INDIANAPOLIS — A perfect season is on the line in Monday night’s men’s NCAA Tournament championship game.
Not since 1976, when Bob Knight’s Indiana team went 32-0, has a Division I men’s college basketball team finished unbeaten. Following its buzzer-beating Final Four win over UCLA, 31-0 Gonzaga has a chance to make history.
Standing in the way is a worthy opponent and national title favorite in its own right – Baylor. The No. 1 seeded Bears (27-2) thrashed Houston in Saturday’s early Final Four game and have what it takes to spoil the Zags’ perfect season.
“The level of skill they possess, the way they shoot the ball, they play off each other so well. They’re complete,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few told reporters Sunday.
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A look at why an upset is in store:
1. Baylor is peaking at the right time
Baylor fell out of rhythm in February, with three games canceled and three postponed because of COVID-19. Had that not happened, we could have two undefeated teams. Baylor’s two losses are deceiving in that light.
It’s fair to say Baylor played OK in its first three NCAA Tournament games, but we finally saw what a full-throttle Bears team looked like Saturday vs. Houston. When coach Scott Drew’s team is firing from beyond the arc, it’s hard to counter. The Bears lead the nation in three-point shooting, and it’s not just All-American Jared Butler doing the damage. Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague are deadly from deep, while Adam Flagler and Matthew Mayer also contribute. More than that, this is a stifling defensive team. Houston’s nation-leading defense was hyped before Saturday, but we saw Baylor look more dominant on the defensive end, forcing turnovers and slowing the Cougars’ halfcourt offense.
“They’re very handsy on defense, and they make the right reads and switches,” Few said.
2. Gonzaga recovering from UCLA game
While one school of thought is that Gonzaga finally got tested in its down-to-the-wire win over UCLA, another is that Baylor has been battle-tested more by playing in the Big 12 Conference. The Bears won 13 games against opponents ranked in the top-30 of NET since January. Gonzaga played five. The Bulldogs’ scoring margin is 22.5, while the Bears’ margin is 17.5. The type of game the Zags got against UCLA is what Baylor experienced against Kansas, West Virginia, Texas and Oklahoma State.
“That team scared me,” Turner Sports commentator Charles Barkley said after Baylor’s 78-59 Final Four win over Houston. “I wouldn’t be totally shocked if Baylor won.”
The Bulldogs certainly gained confidence after making gutsy plays – Drew Timme taking a charge at the end of regulation, as an example – because Gonzaga hadn’t really needed to counter-punch until the Final Four. But the UCLA game also provided a blueprint for Drew on how to beat Gonzaga. While UCLA played inspired basketball, there are clues (forcing players like Joel Ayayi and Andrew Nembhard to beat you) that can be utilized.
3. The pressure factor for Gonzaga
Few doesn’t want his players focused on finishing 32-0. The Bulldogs are one game away with one opponent in the way. Any expectation of Gonzaga as the favorite against another title-worthy team will not do the Zags any favors. Kentucky was the clear-cut favorite in 2015. So was UNLV in 1991. It’s one game, not a seven-game series, and that favors Baylor. Gonzaga can expect punches similar to what it got against UCLA – only harder.
4. Baylor’s backcourt > Gonzaga’s frontcourt
Baylor has the best backcourt in the nation, headed by first-team All-American Butler, national defensive player of the year Mitchell and All-Big 12 guard Teague. Drew compared his backcourt to another epic group – Illinois’ Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head on the Illini’s national runner-up team in 2005. “They can go down in history as one of the best (backcourt) trios in the history of college basketball,” Drew said. The three guards average a combined 46.6 points per game and can penetrate as well as they shoot the three.
Mitchell is key because of his defense; he’ll be tasked with trying to slow Gonzaga point guard Jalen Suggs. “Hopefully, neither one of them have foul trouble because that’s the matchup everyone wants to watch and they’re both so talented,” Drew said. “It’s a blessing for us every night knowing we have the best defender in the country (Mitchell) out there.”
5. Baylor’s depth > Gonzaga’s depth
ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said, “Baylor doesn’t just have three great guards, they have four or five.” Vitale is referencing Mayer and Flagler, both of whom played well against Houston and illustrate the Bears’ potency from their backcourt.
The difference against Gonzaga, especially if it’s close, could be depth. In the overtime thriller vs. UCLA, Few only used two players (Anton Watson and Aaron Cook) off his bench for a total of 19 minutes.
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.