When the NCAA men’s tournament pairings came out three weeks ago, Gonzaga and Baylor were considered the two favorites to win the title. But it is rare that the championship game matches the two best teams after a single-elimination event that requires five or sometimes six victories to reach the conclusion.
So having the Bulldogs and Bears survive the 68-team field and meet Monday (9 p.m. ET, CBS) is something college basketball fans can celebrate. It has the makings of a classic that will produce a high level of play and a dramatic finish. But who wins?
Our experts offer their picks on who will cut down the nets after the buzzer sounds.
There is the chance Gonzaga won’t be able to muster the energy and emotion needed against Baylor after having to expend so much of it to beat UCLA on Saturday night, needing a half-court shot from Jalen Suggs at the end of overtime to win it. But I think it will have the opposite impact. Gonzaga has rarely been tested during its unbeaten run, and I think the close call against UCLA will only make the Zags hungrier to finish the job. Gonzaga 85, Baylor 78.
Realistically, we have two national title teams and Gonzaga is one of the best offensive teams of the last decade. But on any given night, a better team can lose — as we nearly saw with an inspired UCLA squad. Expect that to happen Monday night, as the Bears have what it takes to pull off the upset – if we’re calling it that. The difference in this game will be depth. Baylor’s drubbing of Houston displayed how deep coach Scott Drew’s team can go. In the overtime thriller vs. UCLA, coach Mark Few only used two players off his bench for a total of 19 minutes. Meanwhile, Baylor is peaking at exactly the right time and has five exceptional guards. If Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell are on their A-game, the Bears will deny Gonzaga a perfect season. Baylor 73, Gonzaga 71.
Having survived its biggest test of the season, look for Gonzaga to beat Baylor in regulation to finish unbeaten and earn a place in college basketball history. The matchup of Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs and Baylor’s Davion Mitchell is the game’s best and likely one that will determine the final outcome. But do the Bears have the length inside to defend forward Drew Timme, who is averaging 25 points per game since the Sweet 16? The key for Gonzaga will be dictating the tempo after UCLA was able to slow down the pace in the semifinals. If able to run, the Bulldogs will be tough to beat. Gonzaga 81, Baylor 75.
Even if you subscribe to the theory that Gonzaga’s thrilling win in the semifinal against UCLA was a good thing because it tested the Bulldogs at crunch time, there were some cracks that showed. Baylor’s ball handlers, especially Davion Mitchell, had to be salivating at the visions of Bruins players consistently driving to the basket. And the Bears can pack the perimeter with outside shooters to create more space than UCLA did. It portends an action-packed game that should again be a nail-biter. This time Gonzaga doesn’t survive and its undefeated run ends. Baylor 80, Gonzaga 76.
And here we are, Gonzaga vs. Baylor, the championship game we all wanted. OK, you probably didn’t want it if you’re a fan of Illinois or Michigan or UCLA. But if you’re a neutral observer of the sport who has watched these two teams perform at such a high level all season, this is the game. First question: can it possibly live up to its billing? It certainly has a hard act to follow thanks to the Bulldogs’ instant classic against UCLA. And this brings us to the next question: how quickly can Gonzaga refuel after having to go the distance while Baylor had Houston put away early? Somewhat overlooked because of both teams’ ability to put gobs of points on the board is that they can play some defense. But conversely, both offenses have shown the ability to out-execute just about any scheme all season. Neither team is particularly turnover prone, but if one team gets sloppy with the ball, transition points could serve as the catalyst for someone to go on a run. So which one is best equipped to make that happen? I’d have to say Gonzaga. The Bulldogs’ fast break is a thing of beauty. If they can get it working, they’ll be climbing the ladder with scissors in hand by night’s end. Gonzaga 89, Baylor 80.
The way Gonzaga pulled out its semifinal win over UCLA had a team of destiny feel to it, but Baylor was my pick in this game at the beginning of the tournament so I can’t change now. Plus, Baylor has been so good in this tournament, and I think fundamentally their guards have the ingredients to give Gonzaga real problems. Because Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler and MaCio Teague can all drive it and shoot it, you just don’t always know where the attack is going to come from. On the flip side, Baylor will be the best defense Gonzaga has faced in this tournament and the Zags will have to be really careful not to turn it over and allow transition buckets. The X-factor in the game is whether beating UCLA in such dramatic fashion took anything out of Gonzaga from a physical and emotional standpoint. If they’re flat for even a few minutes coming out of the gates, Baylor could get early control of the game and start shooting the ball freely. Baylor 84, Gonzaga 79.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NCAA Tournament: Our predictions for Gonzaga-Baylor men’s showdown