If something felt wrong about penciling in the Gonzaga Bulldogs and Baylor Bears for the national championship of your 2021 March Madness bracket back on Selection Sunday, it’s only because the NCAA tournament has traditionally given us so many surprises. (Saturday night’s near miss for UCLA was yet another reminder.) It couldn’t have been because anyone doubted the abilities of the Zags or Bears, the nation’s best two teams back in November (and maybe even in November of 2019) who will finally get to meet for the national championship on Monday night from Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Maybe that canceled meeting between the two teams on Dec. 5 was a blessing in disguise — we’ll get to see Mark Few’s team and Scott Drew’s squad meet for all the marbles.
In advance of Monday night’s game, ESPN.com’s college basketball team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi got together to discuss the historical implications of Gonzaga vs. Baylor; the way forward for the Houston and UCLA teams they defeated in Saturday night’s Final Four; and the player matchups we’re most looking forward to on Championship Monday in Indy. Follow this link for Monday’s national championship tip time, and visit here to check your March Madness bracket or second-chance March Madness bracket.
It’s Gonzaga vs. Baylor for the national championship, the rare instance when the unquestioned best two teams in the country make it to college basketball’s final stage. What are the historical implications of 1 vs. 2 — are you ready to rate where this matchup ranks in history, or at least recent history?
Medcalf: This feels somewhat unique because we’re watching a matchup that could have been played last year if the NCAA tournament had not been canceled. Since Nov. 8, 2019, Baylor has lost just five games. Gonzaga has lost two during that stretch. On paper, I think it rivals the 2017 North Carolina-Gonzaga championship matchup, based on where they stand in the game’s current hierarchy.
After Kansas beat Ohio State in the Final Four in 2012, I think we all agreed the Jayhawks deserved their shot at Kentucky. But we just haven’t had many two-year buildups to a championship matchup in this era. Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi were strong players a year ago at Gonzaga, and Drew Timme finished the 2019-20 season with a string of impressive outings. Jared Butler and MaCio Teague returned to chase a title this season for Baylor. A tournament led by two teams anchored by the key players from last season’s top teams only amplifies the buildup for Monday’s game. It’s a rare thing in the one-and-done era. This isn’t just the two best teams this season. It’s the two most dominant programs over the past two years.
Borzello: I guess the matchup I hearken back to would be 2005’s national championship game between Illinois and North Carolina. Illinois started the season with 29 straight wins and then won the Big Ten tournament before getting to the national championship, while North Carolina suffered four pretournament losses but was right there with Illinois above the rest of the country in the metrics. The difference between those two teams and Gonzaga and Baylor is that we knew the latter would both be elite before the season, they lived up to expectations during the regular season and then they steamrollered their way to the title game. So I think this matchup rates a bit higher than that 2005 game.
Gonzaga, to me, is a generationally good team; and if we take out the struggles following its COVID-19 pause, Baylor isn’t that far behind. Baylor is 53-6 over the past two seasons, Gonzaga is 62-2 — and I think there’s a chance we would have had two unbeaten teams meeting in the title game if not for the pause. This should be the best on-paper matchup in recent history.
Baylor’s Davion Mitchell dials in a 3-pointer to end the first half that has him and his teammates fired up.
Gasaway: We don’t often get clear distinctions between the top two and every other team in the country; and, of course, going into the 2021 tournament, the AP poll said the “top two” meant Gonzaga and Illinois. But the tournament itself defines who the best teams really are, and the Bulldogs and Baylor clearly are the class of Division I. As far as precedents from this century or immediately adjacent to it, North Carolina vs. Gonzaga in 2017 comes to mind, as well as Duke vs. Wisconsin in 2015; Kansas vs. Memphis in 2008; Florida vs. Ohio State in 2007; North Carolina vs. Illinois in 2005; and UConn vs. Duke in 1999. Those title games all pitted two No. 1 seeds, and with but one or two slight exceptions, all were close into the final minutes. Buckle up, this should be great.
Lunardi: All due respect, but the NCAA tournament rarely determines the best team in a given season. It gives us a worthy champion, to be sure, but the idea of “best” is more elusive. Until now. Gonzaga and Baylor have been on a collision course since the non-game in December and now will decide both a worthy champion and the best team. The only thing better would be best of seven.
The road ended for Houston and UCLA teams that made impressive runs through this tournament. Who do you think has the better chance of getting back to the Final Four sooner, the Cougars or Bruins?
Borzello: UCLA — and I think the Bruins will be picked as a Final Four contender as we start thinking about early 2021-22 rankings. Mick Cronin could bring back every single player from this year’s team, assuming Chris Smith decides to come back after tearing his ACL in the middle of this season and Johnny Juzang doesn’t enter the NBA draft. The Bruins also bring in five-star prospect Peyton Watson, who should make an immediate impact and provide some insurance in case one of the two aforementioned players decides to leave — or someone else surprisingly transfers out.
Houston could take a step back with the expected departures of DeJon Jarreau and a couple of frontcourt players, while Quentin Grimes also could head to the NBA. With Kelvin Sampson at the helm and the way the Cougars defend, they should be ranked in preseason top 25, but another Final Four seems like a stretch.
Gasaway: Famous last words here, but the Bruins do seem to hit the “will be highly rated next season” sweet spot. Mick Cronin has a Final Four team with zero seniors and also with zero players currently listed in the top 100 of ESPN’s NBA draft rankings. At Houston, Jarreau is a senior, and he has been both the Cougars’ lead on-ball defender and far and away its best distributor. Jarreau will be difficult to replace.
Lunardi: It’s easy to see UCLA as a preseason top-10 team next season, with Houston closer to “others receiving votes.” Of course, UCLA has already proved that rankings and seeding mean next to nothing when it comes to advancing in March (or even April). I have no idea who’s next to reach any Final Four, but it’s fair to say the UCLA program is in a better overall position than Houston to book a return engagement.
Medcalf: I think UCLA, especially if Juzang returns and Smith bounces back from his season-ending knee injury. The Bruins can take the momentum from this run and build on that. I think it also enhances the recruiting landscape for Mick Cronin’s program. “You can win a national title at UCLA” hasn’t been a real thing in basketball for more than a decade. Now, it’s real. This is an incredible achievement in the second season for any coach.
But the UCLA brand, in good times, is powerful, and the supporters of that program have been waiting for another opportunity to back a national title contender. But I also think Kelvin Sampson can make Houston a hub for a number of transfers in the portal. Jarreau and Grimes just led Houston to its first national semifinals appearance in 37 years. I think both teams will be competitive in the coming years.
We’ll save the score predictions for Monday, but what is the one head-to-head player matchup that you are most looking forward to in the national championship?
Borzello: Jalen Suggs vs. Davion Mitchell. Suggs is a top-five NBA draft prospect and has established himself as a truly special player, while Mitchell has boosted his stock as much as anyone in the NCAA tournament. Mitchell tends to guard the opposing team’s best backcourt scorer, and Suggs fits the bill. Mitchell has made life difficult for all sorts of perimeter players over the course of the season, most recently Moses Moody and Quentin Grimes. Suggs has next-level speed and explosiveness, though, and will provide a completely different issue for Mitchell. At the other end, Suggs’ physicality can overwhelm opponents, at times, and he’ll likely relish the chance to slow Mitchell, assuming Suggs isn’t guarding Jared Butler.
Gasaway: Give me Mitchell vs. Suggs again and again and again. I just wish this were a seven-game series. Both players are projected as 2021 lottery picks by ESPN.com, and both give their already great teams an entirely new dimension. The funny thing about my perfect little hypothetical matchup, though, is that sometimes wishes don’t come true. Mitchell is unlikely to guard Suggs exclusively, and I’ll be keenly interested to see how Scott Drew deploys his defensive talent. I wouldn’t be too surprised, for example, to see Mitchell spending some quality time assigned to Andrew Nembhard. The Florida transfer leads Gonzaga in minutes during the tournament and very often has the ball in his hands in the half court, and Nembhard has been praised by Mark Few as one of the best players he has ever had on the pick-and-roll.
After UCLA’s Cody Riley gets blocked at the rim, Drew Timme throws down the two-handed jam at the other end.
Lunardi: Definitely Mitchell on Suggs. Can’t you just see the veteran hounding the freshman on the last possession of a tie game? It’s not quite Bird and Magic, but we’ll be seeing both on an NBA stage for a long, long time.
Medcalf: My colleagues are right. But I think Mark Vital and Baylor’s post defenders versus Drew Timme could decide the game. All season, we’ve heard the same question about Baylor: Do the Bears have enough size and skill inside to beat a team built like Gonzaga? Vital is an important player for Scott Drew. He is 6-foot-5 with a lot of Chuck Hayes in his game. Vital is so physically strong that bigger players never push him around. If Timme is dominant and Drew has to find a way to send more help, it’ll create more space for the rest of Gonzaga’s playmakers. It might also mean Drew has to insert Matthew Mayer into the game earlier. Flo Thamba and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua will be critical in this game too. But if Vital & Co. can hold their own against the top post player in America, it will change the game. Timme will see a few defenders on Monday. It might not be the sexiest matchup in the game, but it’s arguably the most important.