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Big 12 Basketball: Looking at Baylor, and a Defense of Scott Drew
The Big 12 basketball preview series tackles the "Scott Drew question."
I think it's weird how Drew can in some circles be considered a joke even though -- and make sure you read this next part very carefully -- he's in the middle of one of the greatest rebuilding jobs in the history of college basketball.
-- Gary Parrish, The Scott Drew jokes never stop but they don't really make any sense. (CBSsports.com)
In 1950, Bill Henderson's Baylor Bears finished first in the Southwest Conference and made the NCAA tournament, losing to Bradley in the Regional Final. Over the next 57 seasons, Baylor made only one trip to the NCAA tournament. That single visit in 1988 was short; the Bears were bounced in the first round 75-60 by Memphis.
That was it. Baylor basically wasn't competitive at basketball for decades. And even this understates the total mess that Scott Drew inherited when he left Valparaiso for the Baylor job in 2003. The Baylor basketball team was under heavy NCAA sanctions after one of the more awful scandals in recent NCAA history.
Recent transfer Patrick Dennehy, a forward who had previously played at the University of New Mexico, was shot and killed by teammate Carlton Dotson. Dotson later pled guilty, and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
During the investigation, some additional ugly facts emerged. Dennehy wasn't on scholarship at Baylor, as none were available, and soon there were questions as to how his tuition was being paid. It turned out that head coach David Bliss was secretly paying Dennehy's tuition, along with the tuition of teammate Corey Herring. Trying to conceal this, Bliss did all sorts of strange things, including plotting to portray Dennehy as a drug dealer in a conversation that was recorded by one of his assistant coaches.
As a consequence of all of this, Baylor was hit with a variety of penalties, including the unusual provision that the Bears could not participate in non-conference games during the 2005-06 season.
This was the program that current head coach Scott Drew took over 11 years ago. Since Drew arrived, Baylor has made four different NCAA tournaments, making it out of the first weekend three times, and has appeared in the AP top 25 in seven consecutive seasons. Prior to Drew's arrival, Baylor last landed in the AP poll during the 1968-69 season. When Gary Parrish refers to this as "one of the greatest rebuilding jobs in the history of college basketball," it isn't an exaggeration. The only issue I have with the statement is the prefix "re" in front of the word "building."
The fact that Bayor basketball is considered among the better programs in the country is remarkable. Baylor basketball prior to Scott Drew was a terrible mess.
So why does everyone think Scott Drew is a terrible coach? Certainly some of the criticism stems from the fact that many outside of Waco are predisposed to dislike him. Drew's aggressive recruiting tactics seem to rub many of his fellow coaches the wrong way, and this surely influences how fans view him as well. He has been known to do things like hire the AAU coach of a prominent recruit, although this is a practice that has become more common in recent years. Still, Drew was an early adopter, if not one of the pioneers, of this tactic. And then, there is the famous flyer that he sent, which clearly pissed off a lot of people.
Drew pushed the envelope on the recruiting front, making at least one aggressive move that he regrets. He sent a flier to prospects with images of himself, then-Texas Tech Coach Bob Knight and then-Texas A&M Coach Billy Gillispie. The question posed: "Which one of these Big 12 coaches has signed a McDonald’s All-American?" An X was made over the images of the other two coaches.
--- Eric Prisbell, Baylor’s Scott Drew tries to alter perceptions of his ability, ethics. (The Washington Post)
This means that there aren't a whole lot of Scott Drew defenders out there, and a lot of people are predisposed to disliking him. But does that make him a bad coach?
Drew has been quite successful as a recruiter, bringing a number of top high school players to Baylor. The thing about bringing in top players is that it raises expectations, often beyond a level justified by the actual players being brought in. Drew's teams have typically been very good, but I guess just not as good as many people expect given the talent level. That raises criticism of Drew's coaching.
And maybe some of this criticism is fair, but I think it mostly misses the point. If the mark of a successful program is that it wins a lot of games, than Baylor has been pretty successful. Who cares if that success is attributed more to Scott Drew the recruiter than it is to Scott Drew the tactician?
In fact, given the choice between a coach who is a great recruiter/average tactician and an average recruiter/great tactician, I think I would pick the better recruiter just about every time. This is basketball; you can't win without any players.
And then, of course, there are questions and rumors related to Drew's recruiting success. I am in no position to evaluate these; rather I think I will just repeat what Gary Parrish wrote about them:
[I]t's only fair to note that Drew's program was recently investigated by the NCAA for nearly three years, and the worst charges amounted to little more than excessive phone calls.
That said, I'm not telling you Drew is totally clean.
I'd never tell you that about any successful high-major coach.
-- Gary Parrish, The Scott Drew jokes never stop but they don't really make any sense. (CBSsports.com)
An attempt to honestly evaluate Scott Drew
So what would a fair assessment of Drew's coaching ability look like? The evidence is that Drew's teams have typically been very good on offense, while not as good on D. The table below lists Baylor's kenpom.com offensive and defensive rankings since the 2006-2007 season, which was Tweety Carter's freshman year.
With the exception of 2011, the Baylor offense has been one of the 15 best in D-I every year since the 2007-2008 season. The Bears' median offensive rank is 11. That is an offensive track record that is roughly on par with some of the best programs in college basketball. Drew may be recruiting good players, but he isn't out-recruiting schools like Kansas, North Carolina, Michigan State, and Syracuse; teams that are Baylor's peers in terms of offensive performance most seasons.
Given on-court performance, I think it is reasonable to say that Drew's offensive acumen is plenty good, and certainly isn't holding him back.
On defense, things are different. While Drew's offenses have mostly been NCAA championship level, his best defenses have just been OK. Over the eight seasons covered in the table above, Baylor has ranked among the top half of Big 12 defenses just twice. This is surprising, given the fact that the Bears have typically featured outstanding rim protectors over this time, which is one of the biggest advantages that a defense can possess.
With only a very small number of exceptions, top defenses generally hold opponents to 2 point field goal percentages of around 46 percent or less. The exception to this rule is a team like VCU, which forces obscenely high turnover rates while allowing something close to the national median on 2pt FG%.
Baylor has generally maintained a 2pt FG% defense at around 46 percent or less in recent years. But top defenses typically excel at something else as well. Frequently, the something else is either forcing turnovers or rebounding.
With limited exceptions, Baylor opponents typically have not turned the ball over all that often. And Scott Drew's preference for zone defense has led to predictable problems with defensive rebounding.
To take the next step as a program, Baylor will need to get better defensively. If Drew remains committed to playing a lot of zone, this will mean that he needs to figure out how to force more turnovers.
Who does Baylor have this year?
Baylor lost three key players from last season in Cory Jefferson, Isaiah Austin, and Brady Heslip. All three were an important part of the Bears' success over the last few years. Jefferson steadily improved during his time in Waco, eventually becoming one of the best forwards in the Big 12. Heslip was a one-dimensional three point shooting specialist, but it was a hell of a dimension -- during his college career he was among the most dangerous three point shooters in the country. And Austin was a giant in the middle, but a giant with skill. He was well on his way to fulfilling his NBA dream when he was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes weakness in connective tissue. Austin had to stop playing basketball, as there was a real risk that his heart could rupture during a game.
Despite these key losses, Baylor returns a number of solid players.The most dynamic might be 6-6 senior wing Royce O'Neale. O'Neale does a lot of things well. He shoots (he is a career 38 percent three point shooter), he passes, he attacks the rim (half of his shot attempts last season were layups or dunks), and he rebounds. He will likely be Drew's best player, and has an outside chance of making the All-Conference team.
Point guard Kenny Chery was solid for the Bears last season, making the loss of Pierre Jackson easier to take. Chery is OK shooting from the floor, but does most of his work at the free throw line, where he hit 88 percent of his attempts last season. He is generally steady, is a good playmaker, and has the occasional game where he will hit a few three pointers.
And then there is Rico Gathers, part basketball player, part comic book superhero. The junior forward lists at 6-8 and 280 pounds, and is the Baylor Bear who's physical stature and presence comes closest to that of an actual bear, if bears just had less hair and 0.5% body fat. Gathers is not some cuddly Paddington kind of bear, but more a tear-all-the-limbs-off-a-hiker-just-for-fun bear; he is absolutely terrifying.
The best part of Gathers' game is rebounding. Last season, Gathers had the fourth highest offensive rebounding nationally rate among players who qualify in the kenpom.com rankings, and has a freshman he ranked seventh. When on the floor, Gathers' came up with approximately 17 percent of potential offensive rebounds all by himself.
Other returning players of note for Baylor are athletic forward Taurean Prince, talented sophomore Ishmail Wainright, and redshirt freshman Allerik Freeman. Wainright and Freeman both came to Baylor with strong pedigrees, but we haven't seen enough of them yet to know more than that. Wainright played very little last year, buried on the depth chart behind some pretty talented upperclassmen, while Freeman sat out last season with an injury.
Scott Drew's recruiting class was not as strong as those of seasons past. Making matters worse is that his top freshman, Kobe Eubanks, will sit out the season while he works on his studies. The newcomers most likely to make an impact are two junior college transfers. Deng Deng of Lee College will help the interior defense, which will miss Jefferson and Austin. Lester Medford was a 40 percent three point shooter at Indian Hills CC (Iowa), and can help cover for the loss of Heslip.
Baylor clearly has a talented squad, although it doesn't seem quite as talented as in years past. O'Neale and Chery will be asked to do more offensively this year, and Jefferson and Austin will be missed, particularly on defense. If O'Neale thrives with more shots, then I guess improvement is possible, but this feels like a team that may be more likely to take a step backward than forwards, when we consider the players that it lost.
But let's just assume, for the sake of argument, that Baylor is every bit as good as it was last season. Because I expect that Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Iowa State, and Kansas State will all be very good, I think the Bears will have a hard time improving on their standing in the conference from last year. But that might not be such a bad thing; last season Baylor was the sixth place team in a conference that sent seven squads to the NCAA tournament. And the Bears had a nice tournament, winning two games before falling in the Sweet 16 to Wisconsin.
Buy, Hold, and Sell: Week 5
As the BON resident bookkeeper, nobody knows the Texas balance sheet and income statement quite like me (no statement of cash flows here, amateurism and all that). And because I took a financial statement analysis class at UT, I feel best qualified to dish stock advice on this year's team.
Buy: Texas Pass Defense
Now, I wouldn't normally recommend a Buy right before something is about to take its toughest test of the year, but it's worth owning stock in the pass defense if it comes through against Baylor. I could rattle off a list of what the Baylor passing game brings: 7th nationally in yards per attempt and passing TDs, 4th in passing yards per game, all rolled into the top scoring offense in the country.
Fortunately, segment earnings for the Texas pass defense have been solid through the first third of the season: 7th nationally in yards per attempt allowed, 8th in passing yards per game, 8th in sacks per game, and tied for 1st in interceptions per game.
Much will be asked of the pass defense as it faces the multiple Baylor offense. Art Briles' wide splits will force Strong's defense to make choices in defensive alignments, either to let corners Duke Thomas, Quandre Diggs, and Mykkele Thompson take the Baylor WRs in man coverage with little help, or trust a light box to control the Baylor OL and run game. Regardless of the choice, the corners will be tested.
But the biggest key will be the play of the young Texas safeties. True freshman Jason Hall was the first true freshman to start at safety for Texas since 2008, and he'll need to be ready and not get manipulated by Heisman hopeful Bryce Petty. Sophomores Adrian Colbert and Dylan Haines will also need to play mistake free, with experienced option Josh Turner being an unreliable option at this point. With the youth at safety, we're buying in early and riding whatever storm may come.
Hold: Texas Passing Game
The Texas passing game is a combination of a bunch of high beta pieces: developing OL, young but promising QB with tangible qualities, and experienced and talented WRs. The strength of the Texas offense is certainly in the WR group, where John Harris and Jaxon Shipley are the most consistent performers on that side side of the ball, Marcus Johnson provides an experienced third option, and young upstarts like Lorenzo Joe and Armanti Foreman provide a solid change of pace.
The constraint on those assets is the development of a young QB and ability of a remade offensive line. Last week, offensive coordinator Shawn Watson continued to put more on sophomore Tyrone Swoopes' plate to mixed results. He connected on a deep ball to Shipley on the run, missed a number of open deep receivers, continued displays of arm strength and accuracy outside the hashes, and showed just enough that the performance wasn't a concern.
The deep balls were there, and he had the time to find it, mostly. But the two best defensive fronts on the schedule are up next, and they will test Swoopes' internal clock. If the line (and any TEs and RBs that can hang back) can buy him time, he'll need to connect on those shots.
We're waiting to see the payoff for these WR assets. If the passing game can get through the next couple weeks and show us something, we could see this moving to a solid Buy.
Sell: Texas Run Game
Several years of mismanagement and questionable investments have led our new management team to significantly mark down impaired assets on the offensive line. Injuries, dismissals, transfers, and suspensions (and lions and tigers and bears oh my) have left the Horns with few options and fewer positive results. Johnathan Gray, who I'm not convinced is altogether recovered from last year's blown Achilles, has put up a solid yet unspectacular 50 carries for 222 yards (4.4 per carry), with a long of 42 and no TDs. Malcolm Brown has cooled off from his strong finish to 2013 to contribute 53 carries for 191 yards (3.6 per carry) and 2 TDs on the ground.
Absent a sudden infusion of options, such as Darius James stepping onto the scene in a big way or Desmond Harrison getting his act together and stepping right into action, the chances of immediate improvement are slim. Contributors now are either out of position, not yet ready to carry the load, or simply nothing more than capable options. Revelations at ball carriers could help the situation, likely in the form of an electric talent like Daje Johnson (figure it out, Daje), Armanti Foreman, or the newly un-redshirted Roderick Bernard.
Until something changes,or maybe in a few weeks if we start seeing consistent results, we're going to advise selling your stock in the run game. In the meantime, we'll likely be heavily invested in other areas to carry us ahead in 2014.