This year’s field of Final Four teams was one of the strongest that we have seen in recent memory. The anticipation that came with this year’s games was certainly warranted, and the night came with a 50-50 split. The first game was never really in doubt, but the second delivered one of the best games in tournament history. Before we break down the Gonzaga-Baylor title game, let’s discuss how they got there:
The Bears defeated a very good Houston team Saturday evening, controlling every aspect of the game from start to finish. The Cougars entered that game ranking in the top 10 in all three efficiency categories, while also limiting opponents to low shooting percentages. That defense met its match in Baylor, as the Bears shot over 50 percent from the field and close to 46 from beyond the arc. At times it looked too easy for them, landing five players in double-figures.
Gonzaga, on the other hand, faced their strongest test of the season against a red-hot UCLA team. Let’s establish this before we go further, UCLA was much better than an 11-seed. The only reason they landed on the bubble was a small losing streak at the end of the regular season. Mick Cronin’s squad was able to create a wave of momentum off of an emotional overtime victory in the First Four against Michigan State that they rode all the way to Lucas Oil Stadium. All of the talk coming into this game still centered on Gonzaga, who didn’t play a close game since the beginning of December.
The game itself was one of the best we will ever see in the NCAA Tournament, with a plethora of players that we will be seeing for a long time at the pro level. For a large portion of the second half, the margin seemed to be no higher than five points, with both teams trading blows. There were so many big moments, from Drew Timme’s drawn charge at the end of regulation to Johnny Juzang’s bucket with three seconds left in overtime. It was Jalen Suggs, however, who banked home a deep shot to send home UCLA and keep the undefeated dream alive.
2021 National Championship Game – 1 Gonzaga vs. 1 Baylor (9:20 PM, CBS)
This matchup was supposed to happen early on in the season, but was axed due to COVID-19 concerns. The entire nation was deflated that it missed out on a chance to see these two teams battle, but in the end they will duel for the game’s best prize. These two squads were among the best in the nation last season as well, so it feels like this clash is two years in the making.
Yes, Gonzaga is undefeated and looking to write their name in history, but let’s not forget that Baylor has lost just six games in the past two years. They have been dominant, and outside of Freddie Gillespie they have the same core from last year’s team. That continuity helped them run through a tough Big 12 despite having a lengthy COVID-19 pause in the heart of the campaign.
As a result of that pause, many either wrote them off or cast them aside in favor of the hotter teams at the time. It did take some time for them to get their legs back, but they have looked sharp since the second half of their opener against 16-seed Hartford. Their calling card this run has been their offense, shooting incredible percentages from field and three in a number of their games. They outpaced one of the top offenses in the country in Arkansas, and as mentioned earlier ran over a stout Houston defense. If there is any team that can keep up with Gonzaga, it is this Baylor team.
The argument against Gonzaga has always been the competition they face during the regular season as opposed to the tournament. Their nonconference slate was one of the tougher ones among the top teams in the country. They have wins over Kansas, West Virginia, Iowa, and Virginia, with all four being ranked at the time they faced them. The West Coast Conference is better than people think. What doesn’t do the conference any favors is that their games tip off at 10 or 11 PM on the East Coast. The most remarkable part about their WCC run is that no win was by single digits. That speaks more to how dominant they are as opposed to the other teams in the league.
There is sometimes a need for caution when it comes to highly-anticipated matchups like this, just in case it is a blowout. That should not be the case with these two teams, as they are evenly matched and have the offensive firepower to light up the scoreboard all night. This could very well be as entertaining as the Gonzaga-UCLA National Semifinal.
For Baylor to end Gonzaga’s undefeated run, they will need to get timely stops on the defensive end. It is unrealistic to expect any team to hold down the Bulldogs’ offense, but if the Bears can force a turnover that leads to points, or string together a few empty possessions to build a lead, they could edge out a win over a historically good team. The formula for Gonzaga has been to overwhelm teams with offense and pace, and that could very well happen in this game. Again, a team that is this good is very rare, so it takes the perfect storm for any program to knock them off. One quick run from them could be the difference maker.
The amount of pro-caliber players combined with the spectacular coaches makes this a must-watch game. It is easily the most-anticipated National Championship game in over a decade.
The pick: Gonzaga
(Cover Photo: Michael Conroy/AP)