By Alex Burr | @alexburr4
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS – The highly-anticipated matchup that didn’t happen is the one that will define college basketball history Monday night.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs and Baylor Bears, whose scheduled meeting here on December 5 was canceled because of positive COVID-19 tests within the Gonzaga program on, will decide the national championship, and more than that, exactly four months later.
Gonzaga (31-0) will attempt to become the first Division I team to complete an undefeated season since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. The Bulldogs are the first team to reach the title game with a perfect record since Indiana State, with Larry Bird, lost to Michigan State in 1979. The Zags, who advanced in a thrilling overtime 93-90 semifinal victory over UCLA, will face what could be their most challenging test yet.
Gonzaga and Baylor (27-2) were the two highest-seeded teams in the tournament field of 68, the first time the top two seeds have met in a championship game since North Carolina defeated Illinois in 2005.
Gonzaga has won all five of its previous matchups against the Bears, the most recent coming in the second round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament when the Zags defeated Baylor 83-71. Baylor, which last reached the final in 1948, is attempting to win the school’s first NCAA Championship. Gonzaga is also looking for its first NCAA championship in its first title appearance since being defeated by North Carolina in the 2017 championship game.
Gonzaga had been on an absolute tear coming into the tournament, having won every game but one in the regular year by double digits, and had won their previous tournament games by 16 points or more. UCLA came dangerously close to earning a second overtime and five more minutes to attempt upset the heavily favored Bulldogs. That was before Jalen Suggs ripped the Bruins hearts out by nailing a deep triple to send the Bulldogs to the championship game, 93-90.
Suggs, who finished with 16 points, five rebounds and five assists, was far from the only contributor for the Bulldogs. Drew Timme, the sophomore center, had 25 points to give him his fifth straight 20 point outing in the NCAA Tournament. Corey Kispert, who averaged 18.9 points a game coming into Saturday’s proceedings, had an off game by his standards and still made two key 3-point shots and had some monster makes off of cuts, including a monster dunk in the second half.
Baylor coach Scott Drew said that Gonzaga has one of the best offenses in recent memory, and that presents a certain set of challenges. “I think you have elite on elite, and players are going to make plays,” Drew said.
Drew also added that getting back on transition defense is going to be another major key to a potential Baylor victory.
“I think it starts with keeping Gonzaga out of transition,” Drew said. “We can’t give them the 25 points or whatever they’re scoring in transition. You have to make things tough as possible and we can’t give them easy ones.”
Baylor throttled Houston in the first game of the evening’s proceedings, having a 25-point halftime lead, the fourth-biggest in the history of the national semifinals. While Marcus Sasser had 17 points in the first half for Houston, the rest of the team combined for three points, and Baylor never lost steam from there, winning 78-59. The Bears also had Jared Butler chip in 17 first half, and Davion Mitchell finished the game with a double-double.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few said his team has not played any guards as good as the triumvirate of Butler, Mitchell, and MaCio Teague, and that presents a new challenge for the Bulldogs. “Not that we’ve played against, with the level of skill they possess,” Few said. “Obviously the way they shoot the ball, and they play off each other so well. They’re complete, they guard their yard, they’re very handsy on defense, they make the right read off ball screens and penetration.”
The early-season game was to be played on December 5 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse before the schools announced a cancellation less than 90 minutes before the scheduled start. A statement at the time attributed the cancellation to positive COVID-19 tests for one player and one non-player in the Gonzaga program. Few said the teams tried desperately to reschedule, but Baylor’s hiatus made that a tall task.
“We tried and tried, in the first or second week of January, because the Big 12 had so many cancellations, it looked like it was going to be hard to slide a make up game in,” Few said on Sunday.
Few’s connection to the last undefeated national champion was his former fly-fishing partner, Bob Knight, the coach of those championship Hoosiers. Few said he grew up rooting for that Indiana team, and he feels his team is similar to that Hoosier squad.
“I remember watching that team, and rooting for them, because they were a team,” Few said. “And that’s what I have, is that we’re a team.”
Few said that while it was an honor to be mentioned in the same breath as that fabled IU team, the team’s goal was always to win a championship, and not just go undefeated. “Never were we really thinking about (going undefeated), we’ve just been trying to win the next game,” Few said on Sunday. “Quite frankly, our goal all along is just to win the championship. Now that we are here we are one game away, which is an amazing accomplishment for our group. Hopefully we can play well tomorrow and get it done.”