|-4.5 GONZ (-102) @ pinnacle|
My 10* LEGEND Play is on Gonzaga at 9:20 ET.
Gonzaga opened the season as the AP's No. 1 team, while Baylor opened as the nation's second-ranked team. Gonzaga stayed atop the polls all season and entered the NCAA Tournament at 26-0 and as its No. 1 overall seed. Baylor opened 17-0 but COVID-19 nearly derailed Baylor's dream season, with the Bears being forced to pause for three weeks in February. Baylor's unbeaten season was quickly tarnished with a 13-point loss at Kansas in their second game back and for one week (Mar 1), fell out of the No. 2 spot. The Bears lost again in the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament but entered the "Big Dance" No. 2 in the AP poll and as one of four, No. 1 seeds .
You all know what happened Saturday, as Baylor routed Houston (a No. 2 seed) 78-59 while 11th-seeded UCLA took Gonzaga to OT before losing 93-90 on Jalen Suggs' three-pointer from 30-plus feet. Baylor is 27-2 and Gonzaga 31-0 as the tourneys top-two seeds meet in the national championship for the first time since 2005, when North Carolina beat unbeaten Illinois 75-50. Deja vu? One could also bring up the fact that Gonzaga has won 29 of its 31 games this year by double digits but BOTH single-digit wins have come here in Indianapolis, Dec 2 over West Va (87-82) and of course Saturday vs UCLA.
Both head coaches come in with great resumes but each are missing that elusive national title. Scott Drew took over a devastated Baylor program in the 2003-04 season and since 2007-08, has turned the Bears into one of the best programs in the country. Baylor won the NIT in 2013 and had made eight NCAA tourney appearances (26-4 last season would have made nine) entering this season. Baylor won its first-ever Big 12 regular-season title this season, the first league championship since the Bears won the SWC regular season in 1950. This is Drew's ninth NCAA appearance with the Bears and Baylor reached the Sweet 16 for the FIFTH time in the last 12 years. This year's Elite 8 appearance was his third with Baylor and now it's his first Final Four appearance (third in school history). With its win over Houston, Baylor's in its second national championship game lost to Kentucky in 1948).
Gonzaga has played in 22 straight NCAA tournaments. The Bulldogs burst into relevance with an Elite Eight run in 199 under their former head coach, Dan Monson, He left for Minnesota after that breakthrough with Mark Few taking over and making 21 straight Big Dance appearances. Gonzaga advanced to back-to-back Sweet 16s in 2000 and 2001. The program made another jump in 2006 when Adam Morrison became a high-scoring phenom. Seven years later, Gonzaga earned a No. 1 seed in the tournament for the first time in 2013. Four years after that, the Bulldogs made it to their first Final Four and lost to North Carolina in the 2017 title game. However, the road hasn’t always been smooth. From 2007 to 2014, Few’s teams failed to advance out of the first weekend SEVEN times in eight tournaments, with the Zags becoming targets of March ridicule (overrated and over-seeded).
I had a HUGE play on Baylor vs Houston, pointing out that the Cougars may not have been quite as good as their record indicated. I couldn't have been more 'on target!' Houston earned a No. 2 seed, so the Cougars opened against a No. 15 seed in Cleveland St. However, Houston then benefitted by drawing a 10-seed in Rutgers, an 11-seed in Syracuse and a 12-seed in Oregon St. NO team had ever had an easier route to a Final 4 since the advent of the 64-team field. Yes, Houston had held four NCAA tourney opponents to just 55.7 PPG but not counting the game vs Cleveland St, the Houston offense had managed just 63, 62 and 67 points in beating Rutgers, Syracuse and Oregon State. Baylor knew a little about playing defense as well plus Baylor has faced 12 top-30 NET-ranked teams since January, compared to Houston's two. It was "no-contest" from the start.
Baylor is led by a great and deep perimeter group. Butler (16.6 & 4.7) is the top scorer, followed by Teague (15.8 & 4.0) and Mitchell (14.0 & 5.5 APG). The 6-5 Vital (5.6 & 6.5) is listed as a guard but plays more like a power forward and is the team's top rebounder and one of its best defenders. The 6-10 Thamba (3.7 7 3.9) starts but contributes little. The 6-8 Tchatchoua added 11 & 6 vs Houston but in Baylor's first four tourney games, averaged only 4.0 & 3.3. The Bears also get scoring off the bench from guards Flager (9.0) and Mayer (8.3). Baylor averages 84.4 PPG (49.3% shooting) plus leads the nation in three-point accuracy at 41.8%.
However, the Bears are facing a Gonzaga team averaging nation-highs in scoring (92.1 PPG) and in FG percentage (55.1%). Gonzaga features a first-team All American in the 6-7 Kispert (18.8 & 5.0) plus two third-team members in the 6-10 Timme (19.2 & 7.1) and freshman guard Suggs (14.1-5.5-4.6). The starting-five also includes guards Ayayi (12.2 & 7.0) and Nembhard (9.2 & 4.4 APG). All avergaev 28-plus minutes per game. Gonzaga 'dodged a bullet' against UCLA and will HAVE to play better defense than it did against the Bruins, as the Bulldogs allowed UCLA to shoot 57.6% (8 of 17 on threes) plus forced just 10 TOs!
I've had a feeling all season that this would be the year when "The Little Engine that Couldn't" (aka Gonzaga), finally broke through. Bottom line is this. Suggs, Ayayi and Nembhard matchup favorably with Baylor's outstanding perimeter players, while I just don't believe that Baylor can match up with Kispert and Timme. Unlike in past seasons, Gonzaga has played EIGHT Power-5 conference teams, with Timme averaging 24.0 & 7.0 and Kispert 20.1 PPG, while for good measure, freshman Suggs has averaged 15.6-5.8-5.1 against those same teams. Gonzaga got its 'scare' Saturday and I expect Monday to be a coronation.