INDIANAPOLIS — At the 11:45 mark of the second half of the national championship game, Baylor coach Scott Drew turned his head down and carefully wrote notes on a small piece of paper resting on his knee. The game progressed but he didn’t look up from his notes, which turned out to be offensive sets his team hadn’t run yet. As Drew wrote, he missed seeing Gonzaga big man Drew Timme pick up his fourth foul on a charge at the opposite end of the floor from the Baylor bench—one more example of the upset romp unfolding in Lucas Oil Stadium.
A game that was supposed to be the dramatic final act of this long, strange season had become such a mismatch that one of the participating coaches could take a couple of plays off from even watching. At that point, the Bears were walloping the Zags by 16 points and Drew could have spent the rest of the game writing essays about resurrecting a moribund program if he wanted. He could have gone to St. Elmo for a steak.
There was nothing left to watch, no details left to sweat. It was over, an epic anticlimax of a title game. The Bears just needed to name the final score, which would up being 86–70.
Gonzaga had been defrocked. Relentless Baylor had been elevated, winning its first men’s basketball national title. There truly was one great men’s team in 2020–21—but it wasn’t the one that came into this contest undefeated. The great team was the 28–2 Bears, who overcame a late-season COVID-19 pause that took a temporary toll, then stormed through the NCAA tournament and dominated the last weekend.
“There’s usually some luck that goes into [winning a title],” Drew said. “And we didn’t even have to be lucky because our guys were so dominant this entire tournament.”
Instead of the Zags grabbing a piece of history by becoming the first undefeated men’s champion since Indiana in 1976, it was Baylor who made a callback to an all-time powerhouse. After thrashing Houston 78–59 and this mauling, the Bears are the first team since Lew Alcindor-led UCLA in 1968 to win both Final Four games by more than 15 points.
“Listen, Baylor just beat us,” Zags coach Mark Few said. “They beat us in every facet of the game tonight and deserve all the credit. … They dominated us on both sides of the ball.”
Ultimately, squeezing one more magic night out of this tournament would have been greedy. Just having the Big Dance, after the disappointment of March 2020, was the thing. Playing the games, crowning a champion, cutting the nets, watching “One Shining Moment” and being treated to the upsets and the drama and at least one true classic game was enough.
The masterpiece came in the national semifinals, when Gonzaga outlasted UCLA 93–90 in overtime on a 40-foot banker from Jalen Suggs. But Saturday also was a foreshadowing of what would transpire Monday. Baylor blitzed past No. 2 seed Houston, unthreatened in the earlier semifinal. Gonzaga needed everything in its arsenal to get past a No. 11 seed.
These two teams had been ranked in the top three all season, and an anticipated December game between them was canceled due to COVID-19 issues. Playing for the title seemed like the perfect substitute. But capping this quiet and complicated season with a great championship game turned out to be one wish too many.
Baylor was too good to allow it to be close, suspenseful or even particularly memorable. Too relentless. Too athletic. Too aggressive, to use the word Few repeated over and over postgame.
An expected classic turned into a Baylor beatdown, a Gonzaga meltdown, a spindling in Indy.
Rarely in championship game history has a mismatch been this apparent from the outset, and even more rarely does it happen where the No. 1 favored team is the one that cannot hang.
It was 9–0 to start, with Baylor attacking the rim and hammering the glass and flustering the Gonzaga passing game. Bulldogs standout guard Suggs got two fouls in the first three minutes. The nightmare was immediate for Gonzaga. The Zags couldn’t rebound, couldn’t defend and couldn’t get to the basket. “We were playing sideways,” Few said.
Gonzaga had never trailed by more than 14 points this season, and never trailed by more than eight in this tournament. The Zags found themselves down by double digits so fast that it had to shock a team that had its own way with so many opponents. “When you come up against a team like that who is just firing on all cylinders for 40 minutes, it’s really hard to compete with,” said Gonzaga senior Corey Kispert.
This was a high-speed train wreck that only Baylor saw coming. A matchup of elite guards turned out to be a rout by the Bears quartet of Butler (the Final Four Most Outstanding Player), Davion Mitchell, MaCio Teague and reserve Adam Flagler. They combined for 69 of Baylor’s 86 points, making 10 of 20 threes and torturing Timme in pick-and-roll situations when he was switched onto them.
“Look, I’ve been watching them all year and watching last year and I knew they were going to be a handful for us,” Few said. “Those guards are so quick and they can all get to their own shot.”
Few was so flummoxed that he actually put his team in a zone defense for several possessions—and Gonzaga almost never plays zone. It worked for a short while, but Baylor figured it out just the way it figured out how to shred the Zags’ man-to-man.
“We track points per possession over there and the zone was worse than the man, which was hard to do tonight,” Few said. “But it actually, it was worse.”
For Gonzaga, the old criticisms about rolling through too easy a conference will be rekindled. In point of fact, the Zags crushed a succession of power-conference opponents in November and December, and then again in the second, third and fourth rounds here. But they were outmanned in terms of athleticism and muscle Monday night, areas that much continue to be addressed.
Gonzaga can hope it has reached the Duke stage of program building. The Blue Devils lost their first national championship game under Mike Krzyzewski in 1986, a hard-fought defeat at the hands of Louisville. Four years later they made it back again and were obliterated by UNLV. After that, they got over the hump, winning consecutive national titles and five in a span of 24 years. The Zags lost a crusher to North Carolina in 2017, and four years later have their own blowout to process. Can they take the next step from this crusher?
There is no more next step for Drew, not after a game that offered the final validation of the Baylor coach. He took over the program at the literal lowest point imaginable, coming off a tragic scandal that unfolded after one player murdered another. The Bears were hit with sanctions so severe that they were banned from playing non-conference games in the 2005–06 season. Drew was so low on players that he held tryouts for walk-ons, and once tried to recruit a tall guy at a Fazoli’s near campus only to find out that he wasn’t a Baylor student.
When Drew finally got the program up and running, criticism flowed. He’d win recruiting battles but hear assertions that he cheated. He’d win games but have NCAA tourney flameouts, leading to a label that he couldn’t coach.
There are no criticisms left. The only label that applies is champion. Scott Drew can write that in his game notes for the rest of his career.