In usual years, with March so close on the calendar, the discussion in men’s college basketball is about which of the sport’s blue bloods deserve a top seed for the upcoming NCAA Tournament, with pundits parsing out comparisons of each team’s best wins and losses. But this is a very unusual year. There can be no critique of the losses of the top two teams – because they do not have any. Gonzaga and Baylor, who have been ranked first and second respectively in the AP Poll since the beginning of the season, are both unblemished at this point.
Of course, game schedules have been extremely volatile this year, and most teams have not played as many games as they would have in a typical season. Nonetheless, Gonzaga and Baylor have both been really impressive and are threatening to enter March Madness undefeated.
Gonzaga blitzes opponents with a relentless offense.
The Bulldogs have three All-American candidates, including freshman guard Jalen Suggs, who figures to be a top five pick in the next NBA Draft. As a member of a mid-major conference (the West Coast Conference) coach Mark Few has made sure to load up on challenging early season non-conference games in recent years, and this one was no exception. The Zags earned their #1 ranking by beating Kansas, West Virginia, Iowa, and Virginia earlier this year, handling each game with relative ease.
Gonzaga’s win over BYU last week cleared their trickiest remaining hurdle. If the Bulldogs can beat their rival St. Mary’s on Thursday, they will almost certainly enter the WCC tournament undefeated (provided their conference tournament actually takes place). Gonzaga will have a bye into the semifinal, meaning they will only have to win two games to complete the conference season unscathed. The WCC has some pesky teams, and potentially having to beat BYU for a third time this season will be no easy task, but the Zags will be heavily favored in each game.
Baylor beats their opponents into submission with a pressure defense that seems indefatigable.
Coach Scott Drew has steadily built the Baylor program from the scorched earth he inherited in 2003 to one of the most consistent clubs in the country. The Bears have employed a number of defensive strategies over that time. But this year’s squad, which primarily plays a straight-up man-to-man, seems to be the best. The defensive pressure starts with a triumvirate of upperclassmen guards; MaCio Teague, Davion Mitchell, and Jared Butler.
While Baylor plays in the Big 12, one of the toughest conferences in the country, they only had one noteworthy matchup in the non-conference season; a win over #5 Illinois. The Bears have been on pause since February 2nd, preserving their perfect record. While that has allowed them to avoid some of their toughest matchups, their +24.2 average point differential quickly erases any doubt about their merits. Baylor’s remaining games are against West Virginia and Kansas, and a potential Big 12 Conference tournament, all make it significantly less likely that they remain undefeated as long as Gonzaga. But the Bears will still enter each individual game legitimately expecting to win.
The prospect of being undefeated entering the NCAA Tournament is not necessarily a good omen.
The last team to complete an undefeated season with a national championship was Indiana, who went 32-0 in 1976. For perspective, that was nine years before the tournament expanded to 64 teams. Since then, juggernauts such as UNLV in 1991 and Kentucky in 2015 have seemed unbeatable until their perfect seasons were shockingly stopped in the national semifinals.
Whether by understandable mental fatigue, or by some sort of inexplicable cosmic madness, teams always fail to complete a perfect season. But one advantage Gonzaga and Baylor have in 2021 is the reduced number of games played. In recent years, a team would have to win between 38 and 40 games to complete a perfect season. If current schedules hold, Gonzaga or Baylor could achieve it in 30 games.
Aside from the oddities of having to deal with the pandemic, the story in college basketball this year is the two top teams, and their quest for history. The Bulldogs and Bears have almost become dual forces, each on their own path to the same prize.
Gonzaga, the team from the small conference with the unstoppable offense led by the freshman phenom.
Baylor, the program from the power conference with the immovable defense made up of experienced upperclassmen.
Ironically, Gonzaga and Baylor originally had a game against each other scheduled for earlier this season. Of course, that was one of the many games cancelled due to health concerns over the pandemic. Now the Bulldogs and Bears seem to be on a collision course to face each other in April anyway. However, history suggests it is very unlikely that both, or even one of them, make it to the title game undefeated. But this has been a most unlikely year.
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