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Baylor thread ties together North Texas, Oral Roberts upsets

March’s two biggest moments thus far have roots in Waco.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-North Texas at Purdue Andrew Nelles-USA TODAY Sports

As would be expected, Scott Drew was a happy coach on Friday night.

His Baylor team got over a slow start and ultimately did what No. 1 seeds are expected to do, rolling over Hartford with a 24-point win. But as he surely turned his focus to Wisconsin/North Carolina and the Bears’ next opponent, he was keeping an eye out across the bracket.

And as the dust settled on the first full day of NCAA Tournament games in over 700 days, the longtime Baylor coach had a hand, albeit slightly, in the two biggest upsets.

Former Drew assistants Paul Mills and Grant McCasland led Oral Roberts and North Texas, respectively, to the two most sparkling wins thus far in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

For his part, Mills was there from the beginning of Drew’s massive rebuild in Waco. The ORU coach was a part of Drew’s initial staff at Baylor in 2003, spending six years as a coordinator of basketball operations before an eight-year stint as an assistant. He talked about the early years in a 2019 interview with the Waco Tribune.

“We didn’t really understand the mountain we were going to climb,” Mills said. “But you have to understand we were all really young. I thought we were going to win a conference championship, and we went 1-15 (in 2005). But we really believed in what we were doing and were super energetic in putting in the work to make it happen. We thought we were going to conquer the world.”

The mountain may not have as comparatively steep when he took over ORU, but the Golden Eagles had surely been in a rough patch. The one-time Summit League standard bearer had slipped to 4-12, and missed the league tournament, the season before he took over. Four years later, with just the ninth win by a No. 2 seed in tournament history and first Golden Eagles tournament win since 1974 under his belt, it must feel like yet another mountain has been summited.

McCasland, a Baylor alum, wasn’t with Drew from the beginning. But his five-year stretch in Waco from 2011-16 coincided with some of the Bears’ early big-time breakthroughs, including an Elite Eight in 2012 and Sweet Sixteen in 2014. When he took over UNT in 2017, the Mean Green were mired in a stretch of six straight losing conference campaigns. Four years later, the overtime win over No. 4 Purdue is the first in program history, after UNT had been extinguished in the first round of its three other appearances.

Despite the common thread to Drew, each coach has done things his own way.

The Mean Green have racked up wins the past two seasons with an exceedingly slow pace that limits what opponents can do on offense, while on the other end maximizing the talents of dynamic senior guard Javion Hamlet (24 points against Purdue). The defense has flown to new heights this season — 37th in the country per KenPom — in part due to the athletic perimeter tandem of seniors James Reese and Thomas Bell. Matt Painter talked about the challenge posed by the Mean Green ahead of the game.

“His teams have discipline and they’re consistent,” Painter said. “They just do a good job getting into the basketball and making it hard for you to do what you want to do. They limit your paint touches. They’re grimy. I’ve always been a big fan of his.

“You just have to be able to probe the defense and work it. Against great defensive teams, you’re going to have to earn your baskets, and that’s what we’re going to have to do against North Texas.”

As it played out in Lucas Oil Stadium, the Mean Green were able to dictate the game the way they wanted. Purdue — which is no stranger to a deliberate tempo— was forced to play at its slowest tempo of the season, while registering its second-worst offensive performance (per points per possession) over the last five weeks.

Mills, on the other hand, has deployed a more aesthetically-thrilling, but no less successful, style to lead ORU to its historic win.

The Golden Eagles began to push the pace last year, which aligned with sophomore star Max Abmas — then an unheralded freshman recruit from the Dallas area — joining the team. A year later, ORU had the country’s 11th-best three-point attack in the country, and won the Summit League championship behind a flurry of three’s not only from Abmas, but the supporting cast as well.

A tight Golden Eagles rotation was spurred on by Abmas (29 points) wreaking havoc on the Buckeyes defense through high ball screens, and talented, versatile forward Kevin Obanor announcing himself to the country with 30 points and 11 rebounds. The first team all-league junior had that sort of game in him, scoring 39 points (6-11 3FG) and pulling down 10 rebounds in a win at Omaha to kick off ORU’s Summit League season in January. To do it against a Big Ten power was another matter, and helped write one of March’s most magical storylines thus far.

In separate interviews over the past year, both Hamlet and Abmas have told us that they sought to change the programs at their respective schools. Under coaches who were both a part of Drew’s program-changing run at Baylor, they’ve now done just that.

And like the Bears, both the Mean Green and Golden Eagles have a chance to do more this March.