By Shehan Jeyarajah
From the time basketball coach Scott Drew first arrived on campus, Baylor’s basketball program has increased exponentially. Since his arrival, Baylor won its first tournament game since 1950, has reached the NCAA Tournament three times and made two Elite Eight appearances.
Drew’s 197 wins as Baylor coach trails only Bill Henderson’s 201 wins on the all-time Baylor win list. Henderson accomplished this feat in 18 years as Baylor coach. Drew has taken only 11.
Drew will often say a coach is only as good as his players. As a result, Baylor’s recruiting presence has exploded since Drew and his staff arrived in Waco. Since Drew’s first recruiting cycle in 2004, Baylor has signed 25 players in the Rivals 150 and four McDonald’s All-Americans. Five Baylor players were drafted into the NBA during that span.
For years, it seemed inconceivable that even the best of coaches could bring high-level talent to Waco, but Drew has bucked the trend.
“We have a different niche than the other schools we recruit against in our state,” longtime assistant coach Jerome Tang said. “We’re a Christian private school. We try to locate as early as possible kids who faith is important, as well as a family environment.”
Sophomore center Isaiah Austin was one of Drew’s McDonald’s All-Americans, and a consensus top five national recruit. He emphasized how the religious aspect of Baylor played into his decision.
“I’m really strong in my religion,” Austin said. “Everyone here is open to Bible study or open to expressing their beliefs with each other, even the coaching staff. We pray before every practice. We may not have the biggest fan base, but they support us and we’re blessed to have them.”
Tang also expressed how valuable it is to have connections to areas such as Dallas/Fort Worth and Louisiana through successful basketball alumni.
“To see the social and spiritual growth of guys like [former Bears] LaceDarius Dunn and Tweety Carter, it speaks volumes,” Tang said. “It shows a lot to see that there’s somebody from where they’re from who have been successful here.”
Sophomore forward Rico Gathers was the highest-rated prospect in the state of Louisiana when he committed to Baylor in 2012.
He was drawn to the family atmosphere and was encouraged by Drew’s staff.
“I felt comfortable,” Gathers said. “All of this is about me trying to go somewhere where you’re going to be able to play and get better and that’s what I look at. I look at it like I have everything I need right here.”
Gathers was also drawn to Baylor thanks to his relationship with former Baylor star Tweety Carter.
Gathers said he came and saw Carter play as early as a freshman in high school.
Baylor’s coaches emphasize how essential relationship building is to recruiting.
“You have to be visible,” Drew said. “If they like you, you like them. It’s easier to talk, but you have to put out the work to develop those relationships.”
Drew has also recruited a variety of impact transfers, including Milwaukee Bucks forward Ekpe Udoh, 2013 NBA Draft pick Pierre Jackson and three-point marksman senior Brady Heslip.
“Junior college kids probably make bigger decisions based on basketball,” Tang said. “They only have two years. They’re looking for immediate opportunity. With Pierre, there was a need and he saw the immediate opportunity to come in and play with great players.”
The transfers of Udoh, Jackson and Heslip were all key parts of reaching the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Tournament in two of the past four seasons.
Drew’s run of signing ESPN top 50 players the past four years ended in 2013, but Baylor reached as high as No. 7 in the polls this season, so the team is not worried.
“The more you recruit, the more you realize intangibles matter,” Drew said. “A player’s work ethic, whether they are going to spend time in the gym, do they want to get better? Guys who want to improve tend to get better more than those who don’t come to the gym. The character part helps define what kind of teammates they’re going to be.”