HOUSTON (AP)—Scott Drew took on the daunting challenge of rebuilding a tattered program at Baylor nearly seven years ago with what seemed, at least to everyone else, to be an unrealistic vision.
At the only private school in the powerful Big 12 and stifled by significant scholarship restrictions in the aftermath of a tragedy and scandal of unprecedented proportions, Drew still envisioned having an elite program. Part of his plan when he arrived was to become “the Duke of the Southwest.”
Drew’s hopes certainly don’t seem so far-fetched now.
The third-seeded Bears (28-7) are within one victory of the Final Four. To get there, they must beat top-seeded Duke (32-5) in the South Regional final on Sunday.
“When anyone takes over any program you have to figure out, what is your niche? Where do you fit in in the grand scheme of things? Not try to be like somebody that is not in your niche, but to fully develop your own identity,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He’s done a really good job of figuring that out at Baylor, and they’re very good. … They could win the whole thing. They’re that talented.”
This won’t be the only Baylor-Duke matchup with a Final Four berth on the line.
On the women’s side, Baylor and Duke are also playing in a regional final, marking the first time that two schools have met in the round of eight in both tournaments during the same season, according to STATS LLC.
The similarities between Baylor and Duke are obvious in that both are small private schools known for their academic excellence. But there has never been any comparing their success in men’s basketball.
The Blue Devils are going for their 11th Final Four appearance under Coach K, though their first since 2004. They have lost only once when reaching a regional final.
Baylor has been to the Final Four only twice, in 1948 and 1950—back when the field had only eight teams.
Even before the tragic summer of 2003, when a player was murdered by a teammate and the scandalous aftermath led to significant penalties and former coach Dave Bliss’ resignation, Baylor had played in only one NCAA tournament game (1988) since its last Final Four appearance.
“The first thing with that comes consistency,” Drew said about his vision. “Our third straight 20-win season, our third straight postseason, last year having postseason success … those are all building blocks and things that have put us in motion to becoming one of those talked-about programs and one of those programs people consider one of the top in the nation.”
Baylor has already set a school record for victories this year with its third consecutive 20-win season—the Bears won more than 20 games only three times in the 101 seasons before that. Before making it to the NIT championship game last season, they were in the NCAA field in 2008 and lost in the first round to Purdue, the team the Blue Devils defeated Friday night.
After beating three double-digit seeds to get this far—Sam Houston State, Old Dominion and then surprising Saint Mary’s in a 72-49 romp Friday night— Baylor faces its toughest challenge to keep playing.
But the Bears don’t seem fazed.
“We’re never intimidated by anybody no matter who we play,” said Tweety Carter, Baylor’s senior point guard.
Seeing “Duke” across the jersey of the opposing players isn’t awing the Bears, who tied for second in the Big 12 after being picked 10th in a preseason poll by the conference coaches. The league sent seven teams to the NCAA tournament and ranked as the nation’s toughest this season.
“The Big 12 has gotten us ready for this stage,” post player Ekpe Udoh said. “We’re ready for this challenge.”
While Krzyzewski is used to these kind of games, this is the first time any of his current players have been this close to the Final Four. The Blue Devils are past the round of 16 for the first time since their last Final Four six years ago, and their last national championship was in 2001.
“It really is the first time for our players, too. … I don’t want them to be in my past moments,” Krzyzewski said. “I don’t know what advantage we have. I think we’re both two teams that are trying to accomplish something that these groups have not accomplished before. Forget about the past.”
Baylor has a zone defense that held sharp-shooting Saint Mary’s to 35 percent shooting—and only 6 of 22 on 3-pointers. With a 7-footer and a pair of 6-10 players to crowd the middle, the Bears provide a drastically different look than Purdue’s man-to-man defense, meaning the Blue Devils have to adjust quickly.
“I don’t know all the answers. I think we need to figure it out today,” Duke guard Jon Scheyer said. “But I think their length has a lot to do with it, and the way they play their zone. They do a really good job.”