Bears, Bulldogs play for national title with Gonzaga looking to complete undefeated season
Gonzaga and Baylor have been widely regarded as the top two college basketball teams this season. It seems fitting that the Bulldogs and Bears will battle it out for the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship on Monday night.
No. 1 seed Baylor (27-2) dominated No. 2 seed Houston, winning 78-59 to reach its first national championship game since 1948. Jared Butler led the Bears with 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting. Davion Mitchell made a huge impact as a playmaker, scoring 12 points and dishing out 11 assists. Butler and Mitchell combined to make seven 3-pointers. They helped Baylor shoot 53 percent from the field and 46 percent from beyond the arc.
No. 1 seed Gonzaga (31-0) faced major resistance before dispatching No. 11 seed UCLA 93-90 on Jalen Suggs' buzzer-beater in overtime. Suggs' game-winner capped a game that featured 15 ties and 19 lead changes. Gonzaga never led by more than seven points against the Bruins after winning 27 straight games by double-digit margins. The Bulldogs shot 59 percent from the field while paced by 25 points from Drew Timme and 22 points from Joel Ayayi.
This is the sixth all-time meeting between Baylor and Gonzaga. The Zags lead the series 5-0, most recently beating the Bears 83-71 in the second round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
National Championship Game: No. 1 Baylor Bears (27-2) vs. No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs (31-0)
Time: Monday, April 5 at 9:20 p.m. ET
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium, (Indianapolis)
Spread: Gonzaga -4.5
Keys for Baylor
Davion Mitchell is the quintessential player who makes his teammates better on both ends of the court. During the NCAA Tournament, the junior guard has averaged 13.2 points and 6.0 assists for the Bears. Mitchell posted his second double-double of the season in Baylor's win over Houston. Facing Jalen Suggs, a guard who could be selected no. 1 overall in the 2021 NBA draft, will present a major challenge. If any player can rise to that challenge, it is Mitchell. If he's patient and relies on his usual court vision and defensive tenacity, he can help the Bears match Gonzaga shot for shot on offense.
Defending well in transition will be a catalyst in turning Baylor's championship hopes into reality. Gonzaga is a team that excels at scoring in transition and cutting to the basket. The Bulldogs outscored UCLA 15-0 in fast-break points and outscored the Bruins 56-24 in the paint. A similar disparity on Monday will make it tough for the Bears to slow down the nation's top offense. Baylor can slow Gonzaga down by winning the rebound battle and defending deep into the shot clock – thus denying the Bulldogs extra chances to get out and run and impose their preferred blistering tempo.
Keys for Gonzaga
Corey Kispert is an elite shooter. The senior forward is averaging 18.8 points per game on 53.3 percent shooting. That includes 44.5 percent from the perimeter. Still, Kispert's outside shot has vanished over the past couple of games. He is just 5-of-18 from 3-point range over his last two games. Drew Timme is a force around the rim and is a scorer and passer who can give the Bears fits. Kispert's ability to knock down shots from outside will force defenders away from the basket, allowing Timme to have room to operate without Baylor defenders collapsing to the post to double-team him.
Taking care of the ball will be supremely critical against Baylor. The Bears force 17.1 turnovers per game, leading the Big 12 in that category. Gonzaga has been a little turnover-prone at times in the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs have a 1.58 assist-to-turnover ratio on the season, which ranks fifth nationally. But they also have gotten careless with the ball after staking out large leads. Baylor is potent enough to keep up the Bulldogs on the scoreboard. Giving the Bears tons of extra possessions will invite an unceremonious end to Gonzaga's quest for perfection.
These two teams were supposed to play in December before COVID-19 concerns forced the game's cancellation. Now college basketball fans will get a chance to see the top two teams finally clash on a much bigger stage. Gonzaga and Baylor are evenly matched in terms of skill, athleticism, and depth. Ultimately, this is a championship game will be an instant classic that comes down to the final minute. The Zags will find a way to finish off a perfect season and etch their place in college basketball history.
Prediction: Gonzaga 83, Baylor 80
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports, and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.