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Can Anybody Stop Gonzaga And Baylor’s Championship Collision Course?

On an average night of college basketball, when the scoreboard shows Gonzaga scoring 98 points in a game against the sport’s premier defensive program, or Baylor leading 38-5 in the first half of a conference matchup, it’s easy to make an idle statement about the country’s only two unbeaten teams standing far above the rest. “Gonzaga, Baylor, then everyone else,” is a popular judgment. It’s a grand judgment, but it’s an accurate one: Gonzaga and Baylor are dominating the sport like no other pair has in at least the past 20 seasons.

Through Thursday’s games, Gonzaga leads the nation with an adjusted efficiency metric of +38.33, per Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. With three games left in the regular season, the Bulldogs have the best rating since at least 2002,1 narrowly ahead of the vaunted 2014-15 Kentucky team at +37.43. Baylor ranks second at +34.98, which also makes the Bears the best No. 2 team in the history of Pomeroy’s system (the previous best was also in 2015, a Wisconsin squad that upset that Kentucky juggernaut in the Final Four).

“Everyone else” starts with No. 3 Iowa, which is playing elite basketball on the offensive end. The Hawkeyes have the second-best adjusted offensive efficiency (128.4 points per 100 possessions) in KenPom history, trailing only the aforementioned 2015 Wisconsin Badgers. Though it did recently drop four out of five, including two losses to bubble-dwelling Indiana, Iowa has the firepower to contend with just about anyone on a given night — in large part thanks to likely National Player of the Year Luka Garza, who just dropped 30 in a road win over Big Ten rival Wisconsin. With an efficiency metric of +30.36, Iowa is the third-best No. 3 team of the past 20 seasons — and yet it still ranks 4.62 points per 100 possessions behind Baylor. That gap is, by a significant margin, the largest disparity between second- and third-ranked teams in the past 20 years:

The Top 2 are way ahead of the pack this season

Gap between the Nos. 2 and 3 ranked teams in Ken Pomeroy’s men’s college basketball ratings by season, 2002-2021

Year No. 2 Rating No. 3 Rating Gap
2021 Baylor +34.98 Iowa +30.36 4.62
2010 Duke +31.55 Syracuse +27.59 3.96
2005 North Carolina +32.00 Duke +28.70 3.31
2002 Cincinnati +30.84 Kansas +27.79 3.06
2017 Villanova +30.78 North Carolina +28.01 2.77
2014 Arizona +30.40 Florida +27.81 2.59
2018 Villanova +31.41 Duke +29.13 2.27
2020 Gonzaga +26.95 Baylor +25.49 1.46
2013 Louisville +31.14 Indiana +29.92 1.22
2015 Wisconsin +33.53 Arizona +32.31 1.21
2008 UCLA +30.58 Memphis +29.38 1.20
2012 Ohio St. +29.90 Michigan St. +28.82 1.08
2004 Saint Joseph’s +27.81 Gonzaga +26.73 1.08
2009 Memphis +29.44 North Carolina +28.56 0.88
2011 Duke +29.55 Kansas +28.70 0.85
2019 Gonzaga +32.79 Duke +31.99 0.80
2016 Michigan St. +29.68 Virginia +29.10 0.59
2006 Texas +26.34 Connecticut +25.91 0.43
2003 Pittsburgh +27.18 Kansas +27.10 0.08
2007 Ohio St. +28.87 Florida +28.86 0.01

2021 ratings are through games of Feb. 18. KenPom’s final pre-tournament ratings were used for seasons before 2021.

Source: Kenpom

College basketball has presented similar landscapes before, where two teams appeared to be on a collision course toward the national championship all year, but none quite like this one.

Previously, the widest gap between the second- and third-best teams was in 2010, between No. 2 Duke (+31.55) and No. 3 Syracuse (+27.59). Duke beat Butler in the national championship that year; No. 1 Kansas lost in the second round against Northern Iowa. But heading into the 2010 NCAA Tournament, Duke and Kansas weren’t the obvious top two that Gonzaga and Baylor are now, or even the top two overall seeds (Kentucky was the No. 2 overall seed).

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For the last case of a two-team race this clear, you might go back to 2005, when North Carolina beat Illinois in the national championship. The Tar Heels entered the NCAA Tournament at 27-4, 14-2 in the ACC; the Fighting Illini didn’t lose until the regular-season finale. Both teams received 1-point scares on their way to the title game, but they fought through and eventually treated everyone to a championship classic.

It’s easy to imagine Gonzaga and Baylor rolling through the NCAA Tournament in similar fashion. Gonzaga has won every game but one, on Dec. 2 against West Virginia, by double digits. After last night’s game against St. Mary’s, Pomeroy gave the Bulldogs a 98.5 percent chance of finishing the regular season undefeated. Baylor is on pause because of COVID-19 concerns, but assuming the Bears return Tuesday against Iowa State, they’ll have a 63.7 percent chance of winning their last three regular-season games. The past decade has delivered undefeated title contenders in 2014 (Wichita State) and 2015 (Kentucky), but never two in the same year. For that, you’d have to go back to Indiana and Rutgers in 1976, but even those two didn’t meet in the national championship.

The road to an undefeated season is a perilous path, which is why no team has completed it since Indiana in 1976. But both Gonzaga and Baylor have specific strengths that make them not just great, but dominant. Gonzaga is not only the second-best offensive team in the country in Pomeroy’s metrics but also the seventh-fastest; beating the Bulldogs (or even threatening them) means running with them for an average of about 74 possessions per game. Pacific, for instance, managed to open up a 42-35 lead on Gonzaga in the second half on Feb. 4. Against a slower and less potent team, that might mean a decent chance to win the game. In this case, 15 minutes remained on the clock against the fourth-best offense in the KenPom era, which spends just over 14 seconds per possession. The Bulldogs would go on to win, 76-58.

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Baylor, meanwhile, is the country’s best 3-point shooting team. Sometimes the best way to vanquish an undefeated team is to catch them on an off-shooting night, but the Bears almost never have one of those. They’ve finished only two games, at Iowa State on Jan. 2 and at TCU on Jan. 9, shooting worse than the national average (33.8 percent) from the 3-point line, and they won both by double digits.

Gonzaga and Baylor were scheduled to play Dec. 5, but COVID-19 issues scuttled the game. Only Kansas has played both, and coach Bill Self saw in those two games what everyone else has learned as the season developed. “I would be shocked if there’s a third (team) that fits into that category,” he told reporters after the Baylor game. “We saw Gonzaga actually run it right down our throat right from the beginning. We saw Baylor do the same thing tonight, so the games were actually pretty similar.”


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Footnotes

  1. All teams from previous seasons in this story are evaluated using KenPom’s final pre-NCAA tournament ratings for a given season.

Jake Lourim is a freelance writer in Washington. He most recently worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal.

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