The men’s NCAA national championship game is upon us. The culmination of the college basketball season is Monday, with tipoff set for 7:20 p.m. Below is my favorite bet for the game between teams that were ranked Nos. 1 and 2 basically all season.
Baylor vs. Gonzaga
The basketball gods have been kind, giving us the matchup we’ve been dying to see all year between the Gonzaga Bulldogs and Baylor Bears. It was apparent since November that these two programs were head and shoulders over the rest of the nation, and to get these two matched up to finish up an incredible (and abnormal) college basketball season is icing on the cake.
The main storyline here is whether Gonzaga can pull off the quest for perfection. Gonzaga enters as 4.5-point favorites for a reason — the Bulldogs won every tournament game until Saturday by at least 16 points, and then in the Final Four withstood the ultimate test by red-hot UCLA (thank you for the instant classic, Mick Cronin). Their high-octane continuity offense as a unit may be the best we’ve ever seen in college basketball, through dazzling cutting and ball movement while also being lethal in transition. The Gonzaga defense certainly is stout, but it has shown during brief stints that it could be exposed. If you think UCLA was able to take advantage against some of the Gonzaga switching situations, wait until you see what Baylor can do.
The one spot Baylor does hold a slight edge is in the backcourt, as the experience and pressure Jared Butler, Macio Teague and Davion Mitchell will employ is second to none.
To me, there will be two X-factors. The first will be the play of stud freshman lead guard (now infamous in Gonzaga history after the shot that lifted Gonzaga in overtime in the Final Four) Jalen Suggs. Suggs is a generational talent who will undoubtedly go top three in the NBA draft, but let’s not forget he is a freshman and has shown some stints of silly fouls and turnovers. Gonzaga has been able to get away with some inconsistency by Suggs throughout the course of the season, but the team will certainly not be able to withstand that against this scary Baylor backcourt. The Bulldogs need the best version of Suggs in this game.
The second (and arguably more important) difference maker is Mr. Handlebar Mustache himself, crafty Drew Timme. Timme will be by far the most talented big on the floor, and how Baylor is able to contain him will be key. No one (not even USC’s Evan Mobley) has been able to slow Timme down, so it will be very interesting to see how coach Scott Drew attempts to handle him.
The game overall has the makings of a classic. When handicapping a close game, especially one of this magnitude, I always tend to side with the better defense. The statistics may not show it, but it is clear to me that Baylor’s defense has been completely locked in over the course of this run. Gonzaga from top to bottom is one of the best college basketball teams of all time, and probably wins this game more times than not.
Yet, getting over four points, having the better defensive form, having the more experienced backcourt, and showing more positive shooting regression, I am siding with the Bears and think they have a good shot of pulling this one out straight up. There aren’t many teams in the country capable of knocking off the Zags, but Baylor is one of them.
The pick: Baylor +4.5