WACO, Texas -- "Hey, how you doing? Good to see ya! You gettin' somethin' to eat? Great! Thanks for being here..."
No, this is not your typical presidential candidate at the Iowa State Fair. This is Scott Drew, the 41-year-old coach of Baylor basketball, as he greets fans on his way into the Ferrell Center last week for the school's annual tipoff luncheon. Drew has a baby face (albeit one with a receding hairline), a squeaky voice, a dimpled smile, and an unending, exuberant, optimistic attitude. The sunny-side-uppityness he evinced while greeting attendees remained apparent after he was introduced a short while later by Jim Haller, who coached basketball at the school from 1977-85. "I give to you the man who will coach the best basketball team in the history of Baylor basketball!" Howard said to rousing cheers. Drew stepped to the microphone and said cheerfully (of course), "Now that's pressure. You can tell Coach Haller isn't in coaching anymore."
Technically speaking, Drew is not even coaching the best basketball team at Baylor this season. That would be the top-ranked women's team led by 6-foot-8 junior Brittney Griner. Still, Drew was undeterred in his efforts to charm his audience. During his 10-minute oration, he touted his team's schedule ("If you like skiing, you can come watch us play at BYU!"); introduced his former player, Ekpe Udoh, who is in Waco during the NBA lockout ("Look how big he is! He can reach tall windows! Please give him a job!"); and promised to fix his team's sloppiness with the ball. ("Thanks for all those passing drills you've been emailing me.") After he was through, Baylor women's coach Kim Mulkey, who is as snarky as Drew is cheeky, came to the mic and addressed Drew's wife, Kelly. "I don't know how you live with this man," Mulkey said. "He's a little Energizer bunny."
This, to say the least, was a much different scene than the one that greeted me the last time I visited Waco. That visit occurred in the summer of 2003, when Patrick Dennehy, a 6-10 sophomore forward, had gone missing for several days. Hundreds of reporters like myself from sports and news outlets alike descended on this city to cover that story. Several weeks later, police discovered Dennehy's body in a gravel pit. He had been shot to death by a former teammate who was suffering from schizophrenic paranoia. That teammate, Carlton Dotson, remains incarcerated for his crime.
Tragic as it was, Dennehy's murder did not represent rock bottom for the Baylor basketball program. That came a few weeks later, when then-coach Dave Bliss was revealed to be running a rogue program replete with illicit benefits, some of which were given to Dennehy. Bliss resigned in disgrace after being caught on tape planning ways to pin the offenses on his murdered player. All told it was arguably the worst scandal to hit college basketball since the point shaving epidemic that originated at CCNY in the early 1950s. The NCAA eventually hammered Baylor with five years of probation plus a prohibition on playing nonconference games during the 2005-06 season.
What has transpired between my visits to Waco is nothing short of remarkable. A man would need a near-foolish sense of optimism to accept this kind of challenge, but credit Drew for engineering one of the most remarkable rebuilding jobs in the history of college basketball. Drew, son of the legendary longtime Valparaiso coach Homer Drew, had been the head coach at Valpo for just one season before taking over for Bliss. In the nine years since then, Drew has done more than just resurrect Baylor from the dead. He has, improbably, brought the program to even greater heights.
Haller wasn't far-fetched when he suggested this could be the best men's team Baylor has ever had. Then again, that's not saying much. Yes, the school went to the Final Four in 1948 and 1950, but that was back when there were only eight teams in the entire field. Baylor had never reached the Elite Eight in the modern era until Drew took the Bears there in 2009, when they lost to eventual champion Duke. Last season, Baylor was one of the biggest disappointments in the country, losing six of its last seven games to miss out on the NCAA tournament. This year's team, however, has great promise, with four returning starters joining one of the top recruiting classes in the nation.
After watching Baylor practice following the tipoff luncheon, I now believe their preseason ranking of 12th in both the writers and coaches polls is too low. (I voted them ninth on my AP ballot.) This team is significantly more talented than the one that reached the Elite Eight two years ago. I'm not sure it can play better -- some pieces have to fall in place, especially on the perimeter -- but the pure collection of talent here is as good as any you'll find outside of North Carolina and Kentucky.
The biggest piece -- literally -- is Perry Jones III, the 6-11 sophomore forward who gave up the chance to be a top-five NBA Draft pick last spring. Jones' decision was especially surprising since he still has to serve five games out of the six-game suspension he was given by the NCAA for accepting improper benefits while he was in high school. Another Baylor big man, 6-9 freshman forward Quincy Miller, also has "future pro" written all over him, not just because of his frame and skills but also his attitude. Miller carried himself like a professional more than any player during the practice I watched. He was the most vocal, the most intense and the most receptive to coaching. In all the tangible and intangible ways, Miller is advanced beyond his years.
Two future lottery picks is a great place to start, but it does not guarantee a trip to New Orleans. The perimeter is the major question mark. Drew upgraded the roster by bringing in Pierre Jackson, a 5-10 point guard who was the national junior college player of the year last season while leading the College of Southern Idaho to the national championship, and Brady Heslip, a 6-2 gym rat who sat out last season after transferring from Boston College. Another transfer, 6-2 Gary Franklin from Cal, becomes eligible in December, and Miller's high school teammate, 6-4 Deuce Bello, is also a potential future pro. Throw in last year's incumbent (and much-maligned) point guard, 6-2 junior A.J. Walton, and Drew has a bevy of options.
To be sure, Drew's restoration of Baylor basketball has not been completely smooth. In 2007, he irked his colleagues in the Big 12 by using negative recruiting tactics against Bob Knight and Billy Gillespie, who were then coaching at Texas Tech and Texas A&M, respectively. Drew ruffled more feathers in 2009 when he hired John Wall's former summer coach to be his director of basketball operations. (Drew didn't get Wall, but Miller and Bello came from the same AAU program.) A year ago, Baylor self-reported NCAA violations committed by an assistant coach, who sent a recruit an excessive number of text messages. (The assistant resigned over the summer.) Then came Perry Jones's suspension last February right before the Big 12 tournament, which decimated the Bears' chances of playing their way into the NCAAs.
So it's safe to say that the world is watching Baylor very closely. That includes fans, coaches, the media and the gumshoes at the NCAA's headquarters in Indianapolis. Then again, given the way the world was watching Baylor nine years ago -- and why -- this is quite the pretty picture. Scott Drew doesn't usually need much reason to smile, but his team is going to give him plenty anyway.
Few teams will look more imposing in layup lines than Baylor. The question is how it will all fit together once the game tips off. Yes, guard play is a concern, but on this team the guards don't have to be great. They just have to not suck. I think they can clear that threshold and then some. The Big 12 coaches were mistaken when they picked Baylor to finish third in the league's preseason poll. I say the Bears will win the Big 12 and reach the Elite Eight. I'm not ready to predict they'll play in New Orleans, but if they do, I'll be less surprised than most everyone else.