The Final Four is traditionally an event in itself. College basketball’s biggest stage. The four teams that get there have to survive the gauntlet otherwise known as the first two weekends of the NCAA Tournament.
This year feels different. This season, it is more a means to an end. All that is standing in the way of the dream showdown between No. 1 seeds Gonzaga and Baylor — the game fans, analysts and the general college basketball cognoscenti have imagined happening for months — are heavy underdogs No. 11 UCLA and second-seeded Houston.
“It would be like a Batman versus Superman type thing,” Baylor star guard Jared Butler said on Friday.
Ironically, if the two do in fact meet on Monday night, each looking for its first national championship, it would be four months to the day since their non-conference clash in Indianapolis was cancelled due to two positive COVID-19 tests from members of Gonzaga’s traveling party.
This game has felt inevitable. Undefeated Gonzaga has been ranked No. 1 the entire year. Two-loss Baylor started the season No. 2 and held that spot until a road loss at Kansas in late February, on the heels of a three-week COVID-19 pause.
Michigan and Illinois flirted with joining the other two in their lofty class, but the Wolverines lost star Isaiah Livers to a foot injury and the Illini fell flat in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Gonzaga is a Final Four-record 14-point favorite over UCLA. Baylor is favored by five over second-seeded Houston. Only a major upset would deprive the sport of this spectacle.
Baylor responded following a shaky close to the regular season, after dropping two of its last six games after starting 18-0, by finding its defense and limiting its four tournament opponents to 26.7 percent 3-point shooting and forcing on average 17.2 turnovers.
Gonzaga rebounded from one of its rare close calls this year — needing to rally from a 14-point deficit against BYU in the West Coast Conference Tournament title game — by treating its four tournament opponents like sparring partners that didn’t belong in the same ring. The Zags defeated Norfolk State, Oklahoma, Creighton and USC by a combined 96 points to become just the fourth team to reach the Final Four undefeated since Indiana last completed a perfect season in 1975-76.
“They can hurt you in every possible facet,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “What jumps out on film is they have great players that pass the ball. They remind of pro teams that won titles, like the Spurs or Warriors, great teams that really passed the ball to each other.”
Between the two, they are 56-2, with a combined seven single digit victories, six by Baylor. They had five players — Baylor’s Butler and Davion Mitchell, Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs, Drew Timme and Corey Kispert — selected to the Associated Press’s three All-American teams. Mitchell was named the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year. Timme has been the most dominant player in the tournament. Kispert is one of four finalists for the Naismith Player of the Year award.
“It’s inevitable to hear the hype and stuff like that, but it’ll never happen if we don’t win this game,” Butler said.
Both teams and their head coaches said the right things on Thursday. Gonzaga propped up UCLA, credited the Bruins’ defensive tenacity and upsets of No. 1 Michigan and No. 2 Alabama. Baylor Identified Houston as similar to Baylor in its star power at the guard position, ability to defend at a high level and rebounding ability that is unlike any team it has faced this season.
Maybe, one of the big two will find trouble Saturday night, despite being in complete control through the first four rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Could UCLA can ugly up the game and hit enough 3-pointers to at least make Gonzaga sweat? Sure. Could Houston’s big three guard lineup of DeJon Jarreau, Marcus Sasser and Quentin Grimes give Baylor trouble? Why not.
The smart money, however, says Gonzaga and Baylor on Monday. The two premier teams in the country all season. The programs that have felt destined to meet in the final game of the season, that nearly faced each other four months ago.
“The game got canceled the morning of, so we definitely had our eyes on them early in the season and we’ve definitely been watching their games and seeing how well they’ve been,” Gonzaga guard Andrew Nembhard said. “I would love to play them in the finals.”