On August 22, 2003, Scott Drew was introduced to the media as the new head coach at Baylor, and the first thing to be noted about that fact is the month: August. Healthy programs don't hire coaches in August, and goodness knows the Bears were anything but healthy in the summer of 2003.
Without going into the harrowing particulars of what transpired under previous head coach Dave Bliss, it is perhaps sufficient to note than even Baylor itself officially termed what took place "unimaginable and unbelievable." In response the NCAA levied what were perhaps the harshest sanctions short of the death penalty ever inflicted upon a D-I athletic program. And, for once, no one disagreed with the NCAA.
Into this smoldering crater walked Drew. At the time he was 32 years old, with one year of D-I head-coaching experience to his name. It was a pretty good year -- in 2002-03 Valparaiso went to the NIT after winning the regular-season title in what was then called the Mid-Continent Conference -- but the fact that a Big 12 program had to hire someone with such a thin resume shows that mid-major coaches weren't exactly falling all over themselves to get the gig in Waco. Optimism was in short supply at Baylor, because realism wouldn't allow it.
Well, look at the reality in Waco today. In Drew's ninth season the Bears are 9-0 and ranked in the top 10 nationally after BU's thrilling 86-83 win over Brigham Young in Provo on Saturday. And in Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller, Baylor has two players who could very well be lottery picks in the 2012 NBA draft. Drew's take-no-prisoners approach to recruiting hasn't always made him Mr. Popularity among his fellow Big 12 coaches, but the man gets results.
If you'd told a Baylor fan in 2003 that this would be their team's situation eight short years later, they would have taken that. But even with this incredible rags-to-riches story, this 2011-12 edition of the Bears still has questions that need answering. Here's my take on what we know and what we're still waiting to find out about Scott Drew's team:
Perry Jones is blowing up before our eyes.
Jones had to sit out an NCAA-mandated five games at the start of the year, but since his return to the floor at the end of November you can make a case that he's been the most dominant offensive player in the country. We're dealing with small really sample sizes, sure (he's played just 200 personal possessions thus far), but when you're speaking of a star that makes 67 percent of his twos while accounting for 28 percent of his offense's shots during his minutes, the sample sizes probably don't need to be all that large. You can still scratch your head at aspects of Jones's performance (at 6-11 he's blocked one more shot in four games than I have), but that's about to become the concern of an NBA general manager. In the meantime Drew has what can only be termed a lethal scoring machine: on Saturday Jones scored 28 points on 11-of-16 shooting against a quality opponent on the road.
The scout on Baylor is to keep them off the line -- if you can.
Between Jones, Miller, 5-10 point guard Pierre Jackson, and 6-7 senior Quincy Acy, the Bears have no fewer than four rotation players who all draw more than five fouls for every 40 minutes they play. Better yet, Baylor's hitting 72 percent of its free throws this year -- not sensational, maybe, but certainly above-average. The ability to get to the line and knock down free throws is one of the most deceiving skills in basketball, because it's rather boring to watch. But while made free throws rarely make the nightly highlights, they are cumulatively effective. This season the Bears possesses that effectiveness to a remarkable degree.
This is an elite defense -- maybe.
On paper Baylor's defensive numbers are simply too good to be true. Opponents this season have scored just 518 points in 630 possessions, which nets out to an anemic 0.82 points per trip. The Bears have achieved these results with a mix of zone and man-to-man, and if we've learned one thing so far this year it's that teams that can't match up with Drew's group athletically are unlikely to get much of anything going offensively. Northwestern, to take one example, managed just 41 points in 62 possessions against this defense a couple weeks ago in Evanston. Acy and 6-9 sophomore Cory Jefferson are both outstanding shot-blockers, and Acy has the added advantage of being able to record his swats without drawing many fouls.
Then again BYU did hang 83 points on these guys Saturday, and the way the Cougars did it may be telling. Dave Rose's team took every transition opportunity they could get -- why on earth would you want to face this group of Bears in a half-court set? -- and they also feasted on the offensive glass. Whether they play man or zone, this Baylor team's not going to make its mark on the defensive glass, and teams that go after their own misses may be able to take advantage.
You'll forgive Drew if he's not celebrating just yet.
Even during this 9-0 stretch Baylor's committed a turnover on 22 percent of their possessions. They've been able to work around that troubling number with pretty good (though not great) offensive rebounding, frequent trips to the line, good shooting from the field, and, most of all, amazing defense. Still, keep an eye on the turnovers. I don't think I've ever seen a season so effectively sabotaged by just one weakness the way the Bears' 2010-11 season was derailed by their total inability to hang on to the rock (25 percent turnover rate in Big 12 play last year). Michigan State's built quite a body of work in the area of "NCAA tournament success despite lots of turnovers," but for coaches not named "Tom Izzo" the results have been much less satisfactory. Drew will want to address this, and fast.
At the time of the Big 12's most unmistakable peril -- its very existence has come into question the past two years -- the conference is actually thriving in basketball terms. Losing Colorado and Nebraska may have cost the league some football credibility and a few TV eyeballs, but with just 10 teams (at least until Texas A&M and Missouri head out the door to the SEC next year -- see "peril," above) the Big 12 can play a true home-and-away round robin schedule in hoops. That would have to qualify as excellent timing, because this season is setting up to be an absolute jewel of a conference race between Missouri, Kansas, and Baylor. I for one plan to savor every moment of this particular 10-team Big 12.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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