2021 National Championship game preview: Baylor vs Gonzaga

Photo via CNN

Despite a NCAA Tournament that saw one team (VCU) lose their chance to progress in the tournament due to COVID-19 issues and a unique schedule, we have arrived at the National Championship game at the Final Four in Lucas Oil Stadium at Indianapolis. Aside from the VCU situation, the tournament has progressed smoothly with the Indiana bubble proving effective in limiting positive tests and allowing the rounds to progress as scheduled.

On Monday, Gonzaga and Baylor, who were supposed to face off on Dec. 5 but the game was canceled due to positive COVID-19 tests, will face off in the National Championship game in a battle of two teams looking for their first ever national title. Here is a breakdown of each team along with a prediction.

Baylor (27-2)

This was a historic season for the Baylor Bears. Not only did they win their first conference regular season title since 1950, but it was also the first time since that season that they reached the Final Four. In head coach Scott Drew’s 18th season with the program, this has been Baylor’s best chance to capture that elusive title after years of underachieving.

Throughout the past decade, Baylor was on the wrong end of March Madness insanity, losing on a buzzer beater to Georgia State in 2014, losing to Yale in the first round in 2015 and getting embarrassed by seventh-seeded South Carolina in the Sweet 16 in 2017 by 20 points. Last season, Baylor appeared to be on their way toward a number-one seed in the tournament, but they did not get their chance to capture March Madness glory as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the tournament.

This season, Baylor was dominant in a Big 12 Conference that fielded seven teams in the NCAA Tournament until COVID-19 disrupted their rhythm, starting the season 17-0 before positive COVID-19 tests put their season on pause for three weeks in February. They struggled after the pause, losing to Kansas 71-58 and fell to Oklahoma State 83-74 in the Big 12 Tournament semifinals after struggling against eighth-seeded Kansas State in the previous round.

They still received a number-one seed in the tournament, allowing Baylor to ease into the grind and get their rhythm back. Baylor defeated Hartford 79-55, then took care of the Wisconsin Badgers 76-63 in the round of 32. In the second weekend, Baylor showed they were a force to be reckoned with, defeating Villanova 62-51 in the Sweet 16 and Arkansas 81-72 in the Elite 8 to reach the Final Four. In the Final Four, their defense led the way in their 78-59 win over the Houston Cougars with their bench outscoring Houston’s 32-11.

Baylor is led by their dynamic 3-point shooting, leading all of college basketball in 3-point shooting in the regular season with a 41.8% conversion rate of their shots from beyond the arc. While their percentage has dropped to 38% this postseason, they have hit 46.1% of their overall shots.

Baylor bolsters a productive bench as previously mentioned with Matthew Mayer providing clutch shooting along with Adam Flagler and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua provided an energetic and physical presence inside and on defense. However, Baylor’s success is most dependent on their guard trio of Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague, who all average over 14 points per game. Butler is the leading scorer as he dropped 17 against Houston with Mitchell dishing out 11 assists on Saturday and Teague averages 15.8 points per game on the season. These three will need to be at their best on Monday if they are to defeat the undefeated Gonzaga Bulldogs.

Gonzaga (31-0)

1976.

This was the last time that a team in the NCAA Tournament won the title undefeated as Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers accomplished this feat in 1976 with a 32-0 record. Since then, four teams have made it to the tournament undefeated and lost: the 1978-79 Indiana State Sycamores with Larry Bird, the 1990-91 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, the 2013-14 Wichita State Shockers and the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats. All four teams couldn’t get it done when it mattered the most and Gonzaga is looking to avoid Indiana State’s fate by having their run come to an end in the national title game.

Gonzaga rolled through the regular season, once again dominating the West Coast Conference without a single blemish as college basketball’s highest-scoring team. In head coach Mark Few’s 22nd season with the team, this is possibly the best chance Gonzaga has ever had to win a national title that has eluded him throughout his tenure. Few has made the Sweet 16 10 times and the tournament in all 21 seasons where March Madness took place. Some notable shortcomings include blowing a 17-point lead in the Sweet 16 in 2006 against UCLA with leading scorer Adam Morrison, losing 73-71, losing 71-65 to North Carolina in the 2017 National Championship game and two years ago, Gonzaga lost 75-69 to Texas Tech in the Elite 8 as a number-one seed. They were among the favorites to contend for the title last season before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the tournament.

This season, Gonzaga entered the Indiana bubble, attempting to win the school’s first national title and cap off their undefeated season. Their first four games saw them completely dominate their opponents, defeating Norfolk State, Oklahoma, Creighton and USC by scoring margins of 43, 16, 18 and 19. However, in the Final Four, their old nemesis, UCLA, engaged them in a battle for the ages. In a game where both teams scored at will, Gonzaga point guard Jalen Suggs banked in a 36-foot prayer at the end of overtime to give Gonzaga a 93-90 win that no Gonzaga fan will ever forget witnessing.

Gonzaga relies on a consistent and dominant starting five. Their star freshman, Suggs, has already proved himself as a school legend regardless of Monday’s result with his shot against UCLA. Suggs, who is projected to be a top pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, does it all with 14.1 points per game (PPG), 5.5 rebounds per game and 4.6 assists per game. Forward Drew Timme, who scored 25 against UCLA, is the dominant big this season that Gonzaga has always bolstered, averaging 19.2 PPG with 7.1 rebounds per game. Winger Corey Kispert averages 44.5% from 3-point land this season and with his 18.8 PPG, he will be instrumental if Gonzaga is to win the national title. Joel Ayayi, who had 22 against UCLA, and Andrew Nembhard provide Gonzaga quality production from the guard spot.

Prediction:

Against UCLA, Gonzaga struggled to guard the dynamic offense of UCLA, forcing the Bulldogs to win in a shootout. Considering the dynamic guard play of Baylor, it is hard to imagine Gonzaga slowing down the Bears’ offense. Gonzaga will have to win in a shootout and they will if Timme can dominate inside and the 3-point shooting is on point. I see Gonzaga hitting clutch 3-pointers down the stretch and outlast the Bears to finish their perfect season in a game reminiscent of 2016’s national title game between North Carolina and Villanova.

Score: Gonzaga 81 Baylor 80

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