The Baylor Bears have used a family atmosphere to rebuild the program from scratch.
by Peter Walsh / @goinginsquad
A little less than nine years ago, on July 25, 2003, every major media outlet in America revealed that missing Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy had been found dead. In the weeks and months following Dennehy’s murder, it was revealed that a teammate, Carlton Dotson, was responsible for Dennehy’s death, and on somewhat of a lesser note that head coach Dave Bliss tampered with the investigation and committed countless NCAA violations during his four-year tenure. Although Bliss escaped criminal charges, he was forced to resign. Eventually, members of the team were granted waivers that allowed them to transfer elsewhere in the Big 12 without having to redshirt. By the time the dust settled, a razed basketball team with a bleak future is all that remained in Waco, TX.
So how is it that, less than a decade after receiving an NCAA punishment just short of the death penalty, the smallest school in the Big 12 is a Top-10 program?
It all started eight years ago, with the hiring of head coach Scott Drew, then a young, relatively inexperienced coach who had the presence of mind to take a job that most established coaches wouldn’t dare go near. The son of Valparaiso’s long-time coach, Homer Drew, and brother of Tourney legend Bryce, Scott has, year-by-year, recruit-by-recruit, restored Baylor’s program. Actually, he’s done more than that. Two seasons ago Drew’s Bears reached the Elite 8, and the current team is 21-3 and ranked sixth in the nation as went to press.
Yes, it all started with hiring the right coach. But for the right coach, it all started with recruiting.
“You have to have not only talented players, but players that believe in what you believe in—and that’s the team, not the individual stuff,” says Drew. “We’ve been blessed enough to bring in a lot of talented players that are not only good players but really good people and they represent the school the right way—both on and off the court.”
One of those players is current sophomore and former McDonald’s All-American Perry Jones III. The shy, unassuming Jones—you would have no idea that the 19-year-old is on the brink of being a first-round pick and millionaire—is not only an exceptional basketball player but also a kid who is loved by everyone who knows him.
“What some people don’t realize is how much everyone on our coaching staff and team will miss him (Jones), because he is such a great guy and such a great teammate,” says Drew of PJ3, who is likely going to enter the NBA Draft after this season. “Every day he comes to practice with a smile on his face…He’s one of those guys that if he married your daughter, you’d think, ‘Yes! My daughter did well.’”
Though he leaves a trail of friends and fans wherever he goes, the wildly talented 6-11 forward is somewhat of an enigma. Following an underwhelming freshman campaign, Jones was still projected by experts to be a Lottery pick. But the young man knew that he wasn’t ready to make the leap. “I wasn’t ready for NBA ball yet,” recalls Jones. “I’m still young, I got some time to mature… I wasn’t ready for that environment or lifestyle yet.”
Labeled “soft” by critics, Jones has become a much more assertive player this season and is leading his team in both points (14.7) and rebounds (7.8). More importantly, he’s also become a leader on the team. Says Jones: “I think I’m more active now, talking-wise. If I see my teammates struggling, I try to be the first one to talk to them.”
Jones is super nice, but to be clear, Baylor is not a one-man show. The Bears have four players who average at least 12 ppg as part of a versatile roster Coach Drew has assembled that’s right out of central casting.
Freshman Quincy Miller, a confident and fun kid whose mouth travels a mile a minute, is another former high school All-American. Often compared to Kevin Durant due to his wiry frame and skill set, Q looks to follow in KD’s footsteps.
“[Coming in] I just wanted to be Freshman of the Year,” Miller says with a chuckle. “That was always a dream. KD got Freshman of the Year his first year, and I saw that and I wanted to get Freshman of the Year.”
A native of Chicago, IL, Miller has overcome a torn ACL suffered in his senior season of high school (when he was SLAM’s high school diary keeper) to have an immediate impact on the Bears. Still, despite averages of 12.6 ppg and 5.3 rpg, Q is searching for ways to improve. “I’m always watching film with my coaches,” he says, “just really being a student of the game and working hard every single day. There’s not a day that I don’t come in here and work my butt off.”
In transfer Brady Heslip and former JuCo star Pierre Jackson, Drew has the “new guys” who have come in and made an immediate impact on the program. Heslip, a BC transfer, is the team’s three-point specialist while Jackson, a national champ at Southern Idaho, doubles as the scene-stealer—a go-to guy in crunch time who has continually hit big shots for the Bears. “The team is confident in him and he knows that,” says Jones. “He takes the big shots with confidence because he has hit [them] before.”
Quincy Acy, a senior forward and tremendous athlete from Mesquite, TX, is the heart and soul of the team. Acy, a senior, is the one player whom the rest of the team looks to as they continue through the rigors of Big 12 play. He makes a special point out of keeping his teammates focused and motivated, and the team loves him for it.
“He’s a great leader; he plays hard all the time. He’s a great guy and a competitor,” raves Heslip. “He brings intensity in games, and in practice he gets fired up. Just the way he plays makes you want to play harder.”
The love is mutual. “It’s an honor playing with those guys,” says Acy. “[They] are great and they’re so humble. They don’t take things for granted and they aren’t cocky or anything, they come to practice every day to get better. Plus they listen to me, they know that I have been around and they take the time out to listen so they can get better.”
When speaking with members of the Baylor program, there’s one word that gets thrown around frequently: family. One of Coach Drew’s original goals when taking the job was to create a familial atmosphere in Waco. Based on his players’ words, he can consider that part of the job done.
“We’re all brothers—genuinely, we feel like we’re brothers,” Acy says.
“If one goes down, we all go down,” adds Q. “That’s how it is, we’re really brothers. We say brothers every day in the huddle at practice—we really mean that.”
Says Jones: “This isn’t an isolated group or just a few people. The whole team, we do everything together.”
“Our team is so close, we’re like brothers. Nobody cares who scores and all that, we just want to win and be together,” concludes Heslip.
Photos courtesy of Matthew Minard / Baylor Marketing & Communications.