Four months to the day that their non-conference showdown was canceled, Gonzaga and Baylor will share a basketball court with everything on the line. The Zags’ perfect season. A first national championship for the winner. The game everyone had hoped to see is here — No. 1 versus No. 2, Jalen Suggs against Davion Mitchell, Mark Few against Scott Drew.
The Post breaks down Monday night’s highly anticipated national championship game below:
It’s The Matchup inside the Game of the Year, two projected lottery picks and elite defenders looking to one-up each other. There is Gonzaga’s Suggs, an almost certain top-three draft pick, coming off his national semifinal heroics against UCLA. And there is Baylor’s Davion Mitchell, a likely top-15 pick, the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year and South Region’s Most Outstanding Player who is coming off an 11-assist masterpiece in the national semifinal blowout of Houston. CBS should devote a portion of the screen to these two athletic marvels.
Jared Butler, Baylor’s Associated Press first-team All-American, found his shot Saturday night, scoring 17 first-half points, after shooting just 39.3 percent from the field in his first four tournament games. Overshadowed by the big Gonzaga stars, Andrew Nembhard showed his value in the dramatic win over UCLA, sinking a clutch 3-pointer late in overtime and dishing out eight assists. Glue guy.
They are both pivotal, yet unsung. Difference-makers who rarely receive headlines. Baylor’s MaCio Teague and Gonzaga’s Joel Ayayi would be huge stars on most programs. On Baylor and Gonzaga, they are key pieces, underrated scorers, capable rebounders, dead-eye 3-point shooters and elite defenders. Ayayi, coming off his 22-point outburst on Saturday, is a tick better — guards don’t shoot 57.5 percent from the field and average seven rebounds — and a projected first-round pick.
Gonzaga sharpshooter Corey Kispert can’t deal with Baylor’s Mark Vital in the paint or on the glass. Vital can’t stay with Kispert on the perimeter. Don’t expect too much of them against one another. It’s not a favorable matchup for either team, although the Zags would benefit from Kispert’s open looks from beyond the arc compared to Vital’s easy baskets around the rim.
Drew Timme has been arguably the best player in the tournament, lethal in the post and just as potent passing out of double-teams. He’s averaging 22 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists in five games for Gonzaga, and his ability to stay on the court over the final 9:41 in the overtime win over UCLA after picking up his fourth foul was overshadowed by Suggs’ heroics. His counterpart, Flo Thamba, will be asked to slow down Timme, to use his length and strength. Any offensive production is gravy.
Baylor’s top three reserves — Matthew Mayer, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Adam Flagler — could start on most teams. The trio, who all present a different skill set — Mayer is a 6-9 mismatch problem, Tchamwa Tchatchoua is a force in the paint and Flagler is one of the Bears’ premier 3-point shooters — combined for 30 points in the rout of Houston. They are each dangerous in their own way. Forward Anton Watson and guard Aaron Cook are productive and capable, but they typically have minor roles for Gonzaga barring significant foul trouble.
Mark Few has taken Gonzaga from Cinderella status to powerhouse. Scott Drew inherited scandal and irrelevance, and has made Baylor a popular destination. Both coaches have done incredible rebuilding jobs through development, improved recruiting over time and sustained winning. Now one will get his first title.
It won’t top Saturday night, but it will come close. There will be several NBA players on the floor and two well-schooled teams that move the ball and defend. The lead, and the game’s momentum, will switch sides several times. Ultimately, the best player — Suggs — will prove the difference. He’s already proven crunch time is his time. The Minnesota native heads to the NBA with a Final Four Most Outstanding Player trophy in his back pocket.
Gonzaga 89, Baylor 86