Scott Drew, Baylor school record-holder for victories by a men’s basketball coach, is many things to many different people.
To Bears fans who remember the dark final days of the Dave Bliss era, he’s a program reviver. To NBA general managers, he’s the guy who signs first-round prospects out of high school and moves them down your prospective draft board during their college careers.
But to peers who face him in postseason tournaments, he’s an absolute nightmare. Drew and the Bears began what could become another magical March with Friday’s 74-60 victory over Nebraska in their NCAA Tournament opener at AT&T Center.
With the victory, Baylor (25-11) is 16-3 in its last 19 postseason games under Drew (three NCAAs, two NITs), including a 6-0 mark the past two seasons. A victory in Sunday’s game against Creighton (tip time TBD) would clinch the Bears’ third Sweet 16 trip in their last three NCAA Tournament appearances (2010, 2012, 2014).
The reason, said center Isaiah Austin, is simple.
“Coach Drew is a coach that wins,” said Austin, an Arlington Grace Prep product who had 13 points and seven rebounds against the Huskers. “We have a great coaching staff that believes in us, and that’s really what feeds our confidence. Everybody is all behind us, telling us we are a championship team. This is our chance for one.”
Baylor, last year’s NIT champion, took its first step forward in the 2014 NCAA Tournament by outlasting Nebraska in a chippy, foul-marred game that was less than-eye catching. Baylor, the No. 6 seed in the West Region, benefited from a 31-16 disparity in foul calls and salted his one away at the line.
The Bears buried 38 of 48 free throws, marking the most makes in an NCAA Tournament game since 1986 and the third-highest total in tournament history. Nebraska (19-13) connected on just 10 of 16 free throws, a disparity that led to two technical fouls and an ejection for Nebraska coach Tim Miles.
For Drew, most of the day was a walk in the park with a double-digit lead because Baylor buried 79.2 percent of its free throws.
“When you have those opportunities and make free throws, they’re important for momentum,” Drew said. “This time of year, it’s all about surviving and advancing. We’re definitely pleased with the win, no matter how you get it: pretty, ugly or nasty.”
This one certainly was not pretty. And it was even more unsightly to Nebraska fans who booed referee Karl Hess’ crew as they left the court. But after watching his team bury itself with a dismal first-half shooting performance (23.1 percent), Miles acknowledged Nebraska contributed heavily to its own demise by carving out a 29-16 halftime deficit.
“Officiating is not what did us in,” Miles said. “We just settled for the easy outside shot too often and we fouled too much. I apologize to the team for getting ejected, although the circumstances were odd at best.”
Specifically, Miles was frustrated that he picked up his second technical — the one that sent him to the locker room with 11:17 remaining — for leaving the bench to point out an error with the shot clock. But Miles ventured too far on to the court to make his point and got his second “T,” triggering an automatic ejection.
For all practical purposes, Baylor put this game away in the first half. Although the Bears were hardly prolific from the field (33.3 percent) while building a 13-point halftime cushion, the Cornhuskers were downright dreadful while trying to score against the Bears’ zone defense.
Nebraska missed all 11 of its 3-point attempts in the first half. Despite a pair of mini-surges that trimmed the deficit to nine points in the second half, the Bears’ lead never was in jeopardy.
“They just kind of took us out of anything or any rhythm we could get going, “ Nebraska guard Shavon Shields said of the Bears’ defense. “Them taking away our aggressiveness kind of affected us on the defensive end, too.”
In other words, credit Drew with a solid defensive game plan that worked from the get-go. Next up is a bigger challenge: slowing Creighton (28-6), the No. 3 seed in the West Regional, and forward Doug McDermott, the nation’s leading scorer who had 30 points in the Bluejays’ 76-66 win over Louisiana-Lafayette.
For Drew and the Bears, another suffocating defensive performance will be needed to make a Sweet 16 trip a reality. Baylor won Friday’s battle of the boards 37-25 with forwards Cory Jefferson (16 points, six rebounds) and Rico Gathers (11 points, six rebounds) joining Austin in ruling the paint.
Although players point to Drew as a big factor in the team’s turnaround from its 2-8 midseason slide, Drew cited another reason.
“The pressure that went with each of the games basically was like playoff basketball,” Drew said. “The fact that, every game, we had to put so much into it, hopefully that will help us for the tournament.”
It clearly helped Friday when Drew reminded us, once again, why he’s become a nightmare matchup for coaching peers in March Madness.