By DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor
No. 2/1 Baylor men’s basketball has had a whirlwind of a week. The Bears, who had to withdraw from the Empire Classic on Tuesday after head coach Scott Drew tested positive for COVID-19, will now open the season Saturday in Las Vegas against the University of Louisiana-Lafayette followed by a rematch with Washington on Sunday.
Despite the circumstances, Drew was relentless in finding a way to get his team on the court, and just a few days after withdrawing from the Empire Classic, Baylor found itself on a plane to Vegas.
“The worst thing in the world you can do is give Scott time and isolate him so his family can’t distract him and nobody can either, and he’s got a phone and a computer,” associate head coach Jerome Tang said. “I mean his brain is just going. He was relentless. If he needed to get 64 teams together to start the season, he would have got that done … We wanted our guys to be able to compete this weekend.”
The week may have been chaotic, but according to Tang and junior guard Jared Butler, the Bears are taking it day-by-day and holding on to hope that nothing else keeps them from playing.
“Seems like we’re at the court on the pick-up and we’re trying to find somebody to play, almost like AAU in a sense, too. But, I just think we’re really excited to play and ready to get out there,” Butler said.
Baylor may not be facing two ranked teams like originally planned, but according to Tang, that doesn’t necessarily mean the Bears are easing into the season. Baylor had spent weeks preparing to face the likes of Arizona State and No. 3 Villanova. Now they’ll have to dive into studying two tough, well-coached teams almost overnight.
“The technology today is great,” Tang said. “[Louisiana] Coach [Bob] Marlin has been doing this for a long time. His teams always play hard and share the ball and they can really score in transition. With Mike [Hopkins]’s team at Washington, they’re going to play that zone and they have length. There are certain things you can prepare for, and the rest of it you hope certain habits take over.”
The Bears have not faced the Ragin’ Cajuns since Nov. 17, 2013, when they defeated Louisiana 87- 68 in Waco. The two teams have met a total of 11 times but only once in the Scott Drew era. Baylor leads the series 7-3.
The Cajuns are coming off an 8-12 season that saw them finish eighth in the Sun Belt Conference. This season, half of Louisiana’s 14 roster spots consist of newcomers with several transfers, a couple of first-years and a walk-on joining the squad.
“We have to face Louisiana first and they’re a very good team and they’re very well coached. Bob Marlin has been doing this a long time and has been successful at the highest level,” Tang said. “His team will be well prepared and they play together. They suffered a lot of injuries last year, but even with that they were in every ballgame.”
Even with all the new faces, Butler, a native of Reserve, La., said he recognizes several of the Cajuns’ players from his high school days.
“I know about, I think three or four guys. I played against some of them, some of them I just know of just from high school basketball,” Butler said. “I think they’re a pretty good team, a team that can score the ball at a high level in transition, so it’s going to be fun.”
Even without their head coach, who will be back with the team by Tuesday prior to Baylor’s matchup with No. 8 Illinois in Indianapolis, the Bears have kept their spirits high and their focus on the court. Butler said the team is very comfortable with Tang’s coaching. The associated head coach has been on Baylor’s coaching staff during the entirety of Drew’s tenure.
“It’s definitely been a different type of speed. Coach Drew and Coach Tang are two totally different people, but in a sense they’re the same person. They’ve got the same morals, same attitude, same passion for the game,” Butler said. “Coach Tang is someone we’re super comfortable with, somebody that’s super comfortable with Baylor in general. I think we’ve been able to adjust, and he’s done a good job of adjusting and keeping the confidence of the team and not making it seem like a let-off. I think we’ve adjusted pretty well.”
Baylor and Louisiana will tip-off at 7 p.m. at T-Mobile Arena. The game will be broadcast on Baylor IMG College radio and streamed on FloHoops.