When a meeting between Gonzaga and Baylor scheduled for Dec. 5 was canceled less than two hours before tipoff due to COVID-19 issues, it was a big blow to college basketball. The nonconference game was going to be to be a showdown between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country that would generate a buzz for the sport after the cancelation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament left fans yearning for championship-caliber competition.
Despite some initial indication that the schools may work to reschedule the meeting, an arrangement was never reached. However, four months to the day after that cancelation, the Bulldogs and Bears are still No. 1 and No. 2 in the country and are getting to play after all.
This time, a national championship will be on the line. Neither program has ever won a national title, and this is just the second time for each program to appear in the title game. This is Baylor’s first national title game appearance since 1948, when the NCAA Tournament featured just eight teams. Baylor lost 58-42 to Kentucky that year. This year’s rendition of the Bears have a bit more offensive juice and have brought once dormant program back to the heights it enjoyed more than 70 years ago.
After nearly two years without a fresh champion in college basketball, this long-awaited showdown between Gonzaga and Baylor has all the makings of an all-time classic game for the sport. Here are some storylines to watch as we prepare for the action.
History on the line
Gonzaga is seeking to become the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976. If the Bulldogs can do it, there will surely be endless debates over where they fit among college basketball’s all-time great squads. Yes, the Zags play in the relatively easy West Coast Conference. But they rolled through one of the nation’s toughest nonconference schedules and have won all but two of their games by double-digits.
If Gonzaga wins, its margin of victory against Baylor could be a critical factor in determining its ultimate legacy. The Bears have widely been regarded as the second-best team in the sport for much of the season, and a dominant victory against a quality foe in the national title game would go a long way toward cementing the legacy of this Gonzaga squad.
Nothing will be easy about playing this Baylor team, though. The Bears have found their stride during the NCAA Tournament after a brief regression following a 21-day break between games in February because of COVID-19 issues. The Bears’ systematic destruction of No. 2 seed Houston on Saturday was nothing short of incredible.
Baylor led that game 45-20 at halftime and looked unbeatable. Both of these teams look unbeatable when they are at or near their best, and Baylor has appeared to be at its best during long stretches during this NCAA Tournament.
Hunt for history
Gonzaga lost to North Carolina in the 2017 national title game, and Baylor lost to Kentucky in the 1948 national title game. Those two contests account for all of the national title game appearances of the two programs. Both have been on the rise under long-time coaches, but neither has reached the pinnacle yet.
If 22nd-year Gonzaga coach Mark Few or 18th-year Baylor coach Scott Drew can be the coach to finally push their squad over the hump, they will be steeped in eternal lore on campus.
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Date: Monday, April 5 | Round: NCAA Tournament championship game
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Why Gonzaga can cover
Gonzaga is 4-1-1 against the spread in its last six games following an ATS loss, and the Bulldogs showed Saturday that they can stand up against a major challenge. They came through with any clutch shot that was required in a 93-90 overtime win against UCLA, right down to Jalen Suggs’ winning 3-pointer from long range to win it. Suggs does everything for the Zags, averaging 14.1 points and a team-high 4.6 assists and adding 5.5 rebounds and 1.9 steals. The team shoots 55.1 percent and scores 92.1 points per game, both tops in the nation.
Timme is the top scorer (19.2) and rebounder (7.1), and his leadership is critical to the Bulldogs, who are 5-1 ATS against ranked teams this season. The forward scored 25 in Saturday’s victory, making 11 of 15 shots (73.3 percent) as one of four starters to shoot better than 50 percent. The Zags shoot 36.5 percent from 3-point range, with Corey Kispert (18.8 points per game) ranking fifth in the nation at 44.5 and Joel Ayayi (12.2 points) hitting 39.5 percent. They pull down 37.9 rebounds per game, averaging eight more than their opponent.
Why Baylor can cover
Baylor is 19-10 overall against the spread this season and has been one of the nation’s most well-rounded teams all season. The Bears shoot almost 42 percent from beyond the arc, and the defense is relentless, getting nine steals and forcing 17 turnovers per game. The guard trio of Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague is the heart of the team. Mitchell swept the nation’s Defensive Player of the Year honors. and he scores 14 per game and averages 5.3 assists and two steals. He scored 12 and had 11 assists in Saturday night’s victory.
All three guards shoot better than 47 percent from the field, with Mitchell leading the Big 12 at 51.7, and Butler hits 41.7 percent from 3-point range. Butler had team-highs with 17 points and five rebounds Saturday, hitting four of six 3-pointers, and Teague added 11 and six assists. The Cougars came in as the No. 6 rebounding team, and the Bears outdueled them 33-28. They are particularly strong on the offensive end, with guard Mark Vital and forward Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua combining for 11.7 boards, 43 percent of them on the offensive end.
How to make Baylor vs. Gonzaga picks