The NCAA tournament is one of the most exciting events in all sports, as the one-game elimination setup makes it likelier to see upsets compared to a best-of-seven format. This year’s tournament had the most upsets of all-time (14), and subsequently the highest seed average entering the Sweet 16. However, the best two college basketball teams all year long have been the Baylor Bears and Gonzaga Bulldogs, and each of them steamrolled (and survived) their way to a collision course in the national championship.
This is the first national championship meeting of the preseason top-two teams in the AP Poll. It is also the ninth national championship featuring the tournament’s top two overall seeds. The previous eight-such matchups were all decided by double digits, so history says we should be in for another classic.
If Baylor wins, it would be the first national championship in school history and validate head coach Scott Drew’s resurrection of a program considered the conference doormat for decades. If Gonzaga wins, they put themselves in the history books as one of the most dominant teams of all time and just the fifth school ever (and eighth team ever) to end the season as undefeated national champions.
Get your popcorn ready.
Here are our best bets for the point spread, over/under, and our favorite prop for Monday’s national championship.
The others with 2 came in 1957 (North Carolina-Kansas) and 1966 (Texas Western-Kentucky).
— Stats By STATS (@StatsBySTATS) April 4, 2021
All odds via BettingPros consensus
#1 Baylor vs. #1 Gonzaga (-4.5, O/U 159.5): 9:20 PM ET
From a betting perspective entering Monday night, the dilemma is how much should we get caught up from Saturday’s results? Gonzaga nearly got picked off but covered four straight tournament games and set an NCAA record with 27 consecutive wins by double digits. Baylor dominated Houston from the onset, but bettors may be skeptical that the Cougars had not played a KenPom top-30 team the entire season. Houston also reached the Final Four after becoming the first NCAA team in tournament history to face four double-digit seeds in a single tournament.
While the biggest narrative surrounding Monday’s matchup is Gonzaga’s pursuit of perfection, their zero in the loss column is likely the most significant factor making them favorites in this game. We are quick to forget that Baylor started the season 17-0 and won those games by an average of 23.6 PPG. In that time, they beat six NCAA tournament teams, including a No. 1 seed (Illinois) and two No. 3 seeds (Texas and Kansas) by an average of 11.7 PPG. Their struggles following a three-week COVID-19 pause were well-documented and caused many to forget what this team’s true ceiling is. Their performance on Monday night and throughout the entire tournament has reminded us of what their ceiling is.
The most concerning statistic if you are a Baylor backer is Gonzaga’s ability to get to the paint and score from close range. The Bulldogs’ 63.9% shooting percentage is the best in the country, while Baylor’s 48.3% two-point percentage ranks 120th. The Bears have to pressure the ball on the perimeter and not allow Gonzaga’s guards to feed Drew Timme in the post repeatedly, or he will easily exceed the 25.0 PPG he has averaged over the last four games.
Baylor made history in their Final Four performance against Houston on both the offensive and defensive end. They held the Cougars to 20 first-half points, which is the fewest amount of points a team ever scored in the first half of a national semifinal. On offense, their 23 assists were the most in a Final Four game since 1990.
Baylor has the defensive personnel to frustrate a Gonzaga offense that has steamrolled their competition this year. Davion Mitchell earned the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Award, and his ability to guard either Jalen Suggs or Corey Kispert will thwart one of Gonzaga’s vital offensive pieces.
Baylor's ball-screen defense has rendered DeJon Jarreau completely ineffective offensively, and the Cougars are having a nightmare of a time creating good looks on their first shot.
— Rob Dauster (@RobDauster) April 3, 2021
The over will be a popular play given how effective Baylor has been on offense all tournament-long and the level that Gonzaga has played at all season long. However, the nerves on the biggest stage and the pressure of culminating the season with a championship will weigh heavily on both teams, causing a lower-scoring game than most predict. In addition, Stats by Stats pointed out on Twitter that Baylor has been on a historic pace from a turnover margin perspective.
After today's win, @BaylorMBB now has a +40 turnover margin in the NCAA Tournament this year.
That's the best turnover margin by any team over its first 4 NCAA Tournament games since Kentucky was +42 in 1996 on its way to the title.
— Stats By STATS (@StatsBySTATS) March 30, 2021
Most Outstanding Player
Three of the top four players on the Most Outstanding Player odds list are Bulldogs, highlighting Gonzaga’s chances to win the game. If Gonzaga wins, the biggest reason will be because of Drew Timme, and his +100 odds are too good to pass up. Making this bet also serves as somewhat of a hedge considering we like Baylor’s chances to cover the 4.5-point spread.
Baylor does not have anyone down low that can shut down Timme. He is too agile with his tremendous footwork for a defender like Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and is too big and physical for an under-sized defender like Mark Vital. Entering the Final Four, Timme’s 85 points, 30 rebounds, and 17 assists made him the first player to total 85/30/15 over the first four NCAA tournament games since Mitch Richmond in 1988. Timme followed that up with 25 points, four rebounds, and two assists against UCLA. Though Jalen Suggs’ sequence of a massive block and needle-threading bounce pass to Timme for a dunk was game-changing, Timme’s first six points in the overtime session against UCLA calmed Gonzaga’s nerves and paced them enough to keep their undefeated season intact.
When the going gets tough against Baylor, Mark Few is going to look Timme’s way often. Plus, his trademark “stache” will be printed on T-shirts if the Bulldogs go on to win the championship. Even though Jalen Suggs will have a more lucrative and successful NBA career, Timme will get the sentimental vote for MOP.
Pick: Drew Timme (+100, odds courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook)
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