Last 4 2021 – Is Gonzaga versus Baylor a traditionally good nationwide championship sport?
If something felt wrong as you put the Gonzaga Bulldogs and Baylor Bears into your Madness Bracket National Championship in March 2021 on Selection Sunday, it’s because the NCAA tournament has traditionally brought us so many surprises. (The Saturday night near-miss for UCLA was another memory.) It couldn’t be because anyone doubted the skills of the Zags or Bears, the nation’s top two teams in November (and maybe even November 2019), who will finally meet Monday night at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis for the national championship. Perhaps the canceled December 5th meeting between the two teams was a godsend – we’ll see Mark Few’s team and Scott Drew’s squad meet for all marbles.
Before Monday night’s game, ESPN.com’s college basketball team, comprised of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi, got together to discuss the historical ramifications of Gonzaga versus Baylor. the way forward for the Houston and UCLA teams who beat them in the Final Four on Saturday night; and the player matchups we look forward to most on the Monday of the Indy Championship. Follow this link for Monday National Championship Tip Time and visit here to check out your March Madness bracket or second chance March Madness bracket.
It’s Gonzaga v Baylor for the national championship, the rare case where the undisputed top two teams in the country advance to the finals of college basketball. What are the historical implications of 1v2 – are you ready to evaluate where this matchup stands in history, or at least recent history?
Medcalf: That feels a little unique because we’re looking at a matchup that could have been played last year if the NCAA tournament hadn’t been canceled. As of November 8, 2019, Baylor has only lost five games. Gonzaga lost two during this stretch. On paper, I think it rivals the 2017 matchup between North Carolina and Gonzaga depending on where they stand in the current hierarchy of the game.
After Kansas beat Ohio State in the 2012 Final Four, we all agreed that the Jayhawks deserved their shot in Kentucky. But we didn’t have a lot of two-year preparations for a championship game in that era. Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi were strong players at Gonzaga a year ago, and Drew Timme ended the 2019-20 season with a series of impressive games. Jared Butler and MaCio Teague returned to claim a title for Baylor this season. A tournament led by two teams anchored by the key players from last season’s top teams only adds to the buildup for Monday’s game. It’s a rare thing in the one-and-do era. These aren’t just the two best teams this season. They are the two most dominant programs in the past two years.
Borzello: I think the matchup I’ll come back to would be the 2005 national championship game between Illinois and North Carolina. Illinois started the season with 29 straight wins and then won the Big Ten tournament before the national championship, while North Carolina lost four before the tournament, but Illinois was exactly where Illinois was above that in the metric Rest of the country lay. The difference between these two teams and Gonzaga and Baylor is that we knew they both would be elite before the season, that they lived up to expectations during the regular season and then fought their way to the title game. I think this matchup is a bit higher than the 2005 game.
For me, Gonzaga is a generation-appropriate team. and if we end the fighting after the COVID-19 hiatus, Baylor won’t be that far behind. Baylor has been 53-6 for the last two seasons, Gonzaga 62-2 – and I think there’s a chance two undefeated teams would have met in the title game if it wasn’t for the break. This should be the best matchup on paper in recent history.
Baylors Davion Mitchell picks a 3-pointer to end the first half in which he and his teammates set fire.
Gasaway: We don’t often get a clear distinction between the two best and every other team in the country. and of course the AP poll for the 2021 tournament assumed the “top 2” meant Gonzaga and Illinois. But the tournament itself defines who the best teams really are, and the Bulldogs and Baylor are clearly the Division I class. As for precedents from this century or just off, North Carolina invades Gonzaga in 2017, as does Duke vs. Wisconsin in 2015; Kansas v Memphis in 2008; Florida versus Ohio State in 2007; North Carolina versus Illinois in 2005; and UConn versus Duke in 1999. Those title games were all two No. 1 seeds, and with only one or two minor exceptions, they were all near the end of the final minutes. Buckle up, that should be great.
Lunardi: All due respect, but the NCAA tournament rarely determines the best team in any given season. It gives us a worthy champion, but the idea of ”the best” is harder to pin down. Until now. Gonzaga and Baylor have been on a collision course since the non-game in December and will now determine both a worthy champion and the best team. The only better thing would be the best of seven.
The road ended for Houston and UCLA teams who made impressive runs through this tournament. Who do you think has a better chance of returning to the Final Four earlier, the Cougars or Bruins?
Borzello: UCLA – and I think the Bruins will be selected as Final Four contenders when we think about the early 2021-22 rankings. Mick Cronin could bring back every single player on this year’s team provided Chris Smith decides to come back after tearing up his ACL mid-season and Johnny Juzang failing to enter the NBA draft. The Bruins are also bringing five-star prospect Peyton Watson, who should make an impact immediately and buy insurance in the event either of the above two players decides to leave the company – or someone else unexpectedly leaves.
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Houston could take a step back with the expected departures of DeJon Jarreau and some front court players, while Quentin Grimes could also join the NBA. With Kelvin Sampson at the helm and the way the Cougars defend, they should be ranked in the preseason top 25, but another Final Four seems like a stretch.
Gasaway: Famous last words here, but the Bruins seem to hit the sweet spot “will be highly rated next season”. Mick Cronin has a Final Four team with zero seniors and zero players currently listed in the top 100 of ESPN’s NBA draft rankings. A Houston senior, Jarreau was both the Cougars’ leading on-ball defender and their top distributor by far. Jarreau will be difficult to replace.
Lunardi: It’s easy to see UCLA as the top 10 preseason team next season, with Houston being closer to “others who get votes”. Of course, UCLA has already proven that rankings and seeding mean next to nothing when it comes to moving forward in March (or even April). I have no idea who will get to the Final Four next, but it’s fair to say that the UCLA program overall is in a better position than Houston to book a counter-engagement.
Medcalf: I think UCLA especially if Juzang returns and Smith rebounds from his knee injury at the end of the season. The Bruins can use and build on the momentum of this run. I think it also improves the recruiting landscape for Mick Cronin’s program. “You can win a national title at UCLA” hasn’t been a real thing in basketball for over a decade. Now it’s real. This is an incredible second season feat for any coach.
But the UCLA brand is powerful in good times, and supporters of this program have been waiting for another opportunity to sponsor a national title contender. But I also think Kelvin Sampson can turn Houston into a hub for a number of transfers on the portal. Jarreau and Grimes were just taking Houston to its first national semifinals in 37 years. I think both teams will be competitive in the years to come.
We’ll save the point predictions for Monday, but which head-to-head matchup are you looking forward to most in the national championship?
Borzello: Jalen Suggs versus Davion Mitchell. One of the top 5 NBA draft prospects, Suggs has established himself as a really special player, while Mitchell has grown his inventory as much as anyone else in the NCAA tournament. Mitchell tends to protect the opposing team’s top scorer and Suggs is the one. Mitchell has made life difficult for all sorts of perimeter players over the course of the season, most recently Moses Moody and Quentin Grimes. However, Suggs has speed and explosiveness at its best and will present Mitchell with a completely different problem. On the other end, Suggs’ physicality can sometimes overwhelm opponents, and he’ll likely enjoy a chance to slow Mitchell down, provided Suggs isn’t guarding Jared Butler.
Gasaway: Give me Mitchell vs Suggs over and over again. I just wish this was a seven game series. Both players are forecasted as lottery picks for 2021 by ESPN.com, adding a whole new dimension to their already great teams. The funny thing about my perfect little hypothetical matchup, however, is that wishes sometimes don’t come true. Mitchell is unlikely to be solely protective of Suggs, and I’m excited to see how Scott Drew uses his defensive skills. For example, I wouldn’t be too surprised if Mitchell spent some time assigning Andrew Nembhard. The Florida transfer leads Gonzaga within minutes during the tournament and very often has the ball in half the court. Nembhard has been hailed by Mark Few as one of the best pick and roll players he has ever had.
After UCLA’s Cody Riley is blocked on the edge, Drew Timme throws away the two-handed jam on the other end.
Lunardi: Definitely Mitchell on Suggs. Can’t you just watch the veteran chase the freshman in the last possession of a tie? It’s not quite Bird and Magic, but we’ll see both of them on an NBA stage for a long, long time.
Medcalf: My colleagues are right. But I think Mark Vital and Baylor’s post defender against Drew Timme could decide the game. All season long we’ve heard the same question about Baylor: are the bears big and skillful to beat a team like Gonzaga? Vital is an important player for Scott Drew. He’s 6-foot-5 with a lot of Chuck Hayes in his game. Vital is so strong that bigger players never push him around. When Timme dominates and Drew has to find a way to send more help, it creates more space for the rest of Gonzaga’s playmakers. It could also mean Drew has to add Matthew Mayer to the game earlier. Flo Thamba and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua will also be crucial in this game. But if Vital & Co. can hold their own against the top post player in America, it will change the game. Timme will see some defenders on Monday. It may not be the sexiest matchup in the game, but it is arguably the most important.