March Madness will have a historic conclusion on Monday night in Indianapolis, regardless of whether Baylor or Gonzaga wins the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament finale.
Both top-seeded teams are eager to win their first national title, and the college basketball world has been impatiently waiting to name a champion since 2019 after the 2020 tournament was canceled due to the pandemic.
But only Gonzaga (31-0) has a shot at a truly rare accomplishment: perfection.
With a win over the Bears (27-2), the Bulldogs would become the first men’s Division I team to finish a season with an undefeated since the Indiana Hoosiers did so in 1975-76.
Gonzaga is a 4.5-point favorite heading into the game, but following Saturday’s Final Four thriller against 11th-seeded UCLA, it’s hard to see the Bulldogs as invulnerable.
Gonzaga’s free-flowing offense struggled at times against UCLA, which slogged the game down enough to get it to overtime. Freshman Jalen Suggs came to the Bulldogs’ rescue, banking in a 3-pointer from just inside the half-court line at the buzzer for a 93-90 win.
‘At the end of it, you could tell how both staffs and all the players reacted that it was an all-timer,’ Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.
The bid for the first undefeated team since Indiana in 1976 is still intact.
‘It was nuts. I still can’t speak,’ Suggs said. ‘I have a million things going on in my head. I just can’t believe that it happened.’
The Bears, meanwhile, opened the first Final Four in two years by overwhelming Houston, 78-59, cruising to their first national championship game since 1948.
Baylor had seemed to lose some of its defensive mojo during a three-week COVID-19 pause late in the season. The rotations, not as sharp. The closeouts, not quite as close. But the Bears (27-2) rolled through the first four NCAA Tournament games, winning at a nearly 15-points clip, and seemed to have an extra jolt of energy in their first Final Four game since 1950.
Flying around Lucas Oil Stadium, Baylor had the Cougars (28-4) stumbling across the floor with wave after wave of defenders. The Bears made every shot a chore for Houston, switching or trapping ball screens to prevent open looks and collapsing in the paint whenever the Cougars did break free.
A defensive demolition that bodes well for the title game against the ultra-efficient Zags.
‘It’s starting to feel like we’re back to where we were before the pause,’ said Baylor’s Jared Butler, who had 17 points. ‘It’s great that this is the right time. We thought it was the worst thing possible when we stopped and it was a three-week break, but I think it worked out perfectly for us.’
UCLA’s upset bid against college basketball’s juggernaut hinged on two big factors: bogging down the game and making shots.
The Bruins (22-10) did both to perfection in the first half.
The bogging down came via the slow roll. With coach Mick Cronin giving slow-down hand gestures, UCLA refused to run even when it had opportunities and methodically worked its offense in half court sets.
The shot-making part is something UCLA has been doing all through the bracket. Tough shots have fallen since the Bruins arrived in Indy and they kept dropping in the Final Four – 15 of 26, 4 of 7 from 3.
All those shots going in meant fewer rebounds, in turn meaning fewer opportunities for the Bulldogs to get out and do what they do best: run. Gonzaga made 17 of 28 shots, but led only 45-44 at halftime.
The Zags (31-0) were in a similar position in the West Coast Conference Tournament title game. They trailed by 14 in the first half, found their rhythm and won by 10.
The Bruins wouldn’t let it happen to them. They kept making shots, taking it down to the wire.
Drew Timme took a late charge against Johnny Juzang in regulation to send it to overtime. After Juzang scored on a putback, Suggs provided the did-that-just-happen flourish, dribbling over the half court and letting it fly for the first buzzer-beater of the tournament.
‘He’s got that magical aura,’ Few said. ‘It’s been crazy this year how many he’s made in practice where (it’s on) last-second shots. I felt pretty good. I was staring right at it. I was like, ‘That’s in,’ and it was.’
A miracle finish, setting up what is sure to be a mesmerizing title game college basketball fans have waited two years to see.
The NCAA Tournament has been dominated by the East, mixed with the occasional championship foray by a school from the Midwest.
Teams from the West are usually left on the outside when the bracket gets down to the Final Four.
The West is the best this season.
On the men’s side, Gonzaga will play for a national championship. UCLA made a run to the Final Four. Five western teams made it to at least the Sweet 16 and seven of the Elite Eight were from west of the Mississippi.
The women will have an all-West finale, Stanford and Arizona taking their Pac-12 rivalry to the game’s biggest stage in the first title game between two teams west of the Mississippi since 1986.
It’s been a hard road for the West lately on the men’s side.
The last champion to come from the West was Arizona in 1997. The only champion west of the Mississippi in the past 20 years was Kansas in 2008. Lawrence hasn’t been considered part of the West since the early frontier days.
The West has struggled even getting teams to the Final Four. UCLA did it from 2006-08. Oregon and Gonzaga in 2017.
The map changed with this year’s bracket.
It starts with Gonzaga, which has turned itself into the West’s elite team under coach Mark Few.
The Bulldogs played for a national championship in 2017 and are the only team to reach the Sweet 16 six straight seasons. Gonzaga gets another shot at its first title Monday against Baylor, thanks to Jalen Suggs’ stunning shot against UCLA in the national semifinals Saturday night.
Few has done it by building on the program’s early success, finding talented players who fit his system and constantly adapting to the strengths of each team’s roster.
‘The goal was always to build a program that could consistently compete and have an opportunity to play in March,’ he said.
The Pac-12 had a resurgence after a couple of down years.
The conference made some adjustments after watching a string of failures — fewer teams in the bracket, quicker exits — by encouraging teams to strengthen nonconference schedules. Moving to a 20-game conference schedule in 2020-21 also boosted competition.
The Pac-12 was considered a weak link in March after its teams beat up on each other during the regular season. It ended up having the best showing in the bracket, opening with nine straight wins and getting three teams (USC, UCLA, Oregon State) to the Elite Eight.