For 15 weeks, they were ranked Nos. 1 and 2.
They were seeded that way in the NCAA Tournament. And on Monday night, Gonzaga and Baylor will finally get the chance to separate from one another, 40 potentially classic minutes — or more — that will determine a national champion in this unorthodox, COVID 19-impacted season.
It’s fitting this is the way this season ends — four months to the day after the non-conference showdown between the two powers was canceled due to two positive tests in Gonzaga’s traveling party. Ironically, that game, called off the morning of, was set for Indianapolis, too.
“As we were riding back [in a car together], we were like, ‘You know what, if we end playing this game in the Final Four or the championship game, that sounds like a better idea,’” Baylor coach Scott Drew said.
This highly anticipated meeting at Lucas Oil Stadium is full of storylines, less than 48 hours after the Zags advanced on Jalen Suggs’ 40-foot bank shot in an overtime thriller over 11th-seeded UCLA. Either Gonzaga (31-0) completes a magical year as the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1975-76, or Baylor (27-2) caps its steady rise under Drew that began in 2003 following a wide-ranging scandal that included a player’s murder.
It will pit two of the nation’s premier guards, projected lottery picks in Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Davion Mitchell against Suggs. Program architects and friends Drew against Gonzaga’s Mark Few. A trio of elite guards on each side all capable of game-turning offensive explosions.
“I hope or think maybe it’s like preparing for my guards,” Few said. “They present the same kinds of issues.”
The final will feature a series of firsts.
A first national championship for either Baylor or Gonzaga. The first time since 1962 the two finalists were ranked all season in the top three of the Associated Press rankings. The first time since 2005 (North Carolina-Illinois) the overall top two seeds advanced to the final Monday of the season.
“You have elite on elite,” Drew said.
Gonzaga and Baylor are ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in offensive efficiency (in that order). They have five AP All-Americans between them — Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert and Baylor’s Jared Butler were first-team selections — and potentially as many as four first-round draft picks between them. Baylor is the nation’s premier 3-point shooting team at 41.2 percent and Gonzaga leads the country in scoring (91.6) and field-goal percentage (55.0). There are two losses between them, both on Baylor’s ledger, and just one single-digit tournament victory in 10 contests. Baylor won its five March Madness contests by 76 points; Gonzaga won its five by 99.
Baylor feels it is back to where it was before a three-week COVID-19 pause in February, defending at a high level in limiting its tournament opponents to 26.6 3-point shooting and forcing 14 turnovers per game. Gonzaga showed it is as tough as it is talented, after fighting off UCLA in its lone true nail-biter of the season.
“We’ve always had Baylor [on our minds],” Few said. “[We thought], ‘Look, if we’re going to win this thing, we’re probably at some point going to have to play them because I always thought we were the two best teams.’ ”
There are a lot of similarities among the programs. Few took Gonzaga from the tiny mid-major Cinderella to the top of the sport, leading the Zags to the Sweet 16 each of the last six tournaments. Drew inherited a program rife with dysfunction and has made it into a powerhouse, with three Elite Eight trips in the last decade. They are close, offseason fishing friends and are undefeated Pickleball partners in the Indianapolis bubble, Few joked. They have offered good-luck prayers before each other’s tournament games.
“I guess he won’t get that prayer text before this one,” Drew said.
After the initial game was canceled, Few and Drew worked on rescheduling it at a variety of different locations, from Phoenix to Kansas City, Las Vegas to Sioux Falls, N.D. It just never came to fruition. Monday night, at long last, it will.
“This is perfect,” Drew said, “how it’s worked out.”