Baylor back playing basketball

WACO, Texas -- Dance club music filled Farrell Center as the Baylor basketball team closed out its first practice of the 2003-04 season.

But, unlike the madness of the wee hours of Saturday morning across the country, no fans filled the stands Saturday afternoon. The beats and rhymes that blared out of the speakers were for the Baylor players and coaches -- a little motivation to get everyone through the final 10 minutes of a new beginning for Baylor basketball.

The music didn't make anyone dance, exactly. But the players did move their feet a little faster during the final drill, which required each player to get in position to shoot, grab a pass from a rebounder, and shoot again.

"It helped," said Baylor senior guard Matt Sayman. "It helped get us going at the end."

"The coaches needed something to get us excited too," said first-year coach Scott Drew. "I know they'll get tired of the same CD soon."

The music was the final touch of Drew's intense, and at times boisterous, opening practice.

But this is Baylor, remember. This is the same private Baptist university where a basketball player was allegedly murdered over the summer, and the source of more headlines when the player's former teammate was accused of the crime.

Patrick Dennehy is dead. Carlton Dotson is about to be transferred from Maryland to Texas to stand trial for his murder. The former coach, Dave Bliss, resigned amid NCAA violations, and then drug the school through even more mud when his cover-up of the violations was revealed. The content of the cover-up was even more disturbing: Bliss tried to portray Dennehy as a drug dealer to explain his tuition being paid, when in reality Bliss had orchestrated the illicit payments. Oh, and we know all Bliss' intentions because they were caught on tape by a former assistant.

In the weeks that followed Bliss' departure and the fallout still to come, the NCAA and the Big 12 allowed Baylor players to transfer without penalty. Four players did, including preseason Wooden All-American Lawrence Roberts (Mississippi State), starting point guard John Lucas III (Oklahoma State) and starting wing Kenny Taylor (Texas).

Baylor also took itself out of the 2004 postseason and gave itself a two-year probation in advance of the NCAA's impending punishment later this year.

Amid all the talk in August about whether or not Baylor should even field a team, the Bears went out and hired the 32-year old Drew from Valparaiso. And then came the music, the energy and the passion that would be so desperately needed here in Waco to get through the first day of practice.

"It was the quickest three hours I've practiced," Sayman said. "They do a great job of keeping us moving and encouraging us and getting us to go from drill to drill to drill. Practice doesn't lag at all. It was a really good first practice."

Not to mention, a giant leap forward mentally.

But that's Drew, who always looks for a fresh approach. He's the coach who sends out countless mailers about having a positive attitude. He's always looking to keep his players' minds occupied. Drew and his father, Homer, did the same things at Valparaiso. Now starting from scratch, Drew is ensuring he carries the same approach at one of the toughest places in the country to succeed -- even before the tragic summer.

Baylor still hasn't convinced a high school senior other than from assistant Jerome Tang's former school (Heritage Christian outside of Houston) to commit to this rebuilding project. Once that happens, the Baylor staff believes it will have changed the negative perception of Baylor on the recruiting trail. So far, they've got a center from Africa and a junior from Heritage Christian to commit. But before they can convince someone to buy into the future, they've first got to prove to the current Baylor players that this staff is serious about turning this program around.

Saturday's practice looked much like any other Day 1 in a Division I gym. It included a dribbling drill where the players wore goggles that prevented them from looking down to break any bad habits. Defensive slide drills were followed by plenty of shooting. The players, coaches and staff had plenty of energy. The entire coaching staff was involved -- to the point of Drew challenging senior Terrance Thomas to a sprint.

"I've only had one coach in my life who has ever beat me in a sprint," Thomas said.

"I waited until he had a cramp," Drew said with a hearty laugh.

That's right, there was plenty of post-practice laughing. Drew is trying to keep the atmosphere as loose as possible.

During practice, he was cautious about his team's fatigue. Drew and assistant coach Matthew Driscoll were worried about running their thin team too much Saturday. A number of teams around the country are going through double sessions these first few days. Not Baylor. Drew knows that could mean losing his team in the first week of the season.

Baylor has only eight scholarship players; three walk-ons made for just 11 on the court Saturday.

"Their conditioning has improved," Driscoll said. "But what we did during individual workouts (the past six weeks) was we went for four 30-minute sessions instead of two one-hour sessions. That way we had them for more shorter, intense workouts and we could be with our guys for four days. That helped us create a bond and gave us the intensity that we need."

The seniors were quick to say that they never doubted they would have a season. Each said the 6 a.m. workouts once school started helped ease them back into thinking about basketball. And, get this, they're convinced that they could become the darlings in the Big 12 -- the team that everyone will want to root for in Waco and elsewhere.

They'll certainly have the least talent in the league. But that doesn't mean they can't try to outwork teams filled with All-Americans.

Seniors Sayman (4.5 ppg), Thomas (5.3 ppg) and R.T. Guinn (10.6 ppg) know the league and can produce, but they were complementary players a year ago. Roberts (15.2 ppg), Lucas (13.3 ppg) and Taylor (11.8 ppg) were the first three options. Now, the seniors have seen themselves go from role players to go-to players in a year when they know their season will end March 6 at Oklahoma.

"We've never been in this situation, so when March gets here, we'll just watch the tournament on TV," Drew said.

"We'll get a spring break," Sayman said.

"What senior wouldn't relish a changed role, a chance to lead his team," Drew said. "They've got to make sure that our new guys -- Harvey Thomas and Carl Marshall -- don't lag behind, because they can't take their time."

Still, there was that week in mid-August when nothing was known and everything seemed upside down while the school searched for Bliss' replacement. And Drew said the players didn't work out nearly as much as they should have during the summer because of the search for Dennehy and the subsequent investigation into NCAA violations. The previous coaching staff couldn't work with the players prior to school, anyway, but who could blame the players for not hanging around campus?

"And then they didn't know their future, whether they were going to transfer or what was going on," Drew said. "Now they find out that they're going to play a lot of minutes. So they've got to get in shape quick."

The Baylor coaching staff will do plenty of teaching, but it isn't about to treat this season as a tryout for themselves in the Big 12. Driscoll said he'll come to practice and games with the same amount of passion he has had at every other stop (Clemson and Valparaiso). He said the players deserve his commitment, regardless of the postseason punishment.

"You can't short-change them,'' Driscoll said.

So, if one practice told us anything, the eleven players in green and gold didn't seem at all like a team just going through the motions, or feeling sorry for themselves. This group was as jacked to finally be practicing as any team that has a chance to get to San Antonio.

"It might be different for us in February,'' Drew admits.

"But not now,'' Driscoll said. "These guys want to beat Texas Southern (Nov. 22). That's what they want to do."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.