Sports

How Baylor Made a Mockery of Gonzaga’s Perfect Season

The national title game was supposed to be a coronation. It turned into a coup.

Baylor's Davion Mitchell smiling, sitting on a ladder under the hoop, with the NCAA title trophy
Davion Mitchell of the Baylor Bears with the trophy after his team beat the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the National Championship game of the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium on Monday in Indianapolis. Jamie Squire/Getty Images

For Gonzaga, Monday’s men’s basketball national championship game in Indianapolis was supposed to be a coronation. Within 10 minutes, Baylor had turned it into a coup. When it was all over, the Bears had taken a team that looked destined for historic greatness and reduced it to rubble. It was one of the most dominant performances any team has ever put on at the Final Four—or at least the most dominant since Saturday, when Baylor demolished Houston even more authoritatively. The final: 86–70, with Baylor in possession of a national championship for the first time in 115 years of men’s basketball. Gonzaga’s bid to be the first unbeaten national champion since Bob Knight’s 1976 Indiana Hoosiers died a painful death.

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To fully understand what Baylor just did, you need to know what Gonzaga was about to do. The Zags were a win away from moving to 32–0, an identical record to Knight’s ’76 Hoosiers. The Zags won more games than any of John Wooden’s unbeaten champs and were winning by an average score of 92–69, also in Wooden territory—and with similar strength of schedule metrics, despite the Bulldogs living in the mid-major West Coast Conference.

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It’s not just comparisons to old teams that made Gonzaga look indomitable. Ken Pomeroy’s opponent-adjusted efficiency metric pegged Gonzaga as the best team since he started analyzing Division I basketball in the 2001-02 season. Gonzaga had cruised past almost everyone all year. A rare exception: 11th-seeded UCLA in the national semifinal (a top-15 team themselves by Pomeroy’s metrics), which pushed the Zags to their limits. The game ended with Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs hitting one of the best shots anyone’s ever hit, further enhancing the Zags’ mystique as a team of destiny.

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Baylor shattered that narrative in less than two minutes, and it did so by shattering the offensive glass. The first two baskets of the game were second-chance points off Baylor offensive rebounds. The first nine points were all Baylor’s, and the score was 16–4 less than six minutes in. Gonzaga never got closer than nine after that, briefly closing the deficit to single digits in the second half before giving up more ground. Baylor finished with matching 16–5 edges in offensive rebounds and second-chance points. The Bears put four players in double figures, led by cornerstone guards Jared Butler (22) and MaCio Teague (19).

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Scott Drew’s team followed the same formulas it had deployed all year. On offense, Baylor’s 2021 plan boiled down to, “Make a million three-pointers, and grab the rebounds on the rare occasions when we miss.” Baylor was so physically imposing on Monday night that there’s a good chance they would’ve won even if their shooters had a bad night. And Baylor’s long-range shooting was so pure that the Bears could have won even if they’d had a pedestrian rebounding game. Instead, they hit 10 of 23 (43.5 percent, just above their season average) to bury the Bulldogs. They made their first five and didn’t miss from deep until 11 minutes had passed, using triples to put Gonzaga in an insurmountable hole.

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On defense, Baylor’s identity centers on forcing turnovers. The Bears created them on one in four defensive possessions this season, entering the night as the No. 3 turnover producer in the country, according to Pomeroy. Gonzaga ordinarily takes good care of the ball, but Baylor’s conditioning and pressure made the Bulldogs look like they’d forgotten how dribbling works. The main victim was Gonzaga’s star center, Drew Timme, who did more or less what he wanted all season before running into Baylor’s meat grinder of a frontcourt. For much of the game, Timme couldn’t even establish body position to receive the ball in the post, as Baylor’s Mark Vital (11 rebounds) wore him out. Timme committed five of his team’s 14 turnovers. Suggs took two early fouls and had to sit for a long stretch of the first half, causing further discombobulation in the Bulldogs’ offense.

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Monday’s win was the culmination of 18 years of program-building by Drew. The coach for one year at Valparaiso, he took the Baylor gig in August 2003, when the school was reeling from the worst scandal in college basketball history. Most college sports “scandals” are not really that. They boil down to someone paying someone who wasn’t supposed to be paid, and maybe also lying about it, and the NCAA crashing down with some kind of wrist slap. In this case, one of coach Dave Bliss’s players pleaded guilty to murdering another, and Bliss posthumously accused that murdered player, Patrick Dennehy, of dealing drugs. (There wasn’t, and isn’t, any indication that was true.)

On the court, the team bottomed out in Drew’s first three years, going 21–53. But the dire circumstances of Drew’s arrival left Baylor no choice but to be patient—John Wooden himself would not have been able to make Baylor decent in the mid-2000s—and Drew gradually built the Bears into a contender. None of this makes Baylor sympathetic or a victim. But Drew’s feat is nonetheless incredibly impressive, and it would’ve been so even if he’d merely made his squad a regular contender and not a national champion.

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This year, Drew had the perfect college basketball lineup: not only the best 3-point-shooting team in the country but a rotation where every player had the athleticism of a four-star linebacker or wide receiver. Gonzaga isn’t some fraudulent mid-major that can’t hack it physically with a Big 12 team. But the Bears were such bullies (and perhaps Gonzaga’s legs were so dead? I don’t know) in this title game that they made the Zags look like exactly that.

Baylor, with a final record of 28–2, will not feature prominently in “greatest team ever” discussions the way Gonzaga would have had it run the table. Flat, forgettable losses to Kansas and Oklahoma State by a combined 22 points are big enough blemishes to keep them out of the rarified air of all-time greatness.

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Those two losses, though, came after a three-week COVID pause that clearly sapped the team’s conditioning and sharpness. (In its first game back from that pause, Baylor nearly lost to Iowa State, which finished the year 2–22.) Before the hiatus, Baylor had been just as dominant as Gonzaga, and perhaps could’ve ended any talk about the Zags’ all-time greatness if the teams’ scheduled regular season game hadn’t itself been canceled due to COVID.

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This entire season was fraught from the beginning; it was an open question whether the whole enterprise should be happening at all. Once it was on, it was impossible to know what any given team was going through on any given night, and what the short-term and long-term consequences might be of college sports’ attempt to play through a pandemic. It did become clear, eventually, that Gonzaga and Baylor were the best men’s teams in the country. They created a title matchup that we, the viewing public, probably didn’t deserve. That game ended with the only thing about this season that was wholly undeniable: Baylor.

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