The most-desired matchup in men’s college basketball of the past two seasons ultimately proved to be a wire-to-wire act.
Baylor toppled Gonzaga 86-70 on Monday night to earn the first national championship in program history. As a result, Gonzaga’s dreams of becoming the first team since Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers in 1976 to complete an undefeated season with a title fell one game short.
Fans and pundits alike had been clamoring for this showdown for two years — and for good reason. It contrasted Gonzaga’s score-at-will offense with Baylor’s ultra-aggressive defense. It featured a backcourt matchup of likely lottery picks1 and pitted pickleball specialist against pickleball specialist at coach.
Instead, from the opening tip, the Bears’ athletic, relentless attack on both ends of the court put the favored Bulldogs on the ropes. The game felt less like a series of runs and more like a slow-motion knockout. Within the first 10 minutes, Baylor’s win probability had eclipsed 90 percent.
“You don’t get these opportunities often, and we were on a mission to make the most of it,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said after the game.
The Bears didn’t hold in check just any offense. This was Gonzaga, a point-pouring ecosystem that left a vapor trail in its wake all season. The Bulldogs had the highest effective field-goal percentage in the KenPom era,2 was the most accurate 2-point shooting team ever tracked and won 29 of its 31 prior games by double digits. Baylor kept it off rhythm and disjointed for all 40 minutes. Gonzaga turned the ball over at a rate of 14.3 percent during the season but 19.2 percent in the final. All told, Gonzaga was held to a season-low 1 point per possession.
“They just literally busted us out of anything we could possibly do on offense,” coach Mark Few said. “We were kind of playing sideways.”
On the other end of the floor, Baylor entered as the nation’s top 3-point shooting outfit (41.2 percent) and proved it in the opening half, connecting on its first five attempts from beyond the arc. It finished 10-for-23 (43.5 percent), an improvement upon its nation-leading rate.
Baylor’s frontcourt trio of Flo Thamba, Mark Vital and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua gave Gonzaga fits. The Bears outrebounded the Bulldogs 38-22. It was Gonzaga’s worst defensive rebounding performance of the season by nearly 15 percentage points and the team’s worst single-game defensive rebounding rate since the 2016-17 season.
As was the case all season, Baylor’s superb triumvirate of Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler and MaCio Teague paved the way on both ends. The three combined for 56 points, more than 65 percent of the team’s scoring punch.
“When we came back, we knew what our mission was,” Butler said. “Now it’s like, ‘Whoa, we got the band back together and won.’ Can make a movie out of it.”
This Gonzaga team will be looked back on as one of the most stacked rosters ever. Its starting lineup included three All-Americans who will likely be on NBA rosters soon — Jalen Suggs, Drew Timme and Corey Kispert, two of whom are likely to be selected in the lottery.3 Gonzaga had another potential NBA draft pick in Joel Ayayi and a five-star transfer, Andrew Nembhard. On the bench, Mark Few had the Nos. 2 and 4 international recruits from the class of 2019, two top-60 recruits and a top-80 recruit.
So much of this season was unadulterated tumult. It felt somehow comforting that the tournament would conclude with the matchup desired by so many. Gonzaga and Baylor were undoubtedly the two best teams in the country, something that was apparent from the season’s outset. They entered the title game a combined 115-8 since the start of 2019-20, and in all but two of the 17 installments of AP polls this season, they ranked first and second.
The only surprise, in the end, was that the undefeated and favored proved hopelessly outmatched. Gonzaga was battle-tested by the time it reached Indy, but it ran into a buzzsaw in Baylor, which had withstood a three-week, COVID-19-induced hiatus but peaked at the perfect time.
“I think it was harder to win this year than ever before,” Butler said. “Because of everything we had to sacrifice with our lives for playing basketball, no social life, no fans at games sometimes. It’s really cool to be able to say we did this in the midst of adversity, tribulations, and we were able to bring it home for Baylor.”