The Heat Check CBB staff breaks down Monday’s national championship between Gonzaga and Baylor.
It all comes down to this. With 4,284 games in the books, Gonzaga and Baylor will face off for the 2021 national championship.
Many pundits indicated throughout the season that the Bulldogs and Bears were most likely to appear in the title game. Sure enough, Mark Few’s undefeated squad will take on Scott Drew’s formidable bunch in what should be a thrilling season finale. The Heat Check CBB staff breaks down everything you need to know about Monday’s matchup below.
Q: Gonzaga and Baylor were the nation’s top teams throughout the regular season. Are you at all surprised that these two are meeting in the championship?
Eli Boettger: Somewhat. Given that college basketball is an extremely unpredictable sport and March Madness rarely plays out how we anticipate, I was banking on at least one of these teams failing to reach the championship. It goes to show just how impressive these players and coaches have been all season to fulfill their preseason expectations given the distractions and obstacles presented by COVID-19.
Connor Hope: Not really. I always expected Baylor to return to form sooner or later, and when they did they have a huge gap between them and the third-best team. They can shoot extremely well, and when their defense is at its best, opposing point guards have an incredibly tough task. On the other side, Gonzaga has been the best performing team for most of the year, and proved the other night that they can even win in tight games.
Brian Rauf: Maybe slightly, but not really. These two have been the very best all season with very clear separation between themselves and the rest of the country. We’ve seen teams like that slip up in the NCAA Tournament before — heck, UCLA almost wrecked the party — but these are the two teams it should be.
Andy Diekhoff: I guess there’s a little bit of a surprise, considering just how many upsets we saw in the first two weeks of the tournament; however, these two teams have been the best and most consistent teams in the country, so it’s only fitting that they would be impervious to the insanity. If anything, I’m surprised by the relative ease with which Baylor has gotten here, considering the difficult path they’ve had to this point.
Lukas Harkins: These are the best two teams in college basketball and they have been all season. That part of this matchup isn’t a surprise. The surprise, though, is that there wasn’t a surprise. We almost never get to the top two seeds in the Big Dance facing off against each other for the claim of national champions and that makes tonight’s game so potentially special. Both Baylor and Gonzaga had outstanding seasons and I cannot imagine a more fitting championship game considering last year’s cancelation. This is perhaps the best title game matchup in 15 years.
Q: What’s your favorite storyline entering the national championship?
EB: Both Mark Few and Scott Drew have completely redirected the trajectories of their respective programs. Gonzaga was still a pesky mid-major program when Few took over and is now a blue blood and one of the biggest brands in the sport. Drew became Baylor’s head coach when the Bears were in the midst of recovering from scandals left by the previous regime. These coaches and their staffs deserve a ton of credit for what they have been able to accomplish.
CH: One of these schools and its coach will raise the national championship trophy for the first time. Whether it is Baylor or Gonzaga who wins, the championship will validate the efforts of both teams, and the champion will put all doubts to rest.
BR: The fact it has been these two teams all season. It has felt like they’ve been on a collision course with season-long arguments (at least until Baylor’s COVID pause) about who should be ranked No. 1. We’ll finally get an actual answer, which is extremely satisfying.
AD: As Connor noted, each of these teams is vying for their first national championship, which is always something I consider when deciding where my loyalties lie during the title game. In this case, I’m going to give the storyline edge to Gonzaga, as they also have the whole “undefeated season” plot. While I’m sure many will be quick to dismiss this season or tattoo asterisks all over it, a win tonight would give Gonzaga fans all the ammo they’ll ever need to fight back against the “Zags are overrated” taunts.
LH: Everyone else has made good points here, but I lean in favor of the “undefeated season.” Gonzaga is just one win away from completing the perfect campaign while proving a lot along the way. A victory would signify the Bulldogs’ final step as a top program in the nation while also etching their names in history as undefeated champs. Doing so with a five-star freshman in Jalen Suggs as one of their top players also sets the tone for their continued future in the national spotlight. Coach Few is in a perfect rhythm right now it feels like and a natty would add to that prestige.
Q: Who will be the most important player Monday night?
EB: I’ll go with Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua. He will likely draw Drew Timme for much of the game defensively, and will be tasked with limiting one of college basketball’s most dominant players. “Everyday Jon” had one of the most complete performances of his career in the national semifinal against Houston, attacking the basket off pick-and-roll passes. Defense will need to be his calling card in order for Baylor to win Monday night.
CH: For Baylor, it is Mark Vital. Whether he is defending Drew Timme or Corey Kispert, he will be at a bigger disadvantage defensively than he has been all season. If he is effective, it gives Baylor a huge boost. For Gonzaga, it has to be Corey Kispert. His last two games have been uncharacteristically inefficient, but the mismatch he has on the offensive end against almost every Baylor player needs to be exploited. He can’t miss many good looks if the Bulldogs are going to win this game.
BR: I’m going off the radar and saying it won’t be one of the traditional stars. They will all be important, but we’ve seen so many title games decided by off-the-radar guys. Donte DiVincenzo scored 31 off the bench for Villanova in 2018. Phil Booth had 20 off the bench in 2016, and Grayson Allen had 16 off the bench in 2015. Guys like Matthew Mayer for Baylor and Joel Ayayi for Gonzaga can drastically swing a game in their team’s favor despite not being headliners.
AD: It’s hard to choose just one, but I’ll say Davion Mitchell. There’s a good chance that “Off Night” will be tasked with shutting down Jalen Suggs — which will be a tough task on its own — but don’t be surprised to see his defensive assignments shift around as different Gonzaga players heat up. Of course, Mitchell’s contributions will also be key on the offensive end. Just look back to the first half of the Houston game to see how deadly “Off Night” can be when he’s on.
LH: Jalen Suggs. The freshman star was the hero of Gonzaga’s Final Four win as he came away with arguably the biggest block, pass, and shot in program history to date. We talk throughout the regular season about “letdown” games for entire teams and Suggs will need to avoid an individual letdown performance in this one. He is easily one of the best players on the floor and dictates so much for Gonzaga. With Baylor’s tremendous backcourt, Suggs will have his hands full on both ends of the floor. If he can continue to show the poise that he has all year as a freshman well beyond his years, Gonzaga will be in good shape.
Q: What does Gonzaga need to do to win?
EB: Limit Baylor scoring runs. The Bears are so dangerous when they go on their signature scoring runs that typically include transition 3s and finishes around the rim. Gonzaga succeeded in preventing UCLA from going on a lengthy scoring run on Saturday and it will be vital to do the same against a lethal Bears scoring attack.
CH: Move the ball efficiently, hit their open threes and layups, and don’t let Baylor collapse the defense on dribble drives. Basically, as long as they trust each other, they should have a good chance at winning this game. While the Zags shot well against UCLA, they missed a few looks that could have put the game away before the overtime period. Hopefully, the Jalen Suggs shot and the survived scare give them the fuel needed to perform at their best tonight.
BR: Work through Drew Timme inside and get out in transition. Baylor’s lone weakness is on the interior and Timme is Gonzaga’s only real threat to exploit that, and he can do that with extreme efficiency. Also, in a game that figures to be as high level and as close as this one, Gonzaga has to be able to do what they do best: getting out in transition on scoring on the break. The Zags will have much more success doing that than trying to go against Baylor’s half-court defense.
AD: Hitting threes will be crucial, so this could be the game where senior Corey Kispert really steps up to bring this thing home. With guys like Mark Vital, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, and Flo Thamba guarding the interior, Gonzaga’s jump-shooting could end up on full display. Hopefully, they’ve still got some spring in their legs after their epic showdown with UCLA. Perhaps equally important for Gonzaga is limiting just how many threes Baylor is able to knock down tonight.
LH: I hate to say it this simply, but Gonzaga just needs to play its game. If the Bulldogs are able to control tempo and play to their potential, I don’t think anyone can beat them, and that includes another top-tier powerhouse like Baylor. The Bears are definitely good enough to beat Gonzaga on any given night, but not when the Zags play at their best. Gonzaga should display exquisite ball movement, work Timme inside, push the pace when the opportunities present themselves, and simply do what they’ve done all year (a few sub-par performances excluded). This group is undefeated for a reason.
Q: What does Baylor need to do to win?
EB: Contest as many at-rim attempts as possible. Gonzaga has essentially ran layup lines all season with a ridiculous 63.9-percent conversion rate on 2-point field goals. Baylor doesn’t have a ton of size underneath and its inability to consistently secure defensive rebounds is noteworthy. Interior defense will go a long way in preventing Gonzaga from scoring points in bunches.
CH: Figure out how to minimize the impact of Drew Timme and Corey Kispert. If I am Baylor, I am living with Nembhard and Ayayi threes, or shots at the rim from their backcourt. If Kispert gets hot or Timme dominates, it could be a rough one. Creating havoc for Jalen Suggs could also lead to some much needed turnovers. On the offensive end, keep playing the way that works. If you do that, and miss shots, you live with it as a team. If you let Gonzaga force you into more shots in the paint, you are definitely losing this game.
BR: Slow the game down and make threes. Baylor’s defense is back to playing at an elite level and you want to have Gonzaga’s offense going against that as opposed to trying to deal with their guards in transition. UCLA had a ton of success playing this way and, while Baylor isn’t Virginia, they prefer a slower game than Gonzaga. Also, they’re the nation’s best three-point shooting team, so they have to do what they do well, too.
AD: Get Drew Timme into early foul trouble in order to take away that interior safety valve that the Zags have gotten so accustomed to using, and force Gonzaga toward longer shots. This might also allow the Bears to dial back a bit on the offensive glass, so they can get back and defend against Gonzaga’s tremendous transition game. (I guess you could just try to stop him straight-up, but that task has proved difficult for just about everybody.) If they can mitigate Timme inside and limit fast-break points, Baylor could easily be the team cutting down the nets tonight.
LH: Limit penetration and overall paint touches for Gonzaga. The Bulldogs rank tops in the entire nation in 2P% this season thanks in large part to Drew Timme’s post domination and their impressive ball movement + penetration. Baylor’s defense has to take Gonzaga out of its comfort zone, which means contesting shots inside and forcing deeper shot attempts (preferably not by Corey Kispert). Baylor is a very good defensive team, but has been better on the perimeter than in the paint on that end thus far this season. Protecting the 3-point arc is great, but Baylor needs to do something nobody has been able to do so far this tournament: slow down Gonzaga inside the arc.
Q: Give us your final prediction for Gonzaga vs. Baylor.
EB: Gonzaga 85, Baylor 75. This could be one of those games that is closer than the final score indicates. While Baylor is Gonzaga’s toughest possible opponent from a statistical perspective, the player matchups appear a bit more favorable for the Bulldogs. Drew Timme could have a big performance if Baylor’s interior defense is lacking and Mark Few’s squad does a commendable job limiting 3-point attempts, which is Baylor’s bread and butter. I have this one as a close game throughout with Gonzaga closing it out in the final minutes.
CH: I am going to say Gonzaga 83, Baylor 78. Baylor can make threes and their defense is scary, but they don’t really have a huge matchup advantage in the backcourt that meets Gonzaga’s advantage in the frontcourt. I also don’t see them hitting contested shots at the same rate as the long wings for UCLA did on Saturday. I could see Gonzaga getting out to a lead at the half, and Baylor making a late run, but this Gonzaga team has proven all season that they can win games in a variety of ways.
BR: Gonzaga 87, Baylor 80. This is going to be a really fun game played at a really high level that stays close almost the entire way. The only separation comes at the end when Baylor has to start fouling Gonzaga. Expect these two to go blow for blow but for a Gonzaga second half run to be the slight difference.
AD: Well, I built a simulator, so I might as well use it. The DPI Forecast for this game is Gonzaga 83, Baylor 80 — and I quite like that score. What more can you really say at this point? We’ve got the top two teams in the country, both of which are fantastic on offense and defense, and some of the most exciting players in college hoops on display. I can only hope the game is as close as the DPI predicts.
LH: I do not like that we are all picking Gonzaga here, but that doesn’t mean it is going to change my pick. Gonzaga has been the most consistently dominant team in the country all year and this should be a blast of a game. We honestly could not have hoped for a better pair of teams to meet in the national championship. I think this will be close throughout with the Bulldogs pulling away a bit down the stretch for an 87-81 victory. Regardless of who wins, they will have earned it — both teams have had sensational seasons.