INDIANAPOLIS — Homer and Bryce Drew stood next to one another in the stands in complete and utter disbelief. Tears began to roll down Homer’s face with about two minutes remaining, and as the final seconds ticked off and the buzzer sounded, Bryce could only stare in amazement and watch as his brother, Scott, and the Baylor Bears celebrated their national championship victory.
“Unbelievable,” said Bryce.
“Scott has always dreamed of the One Shining Moment,” added Homer, the former Valparaiso head coach, who Scott, his son, admitted taught him most of what he knows about basketball and optimism.
“This is what he’s worked for for 18 years.”
When Drew took over the Baylor program back in 2003, it wasn’t just a graveyard job. It was the graveyard job. Carlton Dotson had murdered his teammate, Patrick Dennehy, and coach Dave Bliss was fired for paying Dennehy’s tuition and also falsely claiming Dennehy was a drug dealer.
It was a mess. The worst job in America, one that no one wanted except for Drew.
Drew is the eternal optimist. People had told his father that he couldn’t win at Valpo, and Homer wound up going to seven NCAA Tournaments in an eight-year span, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 1998 in which Bryce was one of the stars in One Shining Moment for his buzzer-beater to knock off No. 4 Ole Miss.
“He heard that, and watched our dad prove people wrong,” Bryce said. “But this? It’s at a whole different level.”
Drew didn’t complain when Baylor won eight games during his first season in Waco, or when they weren’t allowed to play non-conference games in 2005-06. He and his staff just outworked everyone else, and when Baylor quickly began landing Top 100 recruits, whispers permeated the industry that they were cheating. Then, after the NCAA did a lengthy investigation and found nothing, a different mantra surfaced: Drew can recruit, but he can’t coach.
It came after he landed a flurry of top-10 players like Perry Jones, Quincy Miller and Isaiah Austin.
“I hate the fact that people say Coach Drew can’t coach,” Baylor senior Mark Vital told me. “It tears me apart.”
Well, after Monday night’s dismantling of a team many were ready to peg as one of the best in the history of the sport, they can put that one to bed.
They were accurate on this — 2021’s champ was one of the most dominant teams in college basketball history. They boasted a phenomenal point guard in Davion Mitchell, one of the best perimeter shooters in America in Jared Butler and one of the toughest big men in the country with Mark Vital.
Except they should have been talking about Drew’s Bears, and not the undefeated Gonzaga Bulldogs.
Baylor put on an absolute clinic in Monday night’s national title game, dominating No. 1 Gonzaga, leading from wire-to-wire and cutting down the nets after an emphatic 86-70 victory.
This wasn’t any ordinary performance, which was fitting since it was hardly a normal season. There was daily COVID-19 testing, no partying, no hanging out with girlfriends and constant pauses throughout the year.
“I think it’s harder to win it this year than ever before with the stoppages, the testing and the sacrificing your social life just so you can play basketball games,” Butler said after the win.
“Having no fans sometimes, it’s just hard to get up sometimes for these games. … It was really cool to say we did that in the midst of adversity, in the midst of tribulations, and to bring it home for Baylor, it’s amazing.”
Gonzaga star freshman and future lottery pick Jalen Suggs finished with 22 points, but most of his damage was done after the game was already out of hand. It was Baylor’s perimeter that dominated on both ends of the court. Butler won the Most Outstanding Player award after dropping 22 points and seven assists, Mitchell went for 15 points, six rebounds and five assists and provided lock-down defense, MaCio Teague finished with 19 points and Adam Flagler added 13. The big-man trio of Vital, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Flo Thamba were terrific with their help defense, rim protection and overall toughness.
It was complete and utter domination and also a total team effort for a group that has been playing unselfish basketball on both ends of the court all season long. This was a team that was also undefeated in early February until they were hammered with eight cases of COVID-19. Drew brought them back too quickly, after just a pair of practices, and they struggled against Iowa State and then got smacked around days later against Kansas. Their only other setback of the season came to Cade Cunningham in the Big 12 tourney, and it was a blessing in disguise because it allowed them to go back to Waco and get much-needed practice.
When the NCAA Tournament began, it was clear that Baylor’s defense was gradually returning to what it was earlier in the season: The most dominant defense in college basketball.
But there were still concerns from some that this would be a complete mismatch, even after Baylor pummeled Houston in the national semifinals and the Zags needed a buzzer-beater from Suggs to get past Cinderella UCLA. Undefeated Gonzaga wasn’t just playing for a national title, but also a place in history, trying to become the first team to run through the season without a loss in 45 years — since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers.
But it was one-sided from the tip, with Baylor scoring at will against the Zags and the Bears locking down the nation’s most prolific offense. Gonzaga, which came into the game averaging 91 points per game, scored just 10 points midway through the first half.
After being completely dominated athletically, Gonzaga coach Mark Few had no other option but to switch to a zone defense — something the Zags hadn’t utilized all season. It worked and Gonzaga cut the deficit to 10 at the break. But then in the second half, it was more of the same, and the game was never truly in question.
“Baylor just beat us,” Few said. “They beat us in every facet of the game tonight and deserve all the credit.”
The two teams were supposed to play just down the road on Dec. 5, but that game was scrapped hours prior to tip after a Gonzaga player tested positive for COVID-19. The Baylor Bears had to wait four months to prove they were the best team in the country, but it was worth it, and now this is the team that will be talked about forever, and not just for spoiling Gonzaga’s shot at perfection.
“No one will ever forget what they did,” Homer said before walking out of Lucas Oil Stadium.
“They won it all in the year of the pandemic. No one will ever be able to say that again.”