The 2020-21 college basketball season always figured to be an unusual one.
It would only makes sense that two programs allergic to success prior to the turn of the century would meet in the 43rd all-time No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in front of zero fans.
No. 1 Gonzaga is set to battle No. 2 Baylor at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Ind., a Saturday gem in what has already been a season chock full of quality contests.
The Bulldogs and Bears entered the year as the nation’s top two teams and have only separated themselves from the pack since. Gonzaga has already scored resume-boosting victories over Big 12 contenders Kansas and West Virginia while Baylor destroyed Washington and handled No. 5 Illinois with ease. Neither team has even played a home game yet.
In Monday’s AP poll, 57 voters slotted Gonzaga at No. 1. The remaining six who didn’t instead had Baylor No. 1 and Gonzaga No. 2. Finding a consensus with anything college basketball-related is nearly impossible but few could argue a third team even belongs in the same conversation.
So just how big is Gonzaga vs. Baylor?
College basketball analytics guru Ken Pomeroy developed a “thrill score” metric that measures overall intrigue for matchups dating back to 2011. Saturday’s duel checks in at No. 5 all-time:
Excluding Duke and North Carolina, Gonzaga vs. Baylor is the most anticipated college basketball game — regular season or postseason — over at least the past decade.
That’s … pretty significant.
How we got to this point is particularly interesting, and it speaks to the mutual respect and competitive nature between Gonzaga’s Mark Few and Baylor’s Scott Drew.
Back in August, the Pac-12 announced it would halt winter sports until January. The move immediately caused college basketball staffs — particularly on the west coast — to restructure their schedules. Gonzaga initially had Pac-12 squads Arizona, Washington and USC on its slate and Baylor was set to square off against Oregon in Las Vegas.
Few and Drew called an audible, linked up, and are now hours away from one of the biggest nonconference college basketball games in recent memory.
Regardless of the result, a game of this magnitude should serve as vindication for both programs’ trajectories. Gonzaga is not only testing blue bloods but doing so with comparable roster talent; Baylor, meanwhile, is competing for Big 12 titles in a conference long dominated by Kansas and strengthened by Texas, West Virginia and Oklahoma, among others.
Saturday will be a historic day for college basketball, and it’s made possible by the success and flexibility of two of the sport’s most respected coaches.