Baylor vs. Gonzaga. Or, Batman vs. Superman. That was the parallel Baylor guard Jared Butler drew when asked about the potential for the matchup.
The question actually came during Friday’s Final Four press conference. It was about the potential hype for a national title game between the Bears and the Bulldogs. Butler said his focus was on Houston, because without a win against the Cougars, it couldn’t happen.
And then Butler realized something, or someone reminded him of something.
“It’s crazy,” Butler said. “If we play them in the championship, it’d be four months to the day when we were supposed to play. And that’s like kind of ironic, but I think it’d be like a Batman versus Superman type thing.”
So here we are. No capes required. Just the two best teams in the country for basically the entire season facing off in a national championship game that has to FOLLOW Gonzaga’s epic overtime win over UCLA, one in which Jalen Suggs hit a buzzer-beater from nearly half court to give the Zags the win, 93-90.
“What an absolute thrill to be able to survive that epic battle with UCLA,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. “We go from that euphoric high to the daunting task of preparing for an excellent Baylor team that I’ve been marveling at for the past two years.”
Few sounded exhausted on Sunday speaking to the media. To him, this game has been two years’ in the making, since the pair faced each other in the second round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament, a game Gonzaga won on its way to the Final Four. It’s something he’s been preparing for, at least in the back of his mind, all season.
“We’ve always had Baylor in the rear-view mirror,” Few said. “We figured, if we were going to win this thing, we were going to have to beat (Baylor) at some point, because I figured we were the two best teams in the country.”
Both are chasing history. Gonzaga (31-0) is trying to win its first national championship and to become the first team to win an undefeated national championship since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. The Bulldogs have also been the No. 1 team in the country all season in the AP Top 25 polls.
Baylor (27-2) is trying to win its first national championship in school history, as it makes its first national championship game appearance since 1948, when the NCAA Tournament was just eight teams. The Bears have been No. 2 in the AP poll most of the season, before dropping to No. 3 in the final poll of the regular season.
It’s the first time since 1962 that two teams that spent the entire season in the Top 3 in the polls met in the national championship game. Ohio State was No. 1 all season, while Cincinnati toggled between No. 2 and No. 3.
Cincinnati beat Ohio State for the title.
Baylor and Gonzaga aren’t in-state rivals, but they’ve been following each other the past two years, adding tension to Monday night’s game.
“It reminds me of the old days with the Celtics and the Lakers, when Larry Bird retired or Magic Johnson retired, they would talk about how they watched each other and how it motivated them and pushed them to be better,” Drew said. “With Gonzaga and us the past two years, we followed what they were doing, they followed what we were doing, and it motivated us to continue to get better and improve and keep up. You need that competition from teams like that to bring out the best in you.”
All the more reason for Drew and Few to try and reschedule the game.
Butler was right, of course. That regular-season matchup between Baylor and Gonzaga was SUPPOSED to be Dec. 5 in Chicago. Baylor had just defeated Illinois at the Jimmy V Classic. Gonzaga also played in the Jimmy V and defeated Baylor’s Big 12 rival West Virginia (the Mountaineers, by the way, were the Bulldogs’ only single-digit win this season until the UCLA game).
But, an hour before tipoff, Gonzaga had to pull out of the game. They had their own COVID-19 issues to deal with, and as a result, the Bulldogs had to cancel their next five games. Drew and Few talked about trying to reschedule the game, and those talks were serious, Few said. But, by mid-January, with Baylor with one Big 12 game on its schedule already postponed, those talks drew down.
But Drew did remember what he said to Few before that game on Dec. 5.
“How neat would it be to play this game on April 5?” Drew said.
So as Gonzaga cruised along in West Coast Conference action, the Bears stayed right behind them, undefeated and No. 2 in the country through Feb. 2, when the Bears beat Texas in Austin.
After that, the Bears were hit with their own COVID-19 pause. The Bears were off for more than two weeks as eight different players contracted the disease. Fortunately, all of them came out healthy, but the Bears weren’t quite the same when they took the floor on Feb. 23 against Iowa State. The Bears won that game with the Cyclones, but a few days later, they lost their first game of the season against Kansas.
While Gonzaga marched to an undefeated regular season and a 31-0 record heading into Monday’s game, the Bears lost a second game, this one at the Big 12 Tournament against Oklahoma State. That loss, Drew said last week, might have been a blessing in disguise. It helped the Bears refocus themselves for the NCAA Tournament, where their play has become increasingly dominant as the tournament has gone on.
Gonzaga guard Joel Ayayi called it a “two-year journey” to get here, since both teams were among the best teams in the country going into the 2020 NCAA Tournament, which was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Drew and Few both talked about their great relationship as coaches. In the bubble, the pair have been playing pickleball, and Few was clear that the pair had been undefeated as doubles partners. They fish together in the off-season, with Few leading Drew on fly-fishing trips, while Drew handles the bass fishing.
But, on Monday night, it’s all about winning one game, two years in the making.
“We have a great relationship,” Drew said. “We started texting each other, saying a prayer for each other’s teams before each game of the tournament. We said we’d do that all the way up to the national championship game. I guess he won’t get that prayer text before this one.”
You can find Matthew Postins on Twitter @PostinsPostcard.
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