INDIANAPOLIS — On Dec. 5, a college basketball season that wobbled off to an uncertain start hit its most deflating moment: the Gonzaga-Baylor showdown game scheduled for that day in this city was called off less than two hours before tipoff, due to a positive COVID-19 test.
Coaches Mark Few and Scott Drew were driven to Bankers Life Fieldhouse for a quick press conference to discuss the non-game. On the ride back, Drew said the conversation got around to the two coaches agreeing that, “If we end up playing this in the Final Four, that sounds like a better idea.” Over the course of the next five weeks the two coaches tried repeatedly to reschedule the game, looking at venues from Las Vegas to Denver to Kansas City to Sioux, Dallas, Phoenix.
“It didn’t happen,” Few says. “But it wasn’t for lack of effort on everyone’s part.”
What COVID canceled, the NCAA tournament bracket and two stouthearted teams brought back to life. We have at last arrived at a dream matchup that has been delayed, repurposed and upgraded. Baylor vs. Gonzaga for the national championship, Monday night.
Not much has gone according to plan in the world in the last year—except this pairing for the title. The selection committee’s chalk has held up in a tournament otherwise littered with stunning upsets.
These two freight trains have been on a collision course all season, destined to play for it all. They were 1-2 in the preseason rankings, with undefeated Gonzaga subsequently holding the top spot every week and two-loss Baylor never dropping lower than No. 3. Their relentless, consistent excellence has defined the 2020-21 season.
Baylor punched its ticket to the title game first Saturday night, obliterating Houston 78–59 in a Final Four mismatch that reminded everyone of the No. 2 seed Cougars’ soft route to this point through four double-digit seeds. They were not prepared for the drastic upgrade in class that the No. 1 seed Bears presented.
Baylor needed 4 minutes and 11 seconds to put Houston down, keep Houston down and eventually shoot Houston out of Lucas Oil Stadium. Baylor shredded Kelvin Sampson’s vaunted defense, putting 45 points on the board in the first half and leading by 25 at intermission.
The Bears hadn’t looked this good since coming back from a three-week COVID pause in February. The time off took away some of their mojo, but they strongly resembled Old Baylor Saturday night. “It's starting to feel like we're back to where we were before the pause,” said All-American guard Jared Butler, who played his best game of the Big Dance against Houston. “And it's great that this is the right time.”
Saturday it was Gonzaga’s turn to finally struggle on its way to an all-time classic victory, beating UCLA 93–90 in overtime. Expected to waltz past a No. 11 seed, the game turned into an epic war of wills that wasn’t decided until Jalen Suggs etched his name into tourney lore with a 40-foot launch that banked in for the win at the buzzer of overtime. It was as wild an ending as we’ve ever seen in a sporting event famous for its wild endings.
The challenge Sunday for the Zags was to get centered after the most dramatic game of their lives. “We go from the euphoric high of that to waking up to the daunting task of playing an excellent, excellent Baylor team,” Few said, acknowledging that nobody within his program went to sleep quickly after that thriller.
Suggs’s bomb saved the Zags from having to play 50 minutes (or more), but they still put in 45 to Baylor’s 40 while having to sweat out every second of it. There is no doubt who will be the fresher team Monday night, and there have been instances where teams hit a Monday night wall after a semifinal battle Saturday. (See: Wisconsin, which couldn’t hold a second-half lead against Duke in the 2015 national championship game after taking out undefeated Kentucky in a semifinal battle.)
But this isn’t outside Gonzaga’s comfort zone—it does play two-day turnaround games routinely in the West Coast Conference. And neither team is flying into this matchup blind: they both had full scouting reports on each other before the December game was called off. It stands to reason that both teams were eyeing each other throughout the year, suspecting that this day would eventually come.
Few was asked Sunday about having his team do some advance work on Baylor sets at varying points in the run-up to this game, and he didn’t deny it. “We’ve always had Baylor in the rear-view mirror, the back seat,” he said. “We said, ‘Look, if we’re going to win this thing we’ll probably have to play Baylor at some point.’ ”
We have finally arrived at that point. The No. 1 offensive team in the nation (Gonzaga) against the No. 2 offensive team (Baylor). The No. 1 team in two-point shooting percentage (Gonzaga at 63.9%) against the No. 1 team in three-point shooting percentage (Baylor at 41.2%). Talented guards for days. Accomplished coaches who built unlikely powerhouses and are now looking to add the final line on the career resume.
For all the disappointment of December and the futile attempts to reschedule, Gonzaga-Baylor is finally happening exactly where and when it should be happening. On the last night of the season, on the game’s biggest stage.
“I think the way it turned out is the best it could possibly be for college basketball,” Few said. “And, really, all of sports in America.”
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