Gonzaga’s Joel Ayayi gave an even-keeled assessment of what his team’s championship game bout against the Baylor Bears will mean April 5 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“The fans are happy,” he said calmly. “The people that love basketball are happy.”
That’s a mild way to put it.
Gonzaga (31-0) and Baylor (27-2) were supposed to play Dec. 5, 2020, in Indianapolis, exactly four months before they’ll meet in the title game. That game was canceled hours before the scheduled start because of COVID-19 cases in Gonzaga’s program.
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said he and Baylor head coach Scott Drew tried to find another time for the game — the considered Denver, Kansas City and other places — but it didn’t work out.
Flash forward to the NCAA Tournament, and the Bulldogs and Bears entered as the No. 1 and No. 2 overall seeds, respectively, setting the scene for a championship game that feels like it was destined to be.
Baylor got here by bullying No. 2 seed Houston, 78-59, in the first semifinal game April 3. Gonzaga did it by just barely warding off No. 11 seed UCLA, 93-90, a few hours later in overtime thanks to last-second heroics from freshman star Jalen Suggs.
Both programs will be playing for their first national championship. Gonzaga will have the added pressure of becoming the first college basketball team to go undefeated since Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers went 32-0 in 1976.
“It’s things you dream about,” Suggs said of being a win away from a championship. “When dreams start to become realities and you’re able to experience those things, it’s special. And those are things you’ve got to cherish.”
One of the biggest challenges ahead of the Bulldogs is Baylor’s three-guard attack that’s averaged a little better than 46 points. It’s led by Big 12 Player of the Year Jared Butler and includes Defensive Player of the Year Davion Mitchell.
“We’re all fired up,” Mitchell said. “Now we get to see them as they play their best basketball and we play our best basketball.”
Gonzaga runs one of the most efficient offenses in the country. Outside of the exciting stuff — Suggs’ game-winner or Andrew Nembhard’s 3-pointer with 1:17 left in overtime to stretch Gonzaga’s lead to five — the Bulldogs cut and pass as well as or better than any team in the country, and it gets them a lot of high-percentage looks.
Baylor head coach Scott Drew said it’s a blessing to have a defender like Mitchell, but that won’t solve the whole puzzle.
“It’s the best offense in college basketball in I don’t know many years analytically,” Scott said of the Bulldogs. “… Players are gonna make plays. We just want to make things as difficult as possible for them.”
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.