It’s hard to guess at what history looks and feels like until you see it. It was the green and yellow confetti descending from the rafters of an only sort-of-full, oversized football stadium, onto a group of players and staff who had spent a long time imagining.
Baylor is headed to the Final Four, after a 81–72 handling of Arkansas that was never all that much in doubt, the tone set by a high-scoring first half in which the Bears were slightly outshot yet ran out to a double-digit lead. It was close, but never uncomfortable, the work of an experienced team unwilling to miss a moment. It had already passed them by once.
Baylor’s first Final Four trip since 1950? That was supposed to happen a year ago. The Bears were 26–4 before the pandemic ended a watershed season. When you’ve waited 70 years, what’s another, right? But any college team might tell you, this one has felt that much longer. Twelve months ago, Baylor’s story might have centered on the long, long rebirth cycle of a once-broken program, racked by unthinkable scandal. And that’s what just happened. But hey, a lot of other stuff has happened since.
Continuity is a popular buzzword in college basketball, typically used to describe teams willing to grow old together, and those fortunate enough to coach them. Really, what it points to is stability in the face of change, and how rare it can be. Roles shift, players come and go and individual skill sets evolve, as is wont to happen in the sport’s landscape. The best coaches figure out how make those little fragments whole again.
Scott Drew has ridden out the wave in Waco for 17 years, all for this strange Final Four trip, which now consists of a simple bus ride to the hotel and back. Drew has been to the cusp, falling short twice to eventual champions Duke and Kentucky with Elite Eight losses in 2010 and 2012. He’s weathered first-round upsets and some NIT trips (and, since we’re here, won an NIT championship). He’s now the back-to-back Big 12 Coach of the Year. But Baylor has come this far due in large part to his earnest, aw-shucks, midwestern countenance—and his unusual laissez-faire trust in a group that’s followed suit.
“I think he connects [with] us because he cares about us. When I first got here, I was honestly unsure about the guy,” says MaCio Teague, largely unable to contain a grin, a piece of net hastily knotted over the clasp of his backward cap. “College basketball players will tell you this: when you get recruited, coaches, they kind of switch up when you get to a school. It’s like they show you all the good stuff …when you get to the school, they’re not really catering to you as much and things like that.
“I was kind of iffy about it when I got here. But as time went on I truly understood that Coach Drew truly cares about his players,” Teague continues. “He asks you how you’re doing. Like, he tries to get to know players. He tries to keep the connection … he knows that the leaders of the team are an extension of him on the floor. He tries to build trust and a relationship. It’s not just for basketball.”
What Drew built last season has come back to him in spades. Four Baylor starters returned to double down on the foundation they’ve laid together. Unexpected changes could have borne out much differently. All four have sacrificed. The Bears may not be here without Davion Mitchell’s evolution from defensive specialist into a two-way dynamo, a bonafide closer and a pro prospect. As his role has grown, he’s also had to figure out how to make plays and defer within the offense. That development was made possible by a patient Jared Butler, who through no fault of his own, has gone from All-American star to one of his team’s many faces.
Fiery Mark Vital has poured as much effort as ever into a role that’s quietly dwindled, with the emergence of Matthew Mayer as a more potent scoring threat. Teague is always the third or fourth name you hear within this context. Many on the Bears’ staff credit him as the player whose quiet leadership has birthed a culture shift upon arrival from UNC-Asheville. Naturally, it was Teague who led the team in shots and finished with 22 points on Tuesday.
“Individually, it’s one thing to get better. It’s another thing then to sacrifice for the team, because when you’re a good player, you feel like, I can make this shot, or I can get by my man, or I can do this,” Drew says. “Because you’ve put in the work, and you want to show what you worked on.” Drew pointed to his team’s 17 assists and nine turnovers as evidence. “But my guys have been so unselfish … when we’re at our best, they’re sacrificing for each other, and all year, that’s why we’ve won.”
The game itself wasn’t quite balletic, featuring two teams that combined for 39 fouls. As Drew put it on his off day, “There’s method to the madness of what both [teams] do.” The chaos was going to be somebody’s one-way ticket. Both sides harped on ball security coming in. Baylor won the turnover battle, nine to 15. Arkansas had trailed by double-digits in each of its three tourney wins. It got within four with 10 minutes left. There was no comeback. For 40 minutes, the Razorbacks never once led.
“When one of us makes a mistake,” Drew says, “we admit it and we move on. And everybody stays together. Stays positive. And at the end of the day they believe in each other and when you have a team that does that you have a chance to be special.
“It’s not our first time in the fire,” Teague says. More lies ahead, a Texas-shaped Final Four matchup with Houston now looming. Baylor won’t look past it, or won’t admit to it if the Bears do. We all know how this goes: everyone else will talk this part of the talk for them. A much-hyped prize fight with No. 1 Gonzaga—set to take place here in Indianapolis—was Moonlight Grahamed off the schedule by COVID-19 concerns back in December. Now, it’s a possible well-scripted ending for the biggest trophy of all.
But this isn’t about that team from Spokane, not yet. It shouldn’t be. Well, it still might be. At least let Baylor have a couple days first. If there’s one thing the Bears—and everyone else—should have figured out by now, it’s how to wait.
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