ANAHEIM — When sophomore Isaiah Austin told his friends he had decided to attend Baylor more than three years ago, the 7-foot McDonald's All-American received more blank stares than well wishes.
"People were like, 'Why Baylor? Why Scott Drew?'" Austin recalled Wednesday. "They said, 'You could go to schools like Kentucky. You could play for [John] Calipari.'"
Baylor's standout big man has since learned that the lack of respect for Drew and what he has accomplished is not limited to his circle of friends. Whether it's an SI.com reporter describing Drew as a "liability" this week or other fans and media members suggesting he collects talent rather than developing it, the 11th-year Baylor coach still receives a shocking amount of criticism for someone who has engineered one of the most impressive turnarounds in college hoops history.
Hired to revive a long-struggling program rocked by Patrick Dennehy's murder, Drew has taken Baylor to the Elite Eight in 2010 and 2012 and has the Bears one win away from a third trip entering Thursday's Sweet 16 matchup with Wisconsin. In six trips to the NCAA tournament or the NIT, Drew has a record of 17-4, all at a school that had made four appearances in the postseason prior to his tenure.
Drew prefers to credit his players for Baylor's success even though he's in the midst of maybe the best stretch of coaching of his career. A Baylor team with no projected first-round picks rallied from a 2-8 start in Big 12 play to earn a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament, throttle a surging Nebraska team in the opening round and shut down a Creighton team with one of the nation's most lethal offenses two days later.
"As a coach, all you want is for your players to be thought of highly for what they've accomplished," Drew said. "In the last five years, the postseason record really speaks for itself. We've had players who have really played for each-other and done a great job. You definitely want your players to get their due."
It's no coincidence the Scott Drew backlash began five or six years ago when Baylor ceased to be an easy two wins a year for its Big 12 foes.
Big 12 coaches privately complained about Drew's aggressive recruiting tactics and questioned how Baylor was landing recruits a level or two above those the school previously signed. Drew once created a position on his staff for the AAU coach of former Kentucky star John Wall. Another time Drew sent out a flier to recruits asking which of these Big 12 coaches had signed a McDonald's All-American before. Pictures of Bob Knight and Billy Gillispie were crossed out, leaving only a photo of the Baylor coach.
Drew's tactics helped make Baylor a destination for elite recruits like top 10 prospects Austin, Perry Jones and Quincy Miller. The underachievement of Jones and the early departure of Miller helped stick Drew with the label of a coach whose players don't develop but that criticism ignores the long list of prospects who improved dramatically under his tutelage.
Quincy Acy was a fringe top 100 recruit who developed into an all-conference big man and an NBA prospect by the time he graduated in 2012. Pierre Jackson had limited interest from Division I programs in high school before blossoming in junior college becoming a star with the Bears. Ekpe Udoh was a role player at Michigan before emerging as an all-conference center and an NBA lottery pick at Baylor.
On this season's Baylor team, there are plenty of other examples. Highly touted Cory Jefferson played sparingly off the bench his first two seasons but has been Baylor's most consistent scorer and rebounder the past two years. Former Boston College castoff Brady Heslip has turned into a three-year starter at shooting guard and one of college basketball's best 3-point marksmen. Heck, even former Long Island signee Taurean Prince has improved enough in two years to crack Baylor's rotation as a sophomore.
"I always thought Scott was a good coach, but I think he has also improved dramatically," former New Mexico coach and current ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said. "Once a guy gets a bad rap, it's hard to shake it, but he deserves credit for being a better coach than people realize and a great motivator. If you attend as many practices as I do, there's probably nobody who has more fun with his team than I see at Baylor. There's a sense they all like each other."
The camaraderie and enthusiasm Drew fosters with his upbeat attitude was critical when Baylor nosedived to a 2-8 Big 12 start after a promising non-conference season. It would have been easy for the Bears to quit, but they instead persevered, launching a win streak with overtime wins against Kansas State and Oklahoma State and riding it to 12 wins in their last 14 games.
The return of Chery from turf toe helped spark an offense that had been turnover-prone and ineffective in January but became one of the nation's most efficient in February and March. Baylor also began playing more active, energetic defense, especially in a 1-1-3 zone that has become a weapon because of the Bears' ability to pressure the ball on the perimeter but protect the rim with their length and shot-blocking in the paint.
"When we were losing, Coach Drew was a positive guy, just like he always is," Brady Heslip said. "He stayed positive the whole time, and I think that's what we needed to hear. The way that he corrected the mistakes while also building everybody up was the best way. He never stopped emphasizing that we had the pieces to do this."
While neither Baylor's players nor its coaches could point to one reason why the program has been so successful in March, they all agreed that the chemistry Drew fosters plays a role. The Bears play hard down the stretch because they're always eager for at least one more game together. Drew also keeps things loose in March, allowing Wednesday's open practice to conclude with an impromptu dunk contest and busing his players to Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles in Long Beach the night before.
"The guys loved it, and I'll be honest, it wasn't bad," Drew said. "Don't tell the strength coach. He won't be too happy with me."
Once Baylor had completed its comeback from its poor Big 12 start and secured an NCAA tournament bid, forward Rico Gathers stopped by Drew's office earlier this month with a heartfelt message for his coach.
"I'm like, 'Coach, I just want you to know you're doing a hell of a job,'" Gathers said. "'I'm really fortunate to play for someone like you.'"
It had to be nice for Drew to hear that. Outside the Baylor locker room, compliments like that are all too rare.
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