Gonzaga -4.5 vs. Baylor
It all comes down to this. After a tournament chalked full of surprises, upsets, and unlikely Cinderella runs, the two best teams in college basketball face off in the NCAA Tournament Championship tonight at 8:20 PM CT.
Gonzaga and Baylor held the number one and two rankings respectively every week of the 2020-21 college basketball season except two, when the Bears briefly dropped to number three on March 1st, and again on March 15th. Other than those two blips, these were objectively the two best teams in the country all season.
Sure, it would’ve been great to see a 12-seed Oregon State or an 11-seed UCLA topple one of these Goliaths, but in the end, this matchup is what the Championship should be, and what college basketball fans deserve, the two best teams in the country dueling for glory.
We’ve talked for weeks about the dominance with which Gonzaga has marched through this tournament. They won their first four matchups by at least 16 points and looked primed to completely steamroll their way to a national championship and the first undefeated season since the Indiana Hoosiers did it in 1975-76. Then they met the UCLA Bruins.
The Bulldogs looked human for the first time this season when they were forced to play their first overtime game of the season Saturday against the Bruins, but this game was more about the magic UCLA found than Gonzaga’s shortcomings on defense.
UCLA, a team that ranked 66th in the country in FG% this season, seemingly couldn’t miss, shooting 61.9% from two-point range, and 47.1% from beyond the arc. 2020-21 All-Pac-12 guard Johnny Juzang went off for 29 points, and three other UCLA starters scored 14 or more points as the Bruins put up 81 points in regulation against the eighth-best defense in the country (per KenPom).
On any other night, this would have been a win. The problem is that UCLA on its best night was still not enough to overcome the country’s best offense, as big man Drew Timme feasted, going 11-14 (78.6%) from two-point range, even with four fouls looming over him for part of this game.
The Zags would go on to win in overtime 93-90. You can look at this matchup one of two ways. UCLA proved that it is possible to stand toe-to-toe with Gonzaga, something that had to be refreshing for Baylor fans to see. But in the same breath, they showed that even one of the best offensive performances of the season isn’t enough to actually beat them, something that I’m sure was deflating.
A lot of focus has been put on Gonzaga, but Baylor’s tournament resume is just as (if not more) impressive. The Bears have run through every opponent they’ve faced, winning by an average margin of 15.2 points.
Their latest matchup was their most impressive victory yet as they scored 78 points on one of the best defenses in the country in the Houston Cougars, something only one other team did throughout all of the 2021-21 season.
The Bears put up 24 three-point attempts in the game, capitalizing on 11 of them (45.8%) while holding the Cougars to just 38.2% shooting on the night.
This matchup will be everything it’s billed to be and more. The two best offenses in the country are going to square off with what I think are going to be conflicting game plans.
Gonzaga tops in the country in two-point FG %, while Baylor is 134th in opponent 2-point FG %. Gonzaga, one of the fastest tempo teams in the country, is going to run and gun while feeding the ball to Timme all night as they did against UCLA, and I’m not sure Baylor will be able to do anything about it.
On the other hand, Baylor is the best three-point shooting team in the country, and they like to slow games down. They may just try to hurt Gonzaga from deep, where the Zags allowed opponents to shoot 32.3% (195th) this season.
Baylor had success slowing down another fast-paced team in Arkansas, but the Razorbacks’ offense is nowhere near as good as Gonzaga’s. My concern for Baylor is they will get behind and be forced to play fast-paced catchup ball against a really solid internal defense.
Ultimately, I think the -4.5 line is a knee-jerk reaction to a flukey game in which UCLA went off to keep the game close, coupled with Baylor’s big win over an off-night Houston team. This will be a good game and the score may be tight for much of it, but in the end, I think Gonzaga will show why they are the consensus number one team in the country by pulling away from the Bears late and covering the -4.5 spread.
@IowaZach Pick: Gonzaga -4.5 (would play to 5, but not higher)