It took a remarkable game, one of the more memorable in Final Four history, to get here.
But here were are. The two best teams all season — Gonzaga and Baylor — are getting set to play for a national championship in a matchup that seemed destined for the better part of the last five months. It was supposed to be played back in early December, but COVID took care of that.
Instead, college basketball was forced to wait.
Along the way, there were challengers, including those we once thought could stand up to the two powerhouses — Michigan, Illinois, Alabama, Iowa and Ohio State along with perhaps a few others — and those that nearly thwarted them (thank you, UCLA, for a remarkable run and being part of an absurdly outstanding national semifinal).
Gonzaga, unbeaten and ranked No. 1 all season, will square off with Baylor, which spent the bulk of the year ranked right behind the Bulldogs at No. 2. They’ll come together on Monday night to wrap up a four-week run in Indianapolis, a city which hosted the most unique NCAA Tournament ever and might well be witness to history.
Only seven teams have ever gone undefeated to win the national championship, and that last was Indiana in 1975-76. Gonzaga is on the verge of ending that drought while Baylor is in the title game for the first time since 1948.
What a fitting way for this COVID-clouded season to reach its climax — Gonzaga seeking perfection, Baylor ready to crash the party.
“God always has a plan and as is usually the case, his plan is better than ours,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “So I think the way it turned out is probably the best scenario you can possibly imagine for college basketball, in general, and even sports in America. I think it’s great for both programs just with all the attention and everything it’s generating.”
Baylor’s Scott Drew had nearly the same response, pointing out how rare it is to have the two best teams all season — they’re is rated first and second in offensive efficiency by KenPom.com — square off for the championship.
“You look at it, and both teams have really handled the expectations and pressure, and both teams are in this position,” Drew said. “We’re excited. Players always want to play against the best and Gonzaga has definitely been the best this year as far as they haven’t been beaten yet.”
The fact the Bulldogs (31-0) haven’t lost this season will be secondary when the ball tips on Monday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, but it’s hard to avoid the pressure they must be feeling. Neither Few nor junior guard Joel Ayayi were spending much time Sunday talking about the record, instead focusing on the matchup, but it’s hard to completely ignore.
Five teams have entered the NCAA Tournament unbeaten since Indiana won it all in 1976, including Gonzaga. Wichita State in 2014 didn’t reach the Final Four, but UNLV in 1991 and Kentucky in 2015 were eliminated at that point. Indiana State in 1979 lost to Magic Johnson and Michigan State in the national championship.
Gonzaga has the chance to take its place in history with one more win.
“As this thing started gaining steam it’s just been an honor to be even mentioned in the same breath with those guys,” Few said of the comparisons to the 1976 Hoosiers. “But never were we really thinking about doing this or whatever. We’ve just been trying to win the next game and, quite frankly, our goal all along is just to win this tournament. We just want to win this tournament, and now here we are one game away which is an amazing accomplishment for our group, and hopefully we can play great (Monday) night and get it done.”
They’ll have to be at their best to get it done, and that means an offensive performance like the one they had against UCLA. All five starters were in double figures, and that’s important considering the Bulldogs are not deep.
Drew Timme was dominant at times in the post, scoring 25 points, while the early shooting of Ayayi was crucial as he scored 22. Corey Kispert scored 15 and Andrew Nembhard had 11, but freshman Jalen Suggs stole the show. His defense was tenacious and he added 16 points, including the winning triple from near halfcourt at the buzzer in overtime.
“Gonzaga possesses the ability, unlike Baylor, to score,” Michigan State associate head coach Dane Fife said. “They’ve got a really good interior game with Timme, and they can pound it. They can score with Suggs in the post, they can score with Kispert in the post a little bit. They really, really utilize the inside game beyond Timme, which I think really helps them slow down when they get sped up.”
Baylor (27-2) has got its share of options, too, and will go much deeper than Gonzaga. Junior Jared Butler has been efficient throughout the tournament while junior Davion Mitchell has been, as well.
After rolling over Houston in the first semifinal on Saturday, the Bears will face a new challenge with a Gonzaga team ranked eighth in defensive efficiency.
Gonzaga is going to really turn it into a half-court game,” Fife said. “Gonzaga will press a little bit and turn it into a half-court game where (Baylor) has to really execute, which it’s totally capable of doing. But it’s a little different when you’ve got guys like Suggs, who just picked Tyger Campbell’s pocket.
“Between Suggs and Timme, those guys, they’re just really clever on the defensive end where they bait teams into turnovers because they have the ability to gamble because it’s so connected. They’ll gamble on the perimeter because they’re so connected defensively with guys like Kispert and Ayayi and Nembhard. They just really have a great group, so Baylor’s got to keeps shooting it because they’re getting great looks.”
Fife thinks Baylor has what it takes to get it done, primarily because of its depth. Of course, that hardly means it will be easy to beat a team that hasn’t lost all season.
“It’s two really, really good teams, man,” Fife said. “It’s going to be a fun game to watch.”
It’s a game that we were already supposed to see. But, really, it seems right that we’re going to see it now for the first time with the winner earning a national championship.
“We’ve always had Baylor in the rearview mirror or whatever, in the backseat kind of,” Few said. “If we’re gonna win this thing we’re probably at some point gonna have to play them because I always thought we were the two best teams.”
There’s little debate about that now. The only thing left is to find out who is No. 1.
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