Gonzaga’s quest for a perfect season is in jeopardy in Indianapolis as the underdog Baylor Bears hold a 67-53 second-half lead in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament championship game.
Both top-seeded teams are eager to win their first national title, and the college basketball world has been impatiently waiting to name a champion since 2019 after the 2020 tournament was canceled due to the pandemic.
But only Gonzaga (31-0) has a shot at a truly rare accomplishment: perfection.
With a win over the Bears (27-2), the Bulldogs would become the first men’s Division I team to finish a season with an undefeated record since the Indiana Hoosiers did so in 1975-76.
Gonzaga was a 4.5-point favorite heading into the game, but following Saturday’s Final Four thriller against 11th-seeded UCLA, the Bulldogs have been anything but invulnerable.
Baylor jumped out to a 16-4 lead to start the game as Gonzaga’s Final Four hero Jalen Suggs picked up two quick fouls. In fact, the Bears ultimately pushed their lead to 29-10, which was the biggest deficit the Bulldogs have faced all season.
Of particular concern for Gonzaga coach Mark Few is Baylor’s outside shooting; the Bears began the game by hitting their first five three-point attempts.
Gonzaga did get going near the end of the first half, pulling off an 8-0 run to cut the Bears’ lead to 38-26 before going into halftime trailing only 47-37.
Baylor Bears guard Davion Mitchell (45) shoots the ball against Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Corey Kispert (24) in the first half
Jalen Suggs #1 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs goes to the basket against MaCio Teague #31 of the Baylor Bears
Baylor Bears forward Flo Thamba (0) and Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Andrew Nembhard (3) go for a rebound during the first half
Longtime friends Scott Drew (right), head coach at Baylor, and Gonzaga’s Mark Few (left) greet each other on Monday
Baylor Bears fans cheer before the game against the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the national championship game during the Final Four of the 2021 NCAA Tournament
Baylor Bears forward Flo Thamba grabs a rebound against Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Corey Kispert (24) during the first half
Baylor students reac while viewing the NCAA college men’s national championship basketball game against Gonzaga on a large monitor at McLane Stadium
It’s a continuation of the Bulldogs’ Final Four performance.
Gonzaga’s free-flowing offense struggled at times against UCLA, which slogged the game down enough to get it to overtime. Freshman Jalen Suggs came to the Bulldogs’ rescue, banking in a 3-pointer from just inside the half-court line at the buzzer for a 93-90 win.
‘At the end of it, you could tell how both staffs and all the players reacted that it was an all-timer,’ Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.
The bid for the first undefeated team since Indiana in 1976 is still intact.
‘It was nuts. I still can’t speak,’ Suggs said. ‘I have a million things going on in my head. I just can’t believe that it happened.’
The Bears, meanwhile, opened the first Final Four in two years by overwhelming Houston, 78-59, cruising to their first national championship game since 1948.
Baylor had seemed to lose some of its defensive mojo during a three-week COVID-19 pause late in the season. The rotations, not as sharp. The closeouts, not quite as close. But the Bears (27-2) rolled through the first four NCAA Tournament games, winning at a nearly 15-points clip, and seemed to have an extra jolt of energy in their first Final Four game since 1950.
Flying around Lucas Oil Stadium, Baylor had the Cougars (28-4) stumbling across the floor with wave after wave of defenders. The Bears made every shot a chore for Houston, switching or trapping ball screens to prevent open looks and collapsing in the paint whenever the Cougars did break free.
A defensive demolition that bodes well for the title game against the ultra-efficient Zags.
‘It’s starting to feel like we’re back to where we were before the pause,’ said Baylor’s Jared Butler, who had 17 points. ‘It’s great that this is the right time. We thought it was the worst thing possible when we stopped and it was a three-week break, but I think it worked out perfectly for us.’
Fans are seen prior to the National Championship game of the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament between the Baylor Bears and the Gonzaga Bulldogs at Lucas Oil Stadium
Jalen Suggs #1 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs takes the floor prior to the National Championship game of the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament against the Baylor Bears
Baylor fans take a photo in a sports bar before Baylor plays Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament championship basketball game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis
Davion Mitchell #45 of the Baylor Bears sits during warm ups before the National Championship game of the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament against the Gonzaga Bulldogs at Lucas Oil Stadium on Monday night in Indianapolis
Gonzaga fans watch team introductions during the NCAA Final Four college championship basketball game between Gonzaga and Baylor during a watch party at the McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane, Washington on Monday night
Indiana coach Bobby Knight is mobbed by players as he leaves the court in after finishing a perfect season in 1976
Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Jalen Suggs (1) celebrate making the game winning shot against the UCLA Bruins in the Final Four
UCLA’s upset bid against college basketball’s juggernaut hinged on two big factors: bogging down the game and making shots.
The Bruins (22-10) did both to perfection in the first half.
The bogging down came via the slow roll. With coach Mick Cronin giving slow-down hand gestures, UCLA refused to run even when it had opportunities and methodically worked its offense in half court sets.
The shot-making part is something UCLA has been doing all through the bracket. Tough shots have fallen since the Bruins arrived in Indy and they kept dropping in the Final Four – 15 of 26, 4 of 7 from 3.
All those shots going in meant fewer rebounds, in turn meaning fewer opportunities for the Bulldogs to get out and do what they do best: run. Gonzaga made 17 of 28 shots, but led only 45-44 at halftime.
Baylor’s Matthew Mayer warms up before the title game
The Zags (31-0) were in a similar position in the West Coast Conference Tournament title game. They trailed by 14 in the first half, found their rhythm and won by 10.
The Bruins wouldn’t let it happen to them. They kept making shots, taking it down to the wire.
Drew Timme took a late charge against Johnny Juzang in regulation to send it to overtime. After Juzang scored on a putback, Suggs provided the did-that-just-happen flourish, dribbling over the half court and letting it fly for the first buzzer-beater of the tournament.
‘He’s got that magical aura,’ Few said. ‘It’s been crazy this year how many he’s made in practice where (it’s on) last-second shots. I felt pretty good. I was staring right at it. I was like, ‘That’s in,’ and it was.’
A miracle finish, setting up what is sure to be a mesmerizing title game college basketball fans have waited two years to see.
The NCAA Tournament has been dominated by the East, mixed with the occasional championship foray by a school from the Midwest.
Teams from the West are usually left on the outside when the bracket gets down to the Final Four.
The West is the best this season.
On the men’s side, Gonzaga will play for a national championship. UCLA made a run to the Final Four. Five western teams made it to at least the Sweet 16 and seven of the Elite Eight were from west of the Mississippi.
The women will have an all-West finale, Stanford and Arizona taking their Pac-12 rivalry to the game’s biggest stage in the first title game between two teams west of the Mississippi since 1986.
It’s been a hard road for the West lately on the men’s side.
The last champion to come from the West was Arizona in 1997. The only champion west of the Mississippi in the past 20 years was Kansas in 2008. Lawrence hasn’t been considered part of the West since the early frontier days.
The West has struggled even getting teams to the Final Four. UCLA did it from 2006-08. Oregon and Gonzaga in 2017.
The map changed with this year’s bracket.
General exterior view of Lucas Oil Stadium before Baylor plays Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament championship basketball game in Indianapolis
It starts with Gonzaga, which has turned itself into the West’s elite team under coach Mark Few.
The Bulldogs played for a national championship in 2017 and are the only team to reach the Sweet 16 six straight seasons. Gonzaga gets another shot at its first title Monday against Baylor, thanks to Jalen Suggs’ stunning shot against UCLA in the national semifinals Saturday night.
Few has done it by building on the program’s early success, finding talented players who fit his system and constantly adapting to the strengths of each team’s roster.
‘The goal was always to build a program that could consistently compete and have an opportunity to play in March,’ he said.
The Pac-12 had a resurgence after a couple of down years.
The conference made some adjustments after watching a string of failures — fewer teams in the bracket, quicker exits — by encouraging teams to strengthen nonconference schedules. Moving to a 20-game conference schedule in 2020-21 also boosted competition.
The Pac-12 was considered a weak link in March after its teams beat up on each other during the regular season. It ended up having the best showing in the bracket, opening with nine straight wins and getting three teams (USC, UCLA, Oregon State) to the Elite Eight.
Corey Kispert of the Gonzaga Bulldogs stretches prior to the start of the national title game against the Baylor Bears