big man Tristan Clark and the unexpected September defection of last year’s third-leading scorer, Mario Kegler. What the Bears have lost in the efficiency of their half-court offense they offset by using their defensive pressure to generate fast-break opportunities.  

Drew had an inkling this Baylor team would be pretty good after the Bears defeated Villanova, Arizona and Butler in a three-week span before Christmas. They then validated that by winning 13 straight games to open Big 12 play including Drew’s first-ever win against Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse.

Though Baylor dropped the rematch against Kansas on Feb. 22 and suffered an unexpected road loss at TCU last Saturday, the Bears’ grip on a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament remains firm. Only Kansas has as many Quadrant 1 victories as Baylor’s 11, and only San Diego State, Gonzaga and Dayton have fewer losses than the Bears’ three. 

Ask Drew what it would mean to him to lead Baylor to the program’s first Final Four appearance in 70 years, and his response is predictably selfless. He insists he would savor the happiness it would bring his team and the Waco community more than any personal glory.

“What it would do for these players for the rest of their lives and what it would mean for the past players and coaches who were part of building this, that would mean much more than anything on a personal level,” Drew said. “That would be the highlight for me.”

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