All Gonzaga’s Mark Few and Baylor’s Scott Drew could do was smile despite the stress, wish each other well and hope for the best.
It was Dec. 5 in a pandemic season that could fly off the rails at any moment. The game of the year in college basketball — No. 1 Bulldogs vs. No. 2 Bears — had just been canceled, hours before tipoff, because of a positive COVID-19 test. Both coaches still felt the sting of the previous postseason being called off before their teams could take the court as No. 1 seeds. And now this.
Could it really happen — to be that good and that unlucky — two years in a row?
Few and Drew chatted for a while that day at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis and came to an agreement: If we can just find our ways to the end of the season, let’s play this game after all. Right here, in Indianapolis, in the Final Four.
How about that?
A game that had to happen is about to happen. It’s Goliath vs. Goliath, great on great, pull up a chair and prepare to jump out of it repeatedly. Gonzaga (31-0) against Baylor (27-2) — this time at Lucas Oil Stadium — should be Monday-night magic from the opening tip.
“They’ve got pros, we’ve got pros,” Bears guard Jared Butler said. “They win a lot of games, we win a lot of games. I think we match up well.”
It’s not often that teams this outstanding come together, not even in national championship games. Duke-Wisconsin in 2015 was big-time. Kansas-Memphis in 2008 comes to mind. Florida-Ohio State in 2007 certainly is up there with any matchup since, including this one. We mustn’t forget Illinois-North Carolina in 2005, either.
But Gonzaga and Butler have simply been different from everybody else from the moment the season started. The Zags — trying to become the first unbeaten champ since Indiana in 1976 — have been the No. 1 team all along, but not for a second have they risen above suspicion that there was an absolute monster out there capable of taking them down.
“We’re going to have to play great,” Few said.
It’ll take all they’ve got. It might even take another heroic shot like the 45-footer Jalen Suggs nailed at the buzzer in overtime to devastate UCLA 93-90. If can’t-miss Johnny Juzang and the 11th-seeded Bruins could push the Zags to the limit, first-team All-American Jared Butler, third-teamer Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague — the leading members of the best, deepest perimeter group in the country — undoubtedly have the goods.
“It’s going to be a dogfight, man,” Suggs said. “There’s no other way to put it.”
After his team was dominated 78-59 in a Saturday semifinal, Houston coach Kelvin Sampson — who, at 65, has been around the block a time or two — said he’d never seen five guards like Baylor’s, with “no dropoff.” A few hours later, UCLA’s Mick Cronin tried to make sense of his red-hot team playing an almost perfect game against Gonzaga but losing anyway.
“True greatness is giving our best effort,” Cronin said, quoting John Wooden.
And just how good are the Zags? Here’s one way to look at it: Corey Kispert, a first-team All-American and the West Coast Conference player of the year, is their third-best player. That’s a matter of opinion, not fact, but it might be difficult to find anyone paying attention who would disagree. It’s no knock on Kispert, a 6-7 scorer, at all. Point guard Suggs — a freshman sure to be one of the top NBA draft picks in July — and sophomore big man Drew Timme are that terrific.
Few has coached at Gonzaga since 1989, when he was a 26-year-old graduate assistant. A decade later, he took the reins of the program. The only NCAA Tournament the Zags have missed since then was amid the pandemic that shut down the sports world.
“At the end of the year, when I’m standing in a river all by myself somewhere in Montana or Idaho or Alaska, then I’ll kind of laugh by myself about where we were in ’89-90 to now,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”
It’s his time to win it all, which would be a first for Gonzaga.
Or is it? Baylor, too, is going for national title No. 1.
Neither team got its shot a year ago. Butler described the loss of that opportunity as a “tornado hitting our town in Waco, Texas, and just destroying everything.”
Well, look what blew back in — the best matchup college basketball lovers could ask for.