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.
Heart and soul: Quincy Acy, 6-7 senior forward. The fact that I didn't choose Perry Jones for this category is a cause for concern. It would be nice if your best player was also your best leader, but Jones still has no idea how good he can be. Acy, on the other hand, is a tough, intense, burly kid who gives Baylor a maturity it lacks elsewhere. He's the guy who calls team meetings and sets the tone with his effort. "Having a motor in basketball is a talent, just like having a jumpshot is a talent," Drew says. "When you've been in a program for four years, you just care about it more."
Most improved: Heslip. He spent a semester at Boston College but left after Al Skinner was fired and Steve Donahue said he didn't want him. (Big mistake, Steve.) So Heslip found a home at Baylor and dropped 24 pounds while redshirting last season. Heslip was brought in for his shooting, but he sharpened his point guard skills over the summer while training with the Canadian national team. (He's from Ontario.) Heslip is a gym rat's gym rat, the kind of kid who starts his day with individual shooting drills at 7 a.m. and ends it long after practice has concluded.
X factor: Jackson. I almost went with Miller here, because if he becomes a dynamic scorer in the paint it will take a lot of pressure off Jones. But Jackson is the guy who was brought in to fix the team's primary defect. Last season Baylor was ranked 300th in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio. Jackson averaged 18.6 points and 4.4 assists while leading College of Southern Idaho to the national junior college championship. He also won the dunk contest at Midnight Madness. I was curious to see how Jackson was going to look at practice, and I came away impressed but not overwhelmed. He's short but very strong, and while his speed enables him to get wherever he wants with the ball, he's often unsure what to do once he gets there. Jackson is a work in progress, but he better make that progress if this team is going to play deep into March.
Glue guy:Walton. He may have been a mediocre point guard, but Walton was one of the Big 12's best defenders last season. He led the Big 12 in steals at 2.3 per game, and he was second in assists with a 4.73 average. Unfortunately, Walton also turned the ball over more than three times per game, and when the Bears needed some leadership from the point to staunch the bleeding late in the season, Walton was unable to provide it. Drew's theory (read: hope) is that Walton will be more effective if he doesn't have to be the primary point guard. My guess is he'll start some games and come off the bench in others, so the Bears will need him to embrace whatever role he's assigned. If Walton buys into being a defender, leader and chemistry maker, he's going to really help this team.
Lost in the shuffle:J'Mison Morgan, 6-11 senior center. The one thing this team doesn't lack is tall, active players. Morgan has done a great job with his body; he has noticeably trimmed down since I first watched him at UCLA, where he spent two nondescript seasons before being dismissed by Bruins coach Ben Howland. Still, Drew has three superb frontline players in Jones, Miller and Acy. The coach also has at his disposal Anthony Jones, a 6-10 senior who scored 8.5 points on 39 percent three-point shooting last year; Fred Ellis, a 6-6 senior; and 6-9 sophomore Cory Jefferson. It's hard to see how Morgan is going to get a lot of minutes with his group.
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.