It might be a rematch of the 2021 NCAA Tournament championship, but Friday’s game between Gonzaga and Baylor features a lot of new faces.
Of all the players set to compete in the neutral-site matchup in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, only a handful were in Indianapolis two seasons ago when the Bears defeated the Bulldogs 86-70 to capture college basketball’s top prize.
Gonzaga’s Drew Timme and Baylor’s Flo Thamba are the only returning players who started that night, while six other current players made appearances off the bench.
However, while many of that year’s championship participants have since left the programs, the ones who remain understand the history behind this week’s meeting at the Sanford Pentagon.
“Every time I see Baylor playing, I just kind of think to that national championship game,” said Gonzaga guard Julian Strawther, who played just one minute of that contest. “For sure excited to get out there and play against a great team on a neutral site. Those are the games that all great players want: two top teams, a bunch of great players. I’m super excited for it.”
As Strawther mentions, it will be a showdown between two premier teams. Gonzaga (5-2) is ranked 14th in the nation, while Baylor (5-2) is No. 6.
The Zags and Bears have a similar regular-season resume thus far, experiencing mixed results in their nonconference schedules.
Gonzaga is fresh off a 88-84 win over Xavier at the Phil Knight Legacy in Portland, but it didn’t leave the tournament unscathed as it lost by 18 points to Purdue in the game prior. The Zags’ other blemish to their record was a 19-point loss to Texas in Austin.
Baylor has also experienced some early-season adversity, which includes a 86-79 loss to Virginia and Tuesday’s 96-70 loss to Marquette.
But while the Bears and Zags have held up comparatively against top-tier talent, the similarities end when analyzing the teams’ styles of play.
Baylor runs a guard-led offense, with LJ Cryer being the top scorer at 17.9 points per game. Cryer serves as an undersized 2-guard alongside senior Adam Flagler, the team’s primary distributor with 6.9 assists per game.
Both Cryer and Flagler are capable of going off on the same night, which is what they did in an 80-75 win over UCLA, as they combined for 50 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.
Rounding out the backcourt is Keyonte George, a five-star freshman who’s still trying to find consistency, but can impact the game in a multitude of ways. George is averaging 14.4 points, 4.3 assists and 3.9 rebounds in 26.3 minutes per game.
In the frontcourt, Baylor head coach Scott Drew has been starting Thamba and Jalen Bridges, but the Bears have also given significant minutes to other big men, including former BYU forward Caleb Lohner.
With BYU in the West Coast Conference, Lohner faced the Zags twice last season. In the second of those two meetings, Lohner scored 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the field. He also added five rebounds and two steals.
Baylor’s big men will be tasked with stopping Timme, Gonzaga’s No. 1 scorer with 20 points per game on 62.1% shooting.
Unlike the Bears, the Zags are headlined by their All-American forward, who’s helped push Gonzaga past several opponents this season.
Timme scored 22 points in his team’s 64-63 win over Michigan State on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln on Nov. 11. He had 11 points in the final 10 minutes and sank the go-ahead free throw with just under two minutes to play.
The senior continued his dominance when he dropped 22 points in a 88-72 victory against defending National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe and Kentucky on Nov. 20.
Aside from Timme, it’s been a mix of players who’ve stepped up for Gonzaga. Most recently, it was Strawther, as he finished with a career-high 23 points in the Zags’ win versus Xavier on Sunday.
At 6-foot-7, Strawther could be a difference-maker against a Baylor backcourt that doesn’t have a starter taller than 6-foot-4.
It’ll all play out at the Sanford Pentagon at 5 p.m. PST. The game will be broadcast on Peacock.