INDIANAPOLIS — If Monday night Baylor looks like Saturday night Baylor, the national championship game could be classic.
Asking it to be an epic might be asking too much. There is almost no topping what Gonzaga and UCLA gave us Saturday night. That was one of the greatest games in the history of the tournament. We’re talking top-five-ever territory.
The Bulldogs got over the upset-minded Bruins in a 93-90 overtime victory via Jalen Suggs’ instant-all-timer 3-pointer — to beat the buzzer. That phenomenal ending now makes the title game now feel more like a toss-up more than we ever thought it was capable of being. The No. 1 overall seed Zags vs. the No. 2 overall seed Bears will mark the first time the top-seeded teams have met for the title since 2005.
Monday is now, merely, the best possible title bout we could ask for.
Let us focus on these Bears for a moment, as they razed, then kissed off, second-seeded Houston 78-59 in a Saturday night Final Four affair that was billed going in as the more competitive of the two semifinals at Lucas Oil Stadium. Uh — no. Not at all. Baylor led by 25 at halftime — the fourth-largest margin in national-semifinal history — and settled in third gear for the remainder of the night, gliding to the national championship game.
The NCAA Tournament’s 3,500th game was one that vaulted Baylor into the NCAA final for the first time since 1948.
Baylor knew it needed its star, Jared Butler, to make his way back. He did against the Cougars. After making shooting 25% from 3 in his four tournament games leading into Saturday, Butler went 4-of-5 from beyond the arc and led the Bears with 17 points.
“First half he was rolling,” Bears coach Scott Drew said. “People did a good job finding him. Second half he did a great job not forcing things. And other people got going. And that’s kind of what we’ve done all year long is feed the hot hand and share the ball.”
Davion Mitchell, fresh off the Defensive Player of the Year award he received a day prior, again reminded why he’s more than the best lockdown defender in college basketball. Mitchell, the most accurate 3-point shooter on the most accurate 3-point shooting team, was 3 for 6 from deep and had more assists personally (11) than Houston had as a team (10). Mitchell also had zero turnovers. According to ESPN Stats & Info, no player has had at least 10 assists and no turnovers in a Final Four contest since 1987.
“Baylor is clearly the best team that we’ve played,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “That’s the best team that I’ve seen in the seven years I’ve been at Houston.”
They emptied the benches in a Final Four game. All you need to know.
So here’s how it’s curled for the Bears over the past two weeks: They looked unbothered vs. Hartford, emboldened vs. Wisconsin, body-blowed — then declarative — vs. Villanova, and challenged-but-poised vs. Arkansas.
Saturday night was a new level. Great — not good; great — Baylor is back.
“That first half was about as well as any team could play against Houston,” Drew said. “So, I definitely think — if we’re not where we were, I can’t see the difference.”
The Bears had never defeated a team seeded as high as No. 2 before. Houston allowed more points per possession (1.34) to Baylor Saturday than it had against a team more than four years. Baylor shot 58% from 2-point range and 46% from 3-point range. While plenty (understandably) made a big deal out of Houston’s offensive-rebound prowess, Baylor grabbed 48% of its misses vs. 41% for Houston. Baylor’s been a master at the form for almost a decade under Drew, ranking in the top 10 (and often in the top three) of offensive rebounding percentage since 2013-14.
“It’s starting to feel like we’re back to where we were before the pause,” Butler said. “And it’s great that this is the right time. And we thought it was the worst thing possible when we stopped and it was a three-week break. But I think it worked out perfectly for us. And we can overcome a lot of things. And we’re built different, and we’ve just got to finish it.”
It looked better for 40 minutes vs. Houston than Gonzaga did against No. 11 UCLA, that’s clear. That rugged, undefeated Baylor Bears team we saw from November through the start of February — before a COVID pause put it in amber for three weeks — shed off the final flakes of its quarantine skin and re-emerged on the biggest stage in college basketball as a viable threat to steal Gonzaga’s glory.
So we are set for the championship game we’ve lusted for since Thanksgiving: Gonzaga vs. Baylor. The sport’s top two teams that were supposed to play each other in this very city, only four blocks away from Lucas Oil Stadium four months ago. COVID canceled that.
Now that we’re here, it’s even better they didn’t meet in the regular season. The one-and-only meeting will be for a title run two years in the making. This was worth the wait and sacrifice. Gonzaga and Baylor haven’t just been the two best teams this season, they’ve been the two best teams across the past two seasons. The teams are a combined 115-8.
“Since 2008 we’ve won 18 or more,” Drew said. “And us and Kansas are the only two Power Fives to do that. We’ve been consistently good. We just haven’t been able to get to a Final Four or national championship.”
When GU and BU meet Monday night, Baylor will be more than a worthy opponent. The Bears will be the best team Gonzaga’s faced in years. (UCLA included!) They are exactly what Gonzaga deserves: the No. 2 team in the sport, more foe than foil. Given their collective 3-point shooting accuracy (41.8%), Baylor’s four-headed guard attack of of Butler, Mitchell, MaCio Teague and Adam Flagler has to rank as one of the best backcourt attacks of the past 15 years in college basketball, and probably longer.
“(Gonzaga coach Mark) Few and I joked when the game got canceled and we went to the arena and we did a press conference saying that the game was canceled and whatnot,” Drew said. “And as we were riding back we were, like, you know what, if we end playing this game in the Final Four or the championship game, that sounds like a better idea. So that was obviously the goal for both of us.”
College basketball deserves this. We all do. College hoops was the only major American sport to have its 2020 championships (men’s and women’s) canceled. The NBA finished in an Orlando bubble. Major League Baseball had a condensed schedule. The NFL, blessed with fortunate timing, rolled on with minimal hiccups. The Masters and most other golf and tennis majors were delayed but ultimately played.
We haven’t had a national championship game in men’s and women’s basketball in two full years. Now that wait is over. On the men’s side, it could not be better than this. It’s an uncommon thing: top two teams meeting in the national championship game. The fickle bracket doesn’t afford such gifts all that frequently. Lucas Oil Stadium will be the stage of the first national championship game between the preseason No. 1 and No. 2 teams since 2000-01, when Duke beat Arizona. It’s the first national championship game between the teams seeded No. 1 and No. 2 overall since North Carolina vs. Illinois in 2005.
And after what Gonzaga had to navigate through vs. UCLA, there’s all the more reason to believe the undefeated run can, or will, end. Baylor is 6-0 against top-10-ranked teams this season. It’s played 16 teams that made the 2021 NCAA Tournament and gone 14-2.
Will the Zags rally and recover, or are the wounds too deep that Baylor can pounce? Baylor will walk in flexing.
Against Houston, even the small things look bigger. Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua hit double figures (11 points) for the first time in 2021. Teague’s six assists vs. the Coogs were more than he’d ever had in a Baylor uniform. Baylor’s 23 assists were the most on a Final Four stage since UNLV in 1990.
April 5 will mark four months to the day from the cancellation of Gonzaga-Baylor. The day it happened, Few said, “I absolutely think we will” find a way to see these two teams face each other later in the season.
“We’ll find a way to play it at some point,” he added.
Hopeful. And prophetic. Come Monday, momentous.
It’s all come together in a magical way that only the NCAA Tournament can provide.
Baylor’s back and better than ever. Gonzaga’s still grasping to an undefeated record and is one more win from sports immortality. Consider the wait. Consider the stakes. Consider the programs and what it’s taken to reach this point. Consider Saturday night. Consider Jalen Suggs and that shot.
We’ve made it to a perfect end of an imperfect season.
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