In early December, the only American sport to have its postseason wiped out by the pandemic lost another potential national showcase.
A highly anticipated clash between college basketball’s top two teams was called off two hours before tipoff due to a positive COVID-19 test.
Over the next month, Gonzaga coach Mark Few and Baylor coach Scott Drew exhausted every possible option to try to reschedule the game. They explored playing in Las Vegas, Kansas City, Phoenix and Sioux Falls while trying to squeeze in the matchup between conference games.
“We kept trying and trying,” Few said. “By the time we got to mid-January, it was pretty futile, so we said, ‘Well let’s do everything we can to both make it to [the national title game]. It’s pretty amazing we both did.”
The showdown that COVID canceled 121 days ago, Gonzaga and Baylor have shocked back to life. It will be Zags versus Bears on Monday night in a high-stakes matchup of two teams that have been on a collision course for over a year now.
Gonzaga and Baylor both were projected No. 1 seeds in the 2020 NCAA tournament before the advancing pandemic erased it from the calendar. The Zags and Bears were the top two teams in the AP preseason Top 25 poll and further separated themselves from the field over the first few months of the season.
One more win would make Gonzaga college basketball’s first unbeaten national champion since Bob Knight’s 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. Baylor entered a February COVID-19 pause without a loss and might still be undefeated too had the layoff not derailed its momentum.
“In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have lost this year and they wouldn’t have lost this year,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “If I was God, I think I’d have done that script.”
The initial challenge for Gonzaga has nothing to do with its title game opponent. The Zags have less than 48 hour to recover physically and refocus mentally after one of the most scintillating games in NCAA tournament history, a riveting 93-90 overtime victory over UCLA that ended on a Jalen Suggs 35 footer at the buzzer.
“We go from the euphoric high of that to waking up to the daunting task of trying to prepare for an excellent, excellent Baylor team,” Few said.
“It’s a lot in 30 hours, but it is what it is. My guys have been great at game prep all season and they’ve been so consistent with their effort and the attention to detail on game night. So, we’re definitely banking on that.”
What makes Gonzaga unique is the way its prolific offense produces layup after layup after layup. The Zags shoot a national-best 63.9 percent on 2-point shots, a figure fueled by the open-court heroics of Suggs, the slashing of Corey Kispert and Joel Ajayi and the deft low-post footwork and interior passing of center Drew Timme.
When the Zags turn missed shots or live-ball turnovers into transition opportunities, they are at their most lethal. Taking that away figures to be Baylor’s top priority, with walling off the paint in half-court situations a close second.
In the NCAA tournament, Baylor is defending with the discipline and intensity it lacked when it returned from its COVID-19 pause. Stifling defense forced Villanova into uncharacteristic errors in the Sweet 16 and limited Houston to 20 first-half points in the national semifinals.
“Once we lost in our conference tournament, we were able to practice for the first time,” Drew said. “The last couple weeks, our defensive rotations and defensive close-outs have gotten so much better.”
The matchup between Gonzaga’s offense and Baylor’s defense will draw the most attention, but the other end of the floor promises to be compelling too. UCLA hurt Gonzaga by using ball screens to force Timme to defend in space against its best perimeter scorers. That’s a strategy Baylor’s Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler and Matthew Mayer may look to exploit too.
Whatever Baylor does, expect Gonzaga to be well prepared. Few didn’t deny doing some advance work to prepare for the Bears well before the title game matchup was set.
“We’ve always had Baylor in the rearview mirror or the back seat,” Few said. “Look, if we’re going to win this thing, we were probably at some point going to have to play them. I always thought we were the two best teams.”
While Baylor and Gonzaga have monitored one-another for months, Monday’s game is hardly a grudge match. The head coaches are longtime friends and pickleball partners in the NCAA tournament bubble. They have tentatively planned a summer fishing trip together.
“He’s the king of fly fishing,” Drew said. “I’m the king of bass fishing.”
On Monday night, that friendship will be on hold. At long last, it will be Gonzaga-Baylor with a championship at stake. One coach will celebrate his first national title. The other will leave Indianapolis empty-handed.
“We had our little futile human plans, but God always has a plan and as is usually the case, his plan is better than ours,” Few said. “The way it turned out is the best scenario you can possibly imagine.”
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