Baylor-Gonzaga: Biggest keys that will determine NCAA Tournament national championship game

A Baylor-Gonzaga national championship game is what college basketball fans have been waiting for. Here’s what will decide who wins.

Baylor and Gonzaga have been the nation’s top two teams all season long, so it’s only fitting that they’re meeting each other in the national championship game.

It’s only the fifth time ever that the preseason top two teams will face off in the title game. Both programs are also trying to win their first national championship ever, adding yet another layer of intrigue.

The two were previously scheduled to face off in December, yet positive COVID tests within the Gonzaga program forced that game to be postponed and later canceled when it couldn’t be rescheduled.

Obviously, that showdown would’ve provided a blueprint on what to expect on Monday night. But without out, what will be the most important aspects of the game? Here are the five biggest keys to watch:

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Drew Timme’s effectiveness

Neither team has any glaring weaknesses but if Baylor has one, it’s on the interior. The Bears are one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the country and allow their opponents to shoot a relatively high percentage in the paint (120th in interior defense).

Enter Drew Timme, who has been Gonzaga’s best and most consistent player throughout the NCAA Tournament. He’s a dominant low post scorer who ranks in the top 12 nationally in offensive rating, effective field-goal percentage, and true-shooting percentage. The sophomore is also only the third player in tournament history to record four games in a single tournament with at least 20 points while shooting over 50 percent from the field in each of those games.

Timme has proven he can produce against interior defenses better than Baylor’s, too. USC had the nation’s best interior defense and a top three NBA Draft pick in center Evan Mobley, and Timme scored 23 points with most coming in the first half of a blowout victory. The Trojans simply could not handle his post moves, physicality, and soft touch around the rim.

All of this makes him a serious threat to Baylor, especially because of how much better Gonzaga is when he’s on the court, which proved vital against UCLA.

At the same time, Gonzaga does not have any other true interior presence. Yes, the Bulldogs have several players who are great at attacking the rim via perimeter drives (more on that in a little bit), but Timme might be the single biggest key. If Baylor slows him down or gets him into foul trouble, suddenly that weakness Gonzaga wants to exploit isn’t there.

Pace of play

There is going to be — and should be — a lot of talk about the pace of this game and about Gonzaga getting out in transition. The Bulldogs are one of the most lethal teams ever when they’re able to get out on the break and like to play fast, ranking seventh in the country in tempo.

Baylor, on the other hand, prefers a more methodical game. Scott Drew’s squad isn’t Virginia by any stretch of the imagination, but they do rank outside the top 200 nationally in pace.

One of the biggest reasons UCLA was able to hang with Gonzaga is because it succeeded in slowing the pace of play. The Bruins walked the ball up whenever they could and were extremely deliberate on offense, often using most (if not all) of the shot clock. Gonzaga still had a quality offensive showing, but that approached limited their best asset: scoring in transition.

Baylor can play fast, but I don’t think anyone is going to beat Gonzaga playing that style. Controlling tempo will be extremely important for both teams.

Backcourt production

Guards are typically the ones that dictate tempo because they’re the ones with the ball in their hands and have the most decision-making responsibility. That also makes them more important in a one-game setting like we have Monday night and, for both teams, it’s their biggest strength.

Baylor’s backcourt has been called the best in the country. Jared Butler is a first team All-American while Davion Mitchell won National Defensive Player of the Year and is a potential lottery pick. MaCio Teague is also an All-Big 12 performer. Matthew Mayer and Adam Flagler are also two of the nation’s best bench players.

Gonzaga’s backcourt, though, stacks up extremely well. Jalen Suggs is the best NBA prospect in the game while Joel Ayayi is the only player in Gonzaga history to record a triple-double (he also led them in scoring against UCLA and might be a first-round pick). That doesn’t include Andrew Nembhard, an All-SEC performer during his time at Florida, or Corey Kispert, a first-team All-American who spends almost all his time on the perimeter despite being listed as a forward.

Both groups are so good that I wouldn’t be surprised if their production essentially canceled each other out. That said, if one is able to have slightly more success — whether that’s Mitchell being able to shut down Suggs or Kispert getting hot from three — that could drastically swing the game in their team’s favor.

Extra Possessions

In a game that is expected to be extremely close like this one, finding any small edge matters. Earning extra possessions, via offensive rebounding or clock management, can be the difference in a one- or two-possession game. That certainly was the case for Gonzaga against UCLA.

This is another area where Baylor’s lackluster defensive rebounding might come into play. Gonzaga isn’t exactly a dominant rebounding team — losing that battle against UCLA — but is better than Baylor in this area. Finding extra possession and, more importantly, extra shot attempts could be the difference in the small margins that decide this game.

Unlikely hero

This always seems to be the kicker in big games and that won’t change Monday night. Will there be an X-factor who has an unusually good game to help push his team over the top?

Who remembers when Donte DiVincenzo came off the bench to have the best game of his career in Villanova’s national championship win over Michigan in 2018? Or when Phil Booth scored 20 off the bench for the Wildcats in the 2016 title game? Grayson Allen’s 16-point outburst in Duke’s 2015 title win?

These performances from an unlikely hero are often the big difference in these games. Baylor and Gonzaga have each fallen victim to this (or nearly so, in Gonzaga’s case) already this year.

Cade Cunningham had a great game when Oklahoma State upset Baylor in the Big 12 Tournament, but the Cowboys also got 20 points from Avery Anderson.

Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez were fantastic in UCLA’s near upset of Gonzaga, yet Cody Riley also had one of his best games of the season and Tyger Campbell posted his third-highest scoring total of the season.

To beat great teams, it often takes that kind of performance from secondary sources. Both Baylor and Gonzaga have bench players and secondary starters who are capable of swinging this game. A special performance from one could be the game’s determining factor.