Recently, I was asked a bit of an odd question: Should you cheer for Baylor this season?
Should you have a good feeling for the program that once had Dave Bliss in charge, a program that was the locale for the first player-on-player murder in the history of college basketball? Should you root for the program that was sanctioned so hard that the team was stripped of all nonconference games this year and opens its season on Wednesday?
Of course you should.
These players and coaches had absolutely nothing to do with the murder of Patrick Dennehy and the resulting cover-up of NCAA violations attempted by Bliss. They are the ones left holding the bag, the ones who have to pick up the pieces and take the fall. They have practiced, and only practiced, since Oct. 15, and have done so without complaint. Scott Drew, the son of Valparaiso's Homer Drew, took over the immense rebuilding job in 2003 and probably had no idea of what he was getting himself into.
Drew has to build back the basketball program, but he also has to build back the pride of the players. Right now, Baylor is an afterthought in college basketball. The Bears haven't even played yet, and there is no gauge on how good they may be, how close the players may be, or how hard they may work together. They are a mystery, having been tossed on the college basketball scrap heap with only their own energy to buoy their spirits.
Look, I am on record as saying that what happened at Baylor under Bliss' watch was the ugliest episode in college basketball history. A young man was murdered, and the coach, thinking only of himself and the viability of the program with him still at the helm, engineered a cover-up of wrongdoing and tried to smear the memory of the victim. It is hard to fathom the malicious nature of Bliss' actions.
What happened at Baylor went way beyond violations of NCAA rules. It was bone-chilling and sordid. When the players quit at St. Bonaventure a few years ago, and the administration allowed it to happen, I said it was a negative signal and a bad lesson to teach our young people -- that quitting in the face of adversity was acceptable. That situation garnered a great deal of attention. However, the St. Bonaventure situation was nothing compared to Baylor. It wasn't even in the same ballpark.
What happened at Baylor was criminal in nature. It did not require much commentary, because it shocked the conscience. There was no controversy. Everyone felt the same way about it.
Well, the NCAA determined that it could really send a message about cheating and murder and cover-ups -- it took away Baylor's nonconference games. Whew! That's a relief! We need not worry about a repeat episode at Baylor or anywhere else now. Please.
Hitting Baylor with this kind of sanction, especially since everyone involved is long gone, was wrong. Nothing positive can come from taking away competitive opportunities from kids. The NCAA has no jurisdiction over murder and obstruction of justice. These kids are, by all accounts, good kids. They didn't do anything wrong.
Should you cheer for Baylor? I think you should. The Bears deserve a chance and should hear cheers and good wishes from fair-minded people. Baylor certainly has my best wishes.
That said, the Bears should not get a break from the NCAA Tournament selection committee. If they are one of the 34 best teams in the country after the automatic qualifiers are in, they should get into the NCAA field.
However, if the Bears' short schedule does not provide them with enough quality wins to make a case for inclusion into the field, too bad. The committee should not compound the NCAA's error by punishing other teams that have played a full schedule by speculating about how Baylor might have done. Evaluate Baylor straight up.
The Bears still have a slight chance, but the NCAA took away a full and fair opportunity for them to compete.
Jay Bilas, a college basketball analyst for ESPN, is a regular contributor to Insider.