Given the context and the stakes, UCLA over Gonzaga would have been the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history. Thanks to Jalen Suggs and a 45-foot heave, it didn’t happen. We now get the National Championship that we were hoping for with the game between Baylor and Gonzaga. UCLA fans were certainly hoping for a different outcome, but this is about the best we could have asked for, as the consensus #1 and #2 teams throughout most of the season meet for a title in Indianapolis.
Baylor’s systematic takedown of Houston was one of the most impressive performances of the tournament. It didn’t leave a lot of drama, but it was a sign of what Baylor remains capable of doing, even to teams considered “on their level” by the metrics sites that are out there.
Based on what happened in the two games, we saw a huge adjustment to the betting odds for the National Championship. Gonzaga was expected to be -6 or -6.5 in look-ahead lines. After the games, we now find Gonzaga -4.5 for the title against Baylor at Bookmaker Sportsbook. The total is a robust 159.5 with everything on the line.
Baylor has not been an underdog this season until now. The smallest line for the Bears was a -4 number on the road at Texas Tech on January 16. That even includes the postseason. You have to give a lot of credit to Scott Drew. The timing of the February COVID pause was not ideal, though no COVID pause was ideal at any point of the season for any team.
It was especially tricky for Baylor, as they came back after three weeks off and looked bad against Iowa State and then lost to Kansas to fall to 18-1. The following game was a war against West Virginia that went Baylor’s way in overtime. Since then, Baylor has looked the part more often than not, including four double-digit wins in five games in the NCAA Tournament. The Bears beat Arkansas by nine in a game that maybe didn’t deserve to be that close.
The amazing thing about the Baylor/Houston game is that Baylor actually lost the rebounding battle on the offensive glass 14-13, but it was the offensive rebound in the first half that allowed the Bears to build up a big lead that they never relinquished. Baylor also shot the lights out early in the game and finished 11-of-24 from three.
That will be a huge key to the National Championship Game. Baylor comes in as the top three-point shooting team in the country. Gonzaga comes in 43rd in that department, but first in two-point shooting. If Baylor can score by threes while Gonzaga scores by twos, it could make the upset a distinct possibility. Baylor ranks fourth in eFG% offense. Gonzaga ranks second. That is how you end up with a total knocking on the door of 160 points.
The Bears have had a much, much harder road to get to this point. Their tournament strength of schedule was a talking point prior to the Houston game. Baylor has played four straight top-20 teams. They’ve conquered them all. They’ve been remarkably efficient on offense in those games. The defense has been good enough. The Houston game really wasn’t even as close as the final score would suggest and Baylor slacked off a bit defensively in the second half.
Something that will be really interesting to watch is the pace at which this game is played. Baylor rocked Houston in transition early in the Final Four matchup, but the game was only played to 58 possessions. It was Baylor’s second game in the last three to go under 60 possessions. The Bears even slowed Arkansas down to 69 possessions and also played Wisconsin to just 64. Gonzaga will want to run and push the game in transition. That’s how they create so many open looks.
Can the Bears slow down the tempo of the game to something that they are more comfortable with or will Gonzaga dictate the pace?
Questions about Gonzaga have to be the big story coming into the game against Baylor, right? Memorable moments are what they are, but what people will remember with UCLA gone and Gonzaga moving on is that the Bulldogs gave up 90 points to UCLA. That the Bruins, a #11 seed playing a sixth high-octane, high-pressure game in 16 days, took the undefeated best team in the country to overtime.
It was far and away Gonzaga’s worst defensive performance of the season. UCLA had a 64.4% eFG% and 1.212 points per possession. Prior to that game, the previous worsts for Gonzaga on the defensive side were 1.098 PPP and 59.7 in eFG%. Those were both by Kansas in the opening game of the season. Gonzaga won that game by 12 points anyway.
One thing that really stands out for Gonzaga here in the NCAA Tournament has been a lack of takeaways. It could be what really keeps this game close or maybe even puts Baylor on the precipice of an upset. Gonzaga’s TO% by game are 15, 18.8, 15.1, 13.9, and 13.5. By contrast, Baylor’s are 31.2, 21.8, 27.8, 21.9, and 18.8.
Baylor comes into this game as the #3 defense in TO%. Gonzaga is respectable at 126th, but Baylor has gotten extra possessions via the offensive glass and the turnover. Those are two areas where the Bears have some pretty significant advantages. Gonzaga is a decent offensive rebounding team, but the bulk of those numbers come from West Coast Conference play, a league that ranked 27th in ORB%. It was first in DRB%, but that’s because most of those teams lack height. The Big 12 is a different animal.
That being said, rebounding won’t be quite as big of a factor if Gonzaga keeps shooting the way it has all season long. The Bulldogs get tons of clean looks on offense, which is why they’ve shot 64% on twos. They spread and share the ball so well and have so many scoring options.
The Bulldogs also have an advantage at the free throw line in this one. The officials have mostly let the teams play in the NCAA Tournament. Of course, there was a huge block/charge call on the final possession of regulation that went Gonzaga’s way, but we haven’t seen a lot of foul fests or free throw shooting competitions in these games to this point.
Pick & Analysis
Man, what a great matchup this is. These are the two best teams and it is nice to see this penultimate game despite all of the upsets that we saw early in the tournament and with what the Pac-12 did in the Elite Eight.
This line was 6 or 6.5 before the Final Four. Has it been overadjusted down to 4.5 based on just two small data points? That is really the question that we have to ask ourselves here. I said before the Final Four games that I liked Gonzaga over Baylor up to -7. Now we have a choice because of how the two teams looked in their respective games. Did what happened on Saturday impact my thought process enough to shift gears?
The answer for me is no. Gonzaga -4.5 is the play. There are some concerns, certainly, but UCLA had a massive outlier offensive performance and Gonzaga did play like a team scared to lose instead of eager to win at times.
Baylor is a great team. No doubt about it. I also think their win over Houston has been a bit overblown. Houston came from a horrific AAC conference, at least from an offensive standpoint. Their defensive metrics were overblown. Credit to Baylor for the path they’ve taken to get here, but Gonzaga’s offense is on another level and the Bulldogs should speed the Bears up.