The Baylor Bears will play the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the National Championship game of the 2021 NCAA Tournament on Monday. Here is a preview of the game.
No. 1 Baylor (27-2) vs. No. 1 Gonzaga (31-0), 8:20 p.m. CT, Monday, TV: CBS
National Championship Game
Location: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, Indiana.
National rankings: Baylor: No. 3 (AP), No. 3 (USA Today); Gonzaga: No. 1 (AP); No. 1 (USA Today).
Path to March Madness: Baylor: At-large berth (lost in Big 12 Tournament semifinals); Gonzaga: Automatic berth (won West Coast Conference Tournament).
NCAA Tournament history: Baylor and Gonzaga met in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, with the Bulldogs handing the Bears an 83-71 loss. Gonzaga was a No. 1 seed, while Baylor was a No. 9 seed.
2021 NCAA Tournament Results: Baylor: def. Hartford, 79-55 (first round); def. Wisconsin, 76-63 (second round); def. Villanova, 62-51 (Sweet 16); def. Arkansas, 81-72 (Elite Eight), def. Houston, 78-59 (Final Four); Gonzaga: def. Norfolk State, 98-55 (first round); def. Oklahoma, 87-71 (second round); def. Creighton, 83-65 (Sweet 16); def. USC, 85-66 (Elite Eight); def. UCLA, 93-90 (OT) (Final Four)
Winner: Claims the 2021 NCAA Division I National Championship. It would be the first in the history of either program.
Projected starting lineups
Baylor: G Jared Butler, G Davion Mitchell, G MaCio Teague, G Mark Vital, F Flo Thamba.
Gonzaga: G Jalen Suggs, G Andrew Nembhard, G Joel Ayayi, F Drew Timme, F Corey Kispert.
Player to watch
Baylor: G Jared Butler
Butler had shot 11-of-40 from the 3-point line his previous seven games entering the national semifinal game against Houston. On Saturday night, Butler went 4-of-5 in the first half, a signal that he may be all the way back from the COVID-19 pause. Sure, Butler has had a fine NCAA Tournament. He’s played great defense, dished the ball to other players and scored in double figures in three of his first four tournament games. But it was the 3-point shooting that was missing. It looks like it’s back. And if so, that makes the Bears even more formidable as they face Gonzaga. He finished with 17 points against Houston.
Gonzaga: F Drew Timme
Timme was just named the Karl Malone award winner, given to the nation’s top power forward, and he’s played like it all season for a team that has a constellation of stars. At 6-foot-10, Timme led the West Coast Conference in scoring at 19 points per game, shooting 65 percent from the floor. In the first four games of the NCAA Tournament, Timme averaged 21.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game. In his first game of the NCAA Tournament against a Big 12 team, the Oklahoma Sooners, Timme had 30 points. Against UCLA, he finished with 25 points, four rebounds, and two assists. He’s as good in transition as he is with his back to the basket, which makes him difficult to defend.
Right now in the NCAA Tournament
The Bears are in the national championship game for the first time since the 1948 Tournament, when the Bears lost to Kentucky, led by coach Adolph Rupp. Back then, those tournaments featured just eight teams. This is the moment the Bears have been waiting for since 1950, their last Final Four — a chance to win their first national championship in basketball. Baylor has won 10 of its last 12 games since a COVID-19 pause caused the program to shut down for more than two weeks as the disease infected eight players. The Bears are coming off crushing Houston, a game in which the Bears had five different players in double figures — Butler (17), Davion Mitchell (12), Matthew Mayer (11), Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua (11), and MaCio Teague (11). Mitchell finished with a double-double, dishing out 11 assists. Mayer’s and Tchatchoua’s contributions were meaningful, as they helped the Bears outscore the Cougars’ bench 32-11. Baylor shot 52 percent from the floor against Houston, a week after shooting 48 percent against Arkansas. The Bears have also forced 26 combined turnovers in their last two games.
The Bulldogs are undefeated and trying to become the first undefeated national champion since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. They are the last undefeated team to reach the national championship game since Indiana State, led by Larry Bird, made it in 1979. In between, four other teams have attempted it, but all have failed. What makes Gonzaga different? The Bulldogs have a team filled with five starters that make their own shot, set each other up and defend as well as any team in the country. The Bulldogs have been the No. 1 team from the beginning of the season, and they’ve done little to dissuade anyone that they’re the best team around. We’ve already done a dive into Timme. Forward Corey Kispert is the lineup’s lone senior, and he’s averaged nearly 19 points per game for most of this season (15 points vs. UCLA). Guard Jalen Suggs, a freshman, could head for the NBA Draft after Monday, and he’s averaged 14 points per game (16 points and the overtime game-winner vs. UCLA). Junior guard Andrew Nembhard (9.1 ppg, 11 points vs. UCLA) and junior guard Joel Ayayi (11.8 ppg, 22 points vs. UCLA) don’t get nearly as much publicity as they should, but they fill out a starting lineup that has helped the Zags lead the country in scoring all season, along with offensive efficiency, based on the KenPom.com rankings.
Remember back in December when these two teams were supposed to play a non-conference game? Well, an hour before they were set to play, Gonzaga had to bow out due to COVID-19 protocols. It was a dream deferred to see the top two teams in the country face each other, but here we are in April, with the two best teams in the country squaring off for a national title. It’s a rarity. If you give credence to the eponymous KenPom rankings (put together by Ken Pomeroy), then we have the No. 1 (Gonzaga) and No. 2 (Baylor) teams in the country in offensive efficiency, and the Nos. 1 and 2 teams overall in his adjusted rankings. Baylor’s swoon after its post-COVID pause dropped them to No. 27 in the KemPom defensive rankings, but Gonzaga is No. 5. If you’ve seen Baylor play defense the past few tournament games, their current play seems to have surpassed that ranking.
When the teams are this good, you look for small separators. Baylor and Gonzaga are comparable defensively. The Bears are the best 3-point shooting team in the nation, and they have five different players that can hurt you from that distance. That shooting, plus their stifling defense, are the Bears’ biggest separators and their best path to victory. For the Bulldogs, their best separator is their skilled front line, Timme and Kispert. The Baylor duo of Flo Thamba and Tchatchoua can defend them, but they can’t hold their own offensively with the pair. If both get into foul trouble, then Baylor will have problems. To me, that’s the area where Gonzaga can separate itself from Baylor, and it’s the reason Gonzaga will claim its first national championship banner on Monday night.
You can find Matthew Postins on Twitter @PostinsPostcard
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