Eventually, inevitably, fantasy and reality collide. And sometimes the real story is staring you right in the face.
A tournament unlike any we’ve seen ended with a champion that looked and played the traditional part. It’s Baylor, and while that may not be the story many expected – or wanted – the verdict was so resounding, it’ll leave an indelible mark, and not only for the Bears.
Gonzaga will bear the heavy yoke for at least another year, a victim of an age-old truth: Gritty beats gaudy. Baylor rolled 86-70 Monday night and slammed shut the Zags’ march for college basketball’s first undefeated championship in 45 years. As the sport emerged from the throes of the pandemic, Gonzaga again was the team worth rooting for, the small school tucked away in the Pacific Northwest. But shadowing them every step was Baylor, actually a more remarkable story, coached for 18 seasons by Scott Drew, who resurrected a scandal-ridden program that was virtually dead.
Don’t weep for the Zags, who have a great coach in Mark Few and a terrific team. But don’t make excuses either. If the No. 1-seeded Zags ever were going to bust through for their first title, this was supposed to be the prime chance, and they seemed to have the ingredients. The problem is, they play in such a weak conference, they don’t get a chance to uncover their own flaws until it’s too late.
No, it’s not their fault the West Coast Conference is wholly unchallenging. But it does prevent them from achieving blueblood status. They won every game by double digits, except for a five-point victory over West Virginia. Pundits and fans gushed about their dynamic offense and trio of potential NBA players – Jalen Suggs, Drew Timmie, Corey Kispert – and they were scintillating at times. But statistics piled up against Pepperdine, San Diego and Portland are at least partly fraudulent.
Baylor rolled through the Big 12 with an incredible guard trio – Jared Butler, MaCio Teague, Davion Mitchell – that could shoot and drive and defend. The Bears outmuscled the Zags and stomped to a 29-10 lead before 10 minutes had elapsed. Baylor’s defense was smothering and its rebounding was incredible, led by eight offensive boards from 6-5 Mark Vital.
Gonzaga (31-1) and Baylor (28-2) were basically 1-2 all year long, and probably would’ve been up there last year if the Tournament wasn’t cancelled. So this was a long time coming, yet from the opening tip, the Zags looked tentative, even intimidated. They were physically mauled, which can happen, but they were supposed to have the poise and firepower to handle it. Not when you can’t hang onto the ball. Gonzaga committed 14 turnovers, was outrebounded 38-22 and got no closer than nine in the second half.
“It’s a really, really tough one to end a storybook season on,” said Few, who has reached the Tournament 21 times, with two Final Fours. “Obviously we’re all disappointed, but as I told the guys, you make it this far and you’re 31-0 going into the last one, there’s absolutely nothing you should ever feel bad (about). … We just ran into a team tonight that was the aggressor, clearly.”
It was remarkable that the NCAA pulled this extravaganza off, and we won’t ever forget that. Nor should anyone overlook the sacrifices of the players, sequestered for weeks. But as long as the season was played, conclusions can be made, and the biggest one is a repetitive one – Gonzaga cannot yet be trusted at the highest level. In fact, it’ll be hard to trust the next heavy favorite, and you know what? It might be Gonzaga again next season, depending on who leaves.
Why can’t we just accept Baylor was the superior team and not make it a referendum on Gonzaga? Well, we can. But the Zags stir so much attention, it’s impossible to ignore when it goes wrong. People laughed when dopes like me suggested they weren’t battle-toughened. The point wasn’t to denigrate them, but to question the authenticity of the hype. They beat Kansas, Iowa, West Virginia, Virginia and Auburn in the non-conference, but you know what you call that slate in a power league? A standard two-week stretch.
Winning four or five semi-big games in the non-conference is nice, but it loses luster when the Zags spend the next three months pounding Pepperdine. Listen, Gonzaga has a wonderful program, and college basketball needs unique stories and teams like this. I never said the Zags were vastly overrated. I simply said there’s no way they can be a legitimate undefeated champion without getting tested in such a soft conference.
Yes, you can only beat who’s in front of you, and a December game against Baylor was cancelled due to COVID. But when its toughest two opponents showed up, Gonzaga buckled. They put on a helluva show in their 93-90 overtime victory over UCLA on Saturday, and then took the floor Monday night as if exhausted.
Granted, it’s hard to play two tough games back to back. It’s especially difficult when you haven’t had to do it all year. The Big Ten rightly got beaten up for getting beaten up, eight of its nine participants gone in the first weekend. And I don’t want to hear that excuse either, that power conference teams play such brutal schedules, they’re worn out.
But there is one fair point. Because they pile up “big wins” battling each other, their credentials get skewed. In retrospect, did the Big Ten warrant four of the top eight seeds in the field? Probably not. It was compounded by the stop-and-start season, where the absence of extensive nonconference competition made it difficult to know exactly who was better than whom.
It’s not a coincidence that a record four double-digit seeds reached the Sweet 16. Nobody knew what to make of anybody. UCLA an 11 seed? Oh please. Loyola Chicago an eight seed? That was an ambush for Illinois. Tom Izzo and the Spartans famously go on long runs because they’ve encountered every conceivable style of play. Juwan Howard and the Wolverines are headed that way too.
Lots of people want Gonzaga to be the blueprint, with their elegant offensive style. But the truth is, teams like Baylor are the blueprint, with dogged defense and deadly 3-point shooting. Gonzaga’s lack of inside physicality was exposed, and the Bears were merciless.
“We’re really good defensively,” Drew said. “I thought we made things tough tonight. Gonzaga missed some shots that they probably normally make. But credit our guys for making everything difficult.”
Now we don’t have to waste time debating how Gonzaga stacks up with Indiana’s 32-0 team in 1976, or some of the great North Carolina and Kentucky teams. It takes a lot more to get the blueblood stamp, and maybe the Zags get there eventually. At least, once again, they should have a better idea what it takes.
Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com