INDIANAPOLIS — One of the biggest rebuilding efforts in recent college sports history is finally one step closer to completion, as Baylor got over the hump and advanced to its first Final Four since 1950.
Since Scott Drew took over in Waco, Texas, in 2003, he has led the Bears to the Elite Eight on three occasions, the last time coming in 2012. But in both previous appearances, Baylor ran into the eventual national champions and were sent home one step short of the Final Four.
“I was worried that I was going to be able to stay up this late,” Drew said. “But anyway [it’s] just pure joy, excitement. Obviously, tired because it’s late. And it was an emotional game. But again, seeing our guys having a chance to cut down the net and celebrate, doesn’t get much better than that come March.”
Baylor looked like it might land a knockout punch early on Monday night. The Bears scored the first seven points and led by as many as 18 points in the first half. But Arkansas, which came back from double-digit deficits in each of its first three NCAA tournament games, fought back and entered halftime down just eight.
In the second half, Baylor again extended the lead out to double digits on multiple occasions, but the Razorbacks stayed in the game. They twice cut the lead to four points, once after a Moses Moody layup with 9:34 left and then again after two Moody free throws with 7:34 left. Arkansas wouldn’t get any closer.
Baylor left the door open, but a six-minute field goal drought for Arkansas allowed the Bears to keep the Razorbacks at an arm’s length. MaCio Teague sealed the win with back-to-back dagger 3s in the final five minutes.
“My teammates kept finding me … Credit goes to those guys for keeping faith in me,” Teague said. “We’ve been in the fire before. It’s not our first time in the fire.”
Teague finished with a game-high 22 points to lead Baylor, while Jared Butler had 14 points and five assists, and Davion Mitchell shook off early foul issues to finish with 12 points and six assists. Mitchell also guarded Moody, one of the best freshman scorers in the country, and held him to 2-for-10 shooting.
“I think he’s the best defender in the country,” Drew said of Mitchell. “We call him ‘Off Night,’ because people tend to have off nights with him. He’s a nightmare to bring the ball up against. And he sets the tone for our defense.
“He’s the pace car. Everyone sees him working. So that leads to everybody else working. So that energy he brings, and he’s got unbelievable speed. You could see versus their trap, their pressure, it’s really hard to keep him in front. Unbelievable God-given ability and speed.”
Drew took over a program mired in scandal when he was hired from Valparaiso in 2003. Baylor forward Patrick Dennehy had been murdered by teammate Carlton Dotson during an argument, and ensuing investigations revealed that then-head coach Dave Bliss attempted to avoid NCAA violations by claiming that Dennehy was dealing drugs in order to pay his tuition. Further NCAA investigations uncovered a number of major violations committed by Bliss, who resigned and received a 10-year show-cause penalty from the NCAA.
Baylor was hit with probation, huge scholarship reductions and a ban on nonconference games during the 2005-06 season.
Just two years after the nonconference ban, Drew had Baylor in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 20 years — and the Bears have missed it just four times since.
“I felt led to come here,” Drew said. “I really believed in the vision of the school, from the president and the administrators during that time and what they wanted Baylor to continue to grow and become. And I wanted to be a part of that. Obviously, once we got into the season and you found out that most of your team were walk-ons and most of them weren’t over 6-foot-2, then you realized it might be tougher than you originally thought. But obviously, the goal was always to build a program that could consistently compete and have an opportunity to play in March.”
Last season seemed like their best chance to end the Final Four drought, with the Bears starting out with 24 wins in 25 games before some late-season stumbles. But they were still on course for a 1-seed — until the coronavirus pandemic led to the cancellation of the NCAA tournament.
“It’s nice that these guys were able to celebrate, especially after last year, when we were on the verge of having the first No. 1 seed in school history and not having a chance to compete in the NCAA tournament,” Drew said.
COVID-19 nearly derailed Baylor’s dream season for a second time this season, with the Bears being forced to pause for three weeks in February. A 17-0 record before the pause was quickly tarnished with a 13-point loss at Kansas in their second game back. Baylor then lost again in the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament, and there were questions entering the NCAA tournament as to whether the Bears could regain the edge they played with during the first three months of the season.
“I don’t think we ever lost confidence,” Teague said. “When we lost to Kansas, at Kansas, it was just like, we had to lose eventually. Then we lost — but we felt like we weren’t at our best. We felt we had to diagnose some things, correct some things going forward. And we felt like we would continue to get better as the season went on, and we didn’t want to peak in January. We want to peak at the time we’re peaking right now. We want to continue to get better even going into this last week.”
Since getting some time between the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments, however, Baylor has run off wins over Hartford, Wisconsin, Villanova and then Arkansas on Monday.
“As a coach, I did want to believe we’d come back, yes, but there’s no book. So you don’t know for sure. You lose one game and you’re out,” Drew said. “I’m glad we’re playing, and I think we keep getting better.”