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Baylor-Gonzaga National Championship Game Mega Preview and Prediction: Why I’m Taking the Bears

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I’m taking the Bears

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Houston at Baylor IndyStar-USA TODAY Sports

Baylor and Gonzaga spent weeks trying to reschedule their canceled game. And at each press conference, Scott Drew would joke, “We’re hoping to play that in the Final Four or national championship.”

That becomes reality on Monday. The two best teams all season (it remains ridiculous anyone considered Illinois of Michigan in this tier) meet for one of the most hyped championship games ever.

KenPom gives Baylor a 35% chance. Torvik gives Baylor 34%. But those metrics don’t take into account whatever weight you want to give post-COVID Baylor.

From the beginning of the season through the Texas game, Baylor ranked just .0017 efficiency points behind Gonzaga on Torvik. Since the start of the NCAA Tournament, Baylor actually ranks higher than Gonzaga.

Maybe the pause can’t be discounted that much though. Gonzaga started playing some of its best basketball in February. Baylor might have an argument that its tepid performance against Iowa State or Kansas plunders its efficiency ranking. It has less of an argument that COVID explains such a significant problem against Oklahoma State seven games later.

While that question remains, for now, we’ll take a look at playing offense against the opponent, then turn to defense. Finally, we’ll close with a prediction.

Offense:

While Gonzaga can play lock-down defense in key stretches, this is the end that Baylor probably feels much better about.

Since the start of the NCAA Tournament, Gonzaga ranks just 30th in adjusted defensive efficiency. UCLA hit a bunch of insane shots, and Oklahoma had a nice first half run. Given that, the Bulldogs defense—in such a small sample size—probably isn’t all the way down at No. 30. But there are some vulnerabilities.

First, Baylor’s upped its pick-and-roll attack. Houston tried overloading the strong side. The Bears picked on the tagging defender, and Davion Mitchell and Jared Butler uncorked passes for open jumpers. Gonzaga will have to decide if it can tag like that.

I’d be surprised if Gonzaga has a ton of success defending pick-and-rolls. Jalen Suggs is a bigger guard, and Joel Ayayi is crafty. That pair might nab a couple of steals, which sets up Gonzaga’s transition offense.

The Bulldogs probably won’t want to switch. Arkansas went that route, and Mitchell got to the hoop at will. Butler’s shot returned last game (he went 4-of-5 from deep), and he’ll stepback for threes if Drew Timme or Anton Watson play him.

Gonzaga’s best bet is to probably just bring the man defending the screen high and then provide a soft tag and recover. Corey Kispert is longer than some of Houston’s guys, and Gonzaga might think living with what Houston gave up is okay.

The Bears don’t have the formula that some teams have to attack Gonzaga. There’s a case the best way to beat Gonzaga is to get Timme in foul trouble. But Baylor’s not going to throw the ball into the post looking to score. And Baylor’s offense is far better in the usual flow of the game compared to trying to get weird.

Maybe Gonzaga will try and trap. That’s probably the best defense when Baylor starts big. Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua made a floater yesterday, and Mark Vital can work as a guard. He told me two weeks ago, “I’m an underrated passer.” He certainly is, as he’s helped find big guys inside. Flo Thamba will need better hands tomorrow than he had yesterday. Houston left him wide open; he fumbled a few of those easy opportunities. Those kinds of sequences could be the difference in this one.

There’s a question over whether Baylor should hunt for a perfect shot or live with a good one. Turnovers are death against Gonzaga. Baylor hasn’t eclipsed 10 offensive turnovers in this tournament. Any turnover is a likely layup or Kispert three in transition. I’d be fine not hunting late action shots, but Baylor’s staff has proven—if anyone would ever be stupid enough think it—that they know 5,000 times more about hoops than me. They might think getting late clock with dribble weaves and other actions will leads to mismatches. While that ups the chance of a turnover or something going wrong on a handoff or pass, it also ups the chance of having a better scoring opportunity.

Playing Gonzaga is the ultimate tradeoff. There are very few decisions that don’t impact every facet of this game. Stay big and you have a better shot at defending Timme straight up. But you give up quite a bit offensively. Go small and you can fly around defensively, but Timme might attack you. Those aren’t easy decisions, and in the high variance world of single elimination basketball, the right decision could go poorly because someone gets hot from deep.

Ultimately, Baylor will probably need to shoot at a high clip to win this game. Baylor scored 1.34 adjusted points per possession yesterday. Its offensive performance would have been enough to beat Gonzaga yesterday. But that level of offense is unlikely.

This is the kind of game where someone probably needs to and will get hot. Matthew Mayer’s been shooting well. Adam Flagler’s made clutch buckets, including the three that ended Arkansas. Macio Teague hit the pair of triples in back-to-back possessions that ended any hope for the Razorbacks.

It’s probably not sufficient for Jared Butler or Davion Mitchell to carry Baylor in this game. They haven’t had to do that much this season, but Baylor needs someone else to step up. My guess is that Teague can do that. His craftiness near the hoop is difficult to simulate, and if Gonzaga elects to play off of him—thinking they can recover to contest late with his elongated shot—he’ll blow past them for some buckets inside.

The bottom line (why did I need 1,000 words to get there) is that I think Baylor can score on Gonzaga. That shouldn’t be shocking. Baylor has the No. 2 offense. Gonzaga blasting West Coast Conference Teams does tell us something about them playing better teams. But I think—even with the small sample of five games—the Bulldogs No. 30 ranking tells us something too. The Bears should get good looks.

Baylor can’t get rattled if Gonzaga jumps out to a 13-2 lead. Gonzaga’s so good on offense that it could start 5-of-5 from the field. But Baylor has the power to come back. Unless someone gets up 20 (and maybe not even then) either team is capable of coming back.

Defense:

This is by far the biggest challenge. Gonzaga has the nation’s best offense. The Bulldogs are led by potential No. 1 pick Jalen Suggs. He banked in the shot to defeat UCLA in the Final Four. And his top end speed is insane. He had a scholarship offer to play QB at Ohio State. He passes well and has had at least six assists in each of the last three games. The primary problem defending Suggs remains his speed. He can blow by anyone:

Davion Mitchell won the National Defensive Player of the Year award and this will be his biggest moment. I’m not sure if Baylor will keep him on Suggs all game. Against Oklahoma State, Baylor kept Mitchell on Cade Cunningham. When he defended him, things went well. But that puts immense pressure on Mitchell. He’s one of Baylor’s two best offensive players too. Though he really did well on Cunningham and the Cowboys in that game:

If Gonzaga only had Suggs, it would be a problem. Unfortunately Gonzaga’s offense has more tools than Home Depot. Gonzaga ranks No. 1 in 2-point percentage. Creighton decided to pack the paint, and Gonzaga still got plenty of open looks. Virginia tried to hard hedge and recover and got crushed by threes. The Bears have to keep Gonzaga away from getting easy passes. If Gonzaga has a crease it will cut and pass at an unmatched level.

The defender can’t lose Kispert. Even with a 5-of-18 stretch from deep, he’s shooting 45% from three on 200 attempts. He’s basically a 6-foot-9 Brady Heslip from deep. Oh, and he can put it on the deck and get to the hoop.

Baylor will focus on watching the ball to provide help. As Jordan Sperber of Hoop-Vision noted, Baylor doesn’t play the traditional “know where the ball and your man is” style of defense. That allows Baylor to send double teams and stunt. But it sets them up for some cutting scores. Baylor’s been better handling the risk of cuts lately (the Kansas game in Lawrence went really poorly on that end). That tradeoff has worked so far as Baylor ranks No. 3 over the full season in forcing turnovers and No. 1 during the NCAA Tournament. But the Bears better look back and forth like a child crossing the street. If the Bears lose Kispert, he’ll go off from deep. Virginia lost him and he just crushed them.

Maybe we’re too deep into this discussion to finally mention Timme. The big man ranks No. 1 in KenPom’s Player of the Year race. He’s scored 100 combined points in Gonzaga’s last four games. Nobody has a one-on-one defender that matches him well. No comparison is perfect, but for Baylor fans, his game reminds me a bit of Johnathan Motley’s. Timme can put the ball down and score in crafty ways near the hoop. He’ll occasionally fire from deep, but lately he’s passed up those chances; he’s just 6-of-21 from deep on the campaign. If he gets the ball at the top of the key, Baylor might consider sagging off and daring him to shoot. But that also opens up the option for him to pass unobstructed.

Joel Ayayi is clearly Gonzaga’s fourth best player. And that statement is just ludicrous. Ayayi started the year fairly cold from three, but is now up to 39% from deep, including a hot stretch that proved pretty important in the Zags overtime win against UCLA. He’s a secondary point guard that actually gets to play as the third point guard for Gonzaga because Andrew Nembhard from Florida also starts. Ayayi will likely get drafted, and Nembhard scored 16 points against Baylor when he was at Florida.

I don’t expect Gonzaga to go big for very long. Watson started into early February, but Gonzaga is exceptionally better playing small with Kispert at the four (he’s still taller than Tchamwa Tchatchoua). Watson will get minutes at the five for Kispert, but I would not expect the two to play much together.

I have spent less time than usual describing actions that Baylor’s opponent will run. And that’s because I don’t think this game comes down to dissecting Gonzaga’s preferred plays or sets. It comes down to individual players making plays. Gonzaga runs an advanced offensive system with pristine spacing. In 48 hours, the Bears aren’t going to stymie that many sets and figure out Gonzaga’s exact set. Instead, Baylor will have to stay true to its principles.

A major key for Baylor is avoiding foul trouble for Mark Vital. He gives Baylor the option to roll with the Fival (Vital at the five). And he makes it easier to switch all screens, if Baylor wants to go that route (it may not). Maybe Tchamwa Tchatchoua will play so well that Baylor can survive with Vital fouling out in 15 minutes. But I don’t think so. I think Baylor will need the option to go small, and if Matthew Mayer has a bad game, Baylor would then have to play its four guard lineup a ton without Vital.

This is probably the game where a non-Mitchell options need to take over defensively. Butler is one of the county’s 15 best defenders. Teague has an elite wingspan and dominated Oklahoma State’s big men late in the game. Flagler contests as well as any Bear. That trio needs to have their best defensive game of the season.

Unless Gonzaga gets cold from three, the Zags are going to score quite a bit. But that’s expected. Gonzaga scores on everyone. Baylor should live with a few backcuts that Gonzaga will get. And it can’t panic when a live ball turnover leads to a swift score for Gonzaga.

The Bears have to get back in transition. Gonzaga pushes the ball on makes or misses like vintage Roy Williams teams. Again, this game could very well come down to the final minutes. Baylor’s free throw shooting makes me a bit nervous about that prospect, so the easiest way to win close games is to not be in them (kind of a trick framing, but we’re 2,000 words in!).

Prediction:

I’ve watched Gonzaga as much as any non-Big 12 team. I’ve watched a ton of its games and had a detailed preview ready for the game earlier in the season. I have a great sense of what the Bulldogs do and their various strengths. I also understand they have a few, but not many, weaknesses.

This is the best team Baylor’s ever played. 2012 Kentucky eviscerated Baylor. And 2014 Wisconsin was great. I’d listen to an argument on 2012 Kentucky, but Anthony Davis being better than Timme doesn’t make up for how much better Gonzaga’s remaining players are compared to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and company. The players around Timme tilts the edge in Gonzaga’s favor.

So how could anyone consider Baylor? Well, after the Texas game, I said Baylor was the best Big 12 team ever. Kansas fans recoiled. Hadn’t I seen the 2002 Jayhawks with Drew Gooden that went 16-0 in the league? Had I not remembered that 2008 Kansas won the title, or that 1997 Kansas featured Paul Pierce and lost just one game before losing to Arizona—a team that knocked off three No. 1 seeds to win the title?

I’m convinced I’ve covered the best Big 12 team ever this season. Maybe spending the last four weeks back-and-forth between Waco, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Kansas City, then Indianapolis, then Kansas City and now Indianapolis again has my mind shot. I wouldn’t rule that out.

Or maybe I can’t be objective enough to pick this game. I’ve covered this team throughout its run. I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking to Butler, Mitchell, Vital and others. I’ve written profiles on them and asked them difficult questions that I’m not sure I’d want to let someone ask me. The players and staff have been more generous with their time than I deserved. Do those experiences ruin the epistemological(all right, we’re definitely running long when epistemology gets mentioned in a basketball preview) foundations of any prediction?

I don’t know the answer to all those questions. And in a one game sample, I would not be shocked if Gonzaga blows out Baylor or if Baylor blows out Gonzaga. I’d love to see a seven game series between these teams.

But after the dumbest year in most of our lives, we’re blessed to see No. 1 and No. 2 meet. And when they take the court, I think Mayer of Flagler will have the night of their lives and one of Butler or Mitchell has a life-changing performance on offense. Baylor, the nation’s top 3-point shooting offense, has a great day from deep. The 1976 Indiana Hoosiers remain as the last undefeated team to win a national title. I’ll take Baylor 82-78.