- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2008

This season has been about the journey and the destination for the Baylor basketball team, both of which have surprised a great many people.

“We started from the ground up, and look where we are now,” guard Curtis Jerrells said.

Look indeed. Not only is Baylor in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 20 years and the second time in school history, the program had to overcome a series of nearly unprecedented events, almost all of them negative. The Bears will play Purdue in the first round of the West regional today at Verizon Center, and only those who kept the staunchest faith during the last few years could have envisioned this scenario.

Fortunately for the program, the primary faith-keeper was young, energetic coach Scott Drew, who was hired in August 2003 at age 32 after the campus and the entire Waco, Texas, area were rocked by forward Patrick Dennehy’s murder.

The crime touched off a chain of events and a full-blown scandal that nearly toppled the program completely. But it took Drew and his staff less than five years to take Baylor to where other institutions, which have had far fewer issues, wish they could be.

“If you bring in quality players that do the right thing and high character kids, good things are going to happen,” said Drew, who was the coach for one season at Valparaiso, where he worked for nine years as an assistant to his father, Homer Drew.

“The great thing is when you have so much work to do, you don’t really have time to think about everything else.”

But Drew also acknowledged that there was no “road map” for this sort of thing because no program had gone through anything like it. Which makes Baylor, a Big 12 team seeded 11th in the region (Purdue is seeded sixth), a sentimental choice among fans looking for an underdog to latch onto.

“I’m biased, but I think this is one of the greatest turnarounds in college basketball history,” Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw said. “Where Scott Drew started from four and a half years ago, to take a team to the NCAA tournament is remarkable.”

Things began to spiral out of control during the summer of 2003 when Dennehy, a junior forward, disappeared and was found shot to death outside Waco. Teammate Carlton Dotson confessed to the crime and is serving a 35-year prison sentence.

A school investigation later revealed that then coach Dave Bliss, who tried to portray Dennehy as a drug dealer and instructed his players to do the same, had engaged in a variety of financial improprieties in violation of NCAA rules. Bliss and the athletic director resigned. In addition to school-imposed sanctions, the NCAA came down hard on the largest Baptist university in the world. And four players immediately transferred to other schools.

The NCAA put Baylor on probation through 2010, reduced the number of scholarships and for the first time in history wiped out a team’s entire nonconference schedule. During the 2005-06 season, the Bears played their first game Jan. 11.

“That was a curveball and probably the lowest of low points,” junior guard Aaron Bruce said.

Said McCaw: “That was probably the most difficult thing we needed to deal with. That really affected the coaching staff and the student-athletes, none of whom had anything to do with the scandal.”

But everyone persevered. Drew, the perpetual optimist, acknowledged the negatives but focused on the positives.

“It’s the only private college in the Big 12,” he said. “Great academic reputation.”

The school also had plenty of basketball opportunities that were seized upon by several talented players, including forward Kevin Rogers and guards Henry Dugat and Jerrells, all of whom are juniors.

“Coach Drew and the other coaches told me I had a great chance to help them turn around the program, and I wanted to be part of that,” Dugat said.

Said Jerrells, the Bears’ leading scorer and an all-conference selection this year: “They had only five scholarship players. I’m from Austin, an hour and a half drive. The most important thing for me was playing. I knew I could compete for a starting position. I just wanted to play and have my family come see me and be able to go home if I ever became homesick.”

Yet rebuilding was still an arduous process. The undermanned Bears went 8-21, 9-19 and 4-13 in Drew’s first three seasons. Last year’s 15-16 record provided a glimmer of hope. Everything came together when Baylor started 16-3 this season, including a five-overtime victory at Texas A&M;, en route to a 21-10 record. It was the program’s most wins since 1988.

“It was extremely discouraging at the time, but I didn’t question why I was at Baylor or anything like that,” Bruce said. “I knew the character of our coaching staff and the direction we were headed. At that point, there is no way to go other than up.

“The way we’ve turned things around and the speed we’ve done it is exceptional. I don’t think we expected it to be this quick, but we’re very happy to be here.”

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