A decades-long Baylor fan got emotional with coach Scott Drew after the Bears won their last game to remain one of two undefeated teams in the country.
The fan told Drew, “I thought we could go to a Final Four, but I never thought I’d see the day when Baylor was ranked No. 1.”
That day came Monday, when the Bears (15-0) moved up a spot to the top of The Associated Press men’s basketball poll for the first time.
Baylor wasn’t even getting votes in the Top 25 poll at the start of the season two months ago, when its football team was in the midst of a 7-6 season overshadowed by scandal. Coach Art Briles was fired last May after an investigation that determined the school mishandled assault claims for years, including several against football players.
Now Baylor is the 59th school to be ranked No. 1 since the AP men’s basketball poll started in the 1948-49 season. And the two-time national champion Lady Bears remain No. 2 in the women’s poll.
“It’s great seeing the excitement for Baylor University, and seeing the people that care so much about the university be able to smile and be excited,” said Drew, who took over a tattered program when he arrived on the Waco campus in 2003.
Even new football coach Matt Rhule , hired last month, was in the front row of the student section for Saturday night’s win over Oklahoma State.
“I think we’re on that trajectory upward,” said Mack Rhoades, who took over as Baylor’s athletic director in August. “We realize that there’s a lot of work ahead of us.”
Baylor got 55 of 65 first-place votes to replace Villanova on top after the defending national champion lost to Butler, leaving the Bears and No. 5 Gonzaga (15-0) as the only unbeaten teams. The Wildcats (15-1) got one first-place vote and dropped to third.
The Big 12 is 1-2 in the poll, with Kansas (14-1) moving from third to second with eight first-place votes. UCLA (16-1) stayed fourth with the other first-place vote.
Kentucky, Duke, Creighton, Florida State and West Virginia rounded out the top 10, followed by North Carolina, Butler, Oregon, Louisville, Xavier, Arizona, Purdue, Wisconsin, Virginia and Notre Dame. The last ranked teams are Saint Mary’s, Cincinnati, Florida and Minnesota, with Kansas State and Southern California tied for 25th.
Minnesota’s first ranking in four seasons provides a Top 25 father-son duo with Kentucky coach Rick Pitino and the younger Richard Pitino with the Gophers. Kansas State was last ranked in 2013-14. Virginia Tech and Indiana, earlier as high as No. 3, dropped out of the poll.
When Drew got to Baylor in 2003, the program was ravaged by the murder of a player by a teammate and scandalized by the former coach who had tried to cover up NCAA violations in the aftermath. There were significant scholarship and recruiting restrictions, and even a season when the Bears were only allowed to play only their Big 12 Conference games.
They overcame all that, going to six NCAA Tournaments in the last nine seasons and twice getting to regional finals before losing to the eventual national champion.
“Everyone has goals and dreams, but few have the reality to see them achieved,” Drew said. “When we were scouring the campus to fill out half the team with walk-ons, we dreamed of one day having a chance to be ranked No. 1, to win a national championship, go to a Final Four. … Every step that we’ve achieved has laid the foundation for the next step.”
Baylor went into this season having to replace three senior starters — 12th overall NBA draft pick Taurean Prince, plus the school’s career rebounding leader and a two-year starting point guard. They also faced a difficult early schedule.
But the Bears beat then-No. 4 Oregon the first week, and won the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament beating No. 24 Michigan State and No. 10 Louisville — they trailed the Cardinals by 18 at halftime. By the first Saturday in December, when they beat seventh-ranked Xavier at home, they already had three wins over top 10 teams in the same season for the first time.
“Getting to the future part of it, we know no one remembers who’s ranked No. 1 in January, it’s who finished ranked No. 1, and in the Big 12 how tough a grind that is. That’s the sobering moment,” Drew said, with a laugh. “Your reward of being ranked No. 1 is to go to West Virginia and play.”
The Bears’ first game as the No. 1 team is Tuesday night at the 10th-ranked Mountaineers, who a year ago this week upset Kansas 74-63 in the same week the Jayhawks had moved into the top spot.