For the college basketball coach, reaching the Final Four may not be the Holy Grail, but it’s close, and so when you have a friend 40 desperate minutes away — when you yourself have been a part of the profession, on the bench and in the television booth — you cannot help but root him on.
ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla was rooting for two friends on Monday night when Scott Drew and No. 1 seed Baylor battled Eric Musselman and No. 3 seed Arkansas in a South Regional Elite Eight showdown at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“I would be happy for either coach, honestly,” Fraschilla told The Post. “Because getting to the Final Four is a really big deal for a college coach, it really is. It’s almost as big a deal as winning it all. In our business, getting to the Final Four is not the same validation as a national championship, but it’s close. It takes a lot of pressure off you, because we’ve come to make the Final Four ‘The Promised Land’ for coaches looking for not necessarily recognition, but validation.”
Musselman has NBA head coaching experience and in his second season was trying to take the Razorbacks to heights last witnessed in Fayetteville in 1995 when Nolan Richardson was national runner-up a year after his One Shining Moment.
An impressive feat, no doubt, but no one in his right mind would have believed that Drew would ever resurrect a Baylor program that had been reduced to rubble following the 2003 murder of Patrick Dennehy, a player Fraschilla had coached at New Mexico, by teammate Carlton Dotson.
“I kinda knew there was wheeling and dealing already going on, and so I felt bad that he got entangled in a program that had been messy from the standpoint of NCAA rules,” Fraschilla said. “When you’re talking about a murder, we’re talking beyond the pale here. That went from being a sports story to a news story. … Essentially worldwide.”
Only two months later Drew decided to leave assisting his father Homer at Valparaiso for a job most considered terribly toxic.
“I questioned why a guy who was gonna have major success at Valpo like his dad, would leave after a year to go to a place that literally had no basketball tradition,” Fraschilla said
Key players began to transfer. Drew was left an army of walk-ons. The NCAA punished the program in 2005-06 for former coach Dave Bliss’ transgression by forbidding Baylor to play any non-conference games.
“Calling the program ‘in shambles’ would have been a compliment,” Fraschilla said. “Scott jumps into this mess with this relentless optimism. It’s hard to put into words the depths of despair of this program.”
That was then. This is now. Drew has taken the Bears twice as far as the Elite Eight, in 2010 and 2012.
“It’s arguably the greatest rebuilding job in college basketball history,” Fraschilla said. “It looked like career suicide in 2003. The vision for what they’re doing right now was created in his mind 18 years. They have great kids. In a day where everybody looks for a reason to transfer, he rarely has anybody leave. He is a great basketball coach. At this stage, 15 more years of this and he will be a Hall of Fame coach.”
Drew has veered away from one-and-done and adopted a Villanova-Gonzaga-Virginia recruiting philosophy.
“He came in as someone who was still figuring out his own philosophy of basketball and how to coach it,” Fraschilla said. “But he has grown into the role in a way that now he’s one of the handful of best coaches in college basketball — game day, culture, player development … seven guys on this roster have redshirted, either because they transferred or because they just wanted to get better inside the program. The player-development culture at Baylor is second to none.”
Drew is a chip off his father’s block.
“Scott Drew is the epitome of relentless optimism,” Fraschilla said. “He’s the boy next door, but he’s a psychopath competitor, and you’d never know it. He’s literally the sweetest, nicest guy that you can find.”
Bill Musselman coached in the NBA, ABA, NCAA, WBA and CBA, and hired current Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau in 1989 as his assistant with the expansion Timberwolves.
“Eric has a lot of his dad in him from a standpoint of his dad was a lifelong basketball learner,” Fraschilla said. “Eric is cut from the same cloth. As smart as he is about the game, he’s always looking for the next something to make his team better.
“He’s used an NBA model to build that program at Arkansas. He’s treated Nevada and now Arkansas like he’s the GM of a team. He acquires talent in different ways. He’s acquired talent in different ways, but primarily through the transfer route.”
Final Four for one friend. Forlorn for the other.