INDIANAPOLIS — When the Gonzaga-Baylor matchup last Dec. 5 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis was canceled for precautionary reasons due to COVD-19, Baylor coach Scott Drew and Gonzaga coach Mark Few shared a premonition.
“We said how neat would it be to play this game on April 5?” Drew said.
The game that everyone has wanted to see the entire college basketball season will take place Monday night, when Gonzaga (31-0) and Baylor (27-2) meet for the national championship at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis (CBS, 9:20 p.m.). Gonzaga and Baylor were the consensus No. 1 and No. 2 teams in college basketball polls for most of the 2020-21 season and were the top two overall seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
It’s the first time since 2005, when North Carolina beat Illinois 75-70, the top two overall seeds in the NCAA Tournament will meet to determine the national title. After a record number of upsets in the tournament’s first two rounds, the cream rose to the top.
While Baylor dispatched Houston with a 78-59 win in the Final Four on Saturday night, Gonzaga had a tougher time reaching the title game, needing overtime to beat UCLA 93-90 on a 30-foot bank shot by freshman point guard Jalen Suggs that will be talked about for generations to come.
“We go from the euphoric high of that to waking up this morning to the daunting task of trying to prepare for just an excellent, excellent Baylor team that I have been marveling at the last two years, just how solid they are on both sides of the ball,” Few said.
The game pits the top teams in the nation in offensive efficiency, with Gonzaga ranked first and Baylor ranked second in KenPom. Gonzaga ranks eighth in the country in defensive efficiency, while Baylor, which was in the top three in defensive efficiency before hitting a COVID-19 pause in February, is ranked 27th in the country.
“You have elite on elite,” Drew said. “Players are going to make plays. You just want to make things as difficult as possible for them, easy buckets, transition buckets, second-chance points, those are huge in games like this.”
Baylor has regained its defensive stoutness during the NCAA Tournament. In its Final Four win over Houston, Baylor held Houston to 38.2% shooting from the floor while scoring 14 points off 11 Baylor turnovers.
Drew credited his players for working hard in practice after the Big 12 tournament to focus on defensive execution and intensity.
“Late in the season a lot of times players don’t want to practice hard. They are worried about their legs or saving their bodies or don’t want to get injured,” Drew said. “Our players really bought in to the fact that our defense was slipping. They really practiced hard, competed hard, and because of that the last couple of weeks our defensive rotations, our defensive closeouts have gotten so much better.”
Gonzaga junior guard Andrew Nembhard said Baylor has been in his sights since the scheduled regular-season game between the two schools was canceled five months ago.
“We kind of did a full scout on them and everything,” Nembhard said. “We definitely had our eyes on them early in the season and definitely have been watching their games and just seeing how good they’ve been doing.”
The game will likely come down to guard play, with Nembhard, Suggs and junior Joel Ayayi matched up with Baylor All-American guards Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell and Baylor sophomore guard Adam Flagler. Mitchell, a transfer from Auburn, has taken on a role as a defensive stopper for Baylor throughout the season and will likely be matched up on Suggs.
“Hopefully, I can just slow the person down that eventually gets hot,” Mitchell said. “That’s my job is to slow them down. My job is not to stop them from scoring at all. I mean, everyone is really good at this game, especially because we’re in the national championship. They’ve got really good players who make plays for themselves and their teammates, so my job is to just limit that.”
Ayayi said Gonzaga’s guards are ready for the challenge.
“We just have to be us,” Ayayi said. “Obviously, they have a lot of firepower, especially with their three guards. We’re just going to have to follow the gameplan and have great attention to detail.”
Baylor will look to spoil Gonzaga’s historic chase of being the first team to finish a men’s college basketball season unbeaten since 1975-76 Indiana, which went 32-0. The last college basketball team to enter a national title game unbeaten was Larry Bird-led Indiana State, which lost to Magic Johnson-led Michigan State in the 1979 NCAA title game.
Few said he remembered rooting for Indiana’s 1975-76 team growing up.
“Because they were a team, and that’s what I have. We’re a team,” Few said. “I think all along, as this thing has been gaining steam, it’s been an honor to be even mentioned in the same breath with those guys. But never were we really thinking about doing this or whatever. We’re just trying to win the next game, and, quite frankly, our goal all along is just to win this tournament.”