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NCAA Tournament National Championship Game Preview: Baylor Bears vs. Gonzaga Bulldogs

by April 4, 2021

We spent all college basketball season wondering when the “Blue Bloods” were going to get going. Yet we ended up with a national championship game between two universities, Baylor and Gonzaga, which have no national titles between them. And it could not feel more right or a more perfect way to end the season.

Gonzaga and Baylor were supposed to play in the regular season, but COVID-19 deprived us of that dream matchup. However, the pandemic could not stop the freight train of the two best teams in the country all season long. It is the first national championship game between the preseason No. 1 and No. 2 teams since 2001. It is also just the ninth national championship game between the No. 1 and No. 2 overall seeds. But if this game is anything like the previous eight, we are in for a classic, as single digits decided all others.

Amidst all of these historical facts and intriguing storylines, the one that matters most is Gonzaga’s pursuit of perfection. Can the Bulldogs become the first college basketball team to end the season undefeated since the 1975-76 Hoosiers and do so in the state of Indiana nonetheless? Or can Baylor become the first team from Texas to win a national championship since Texas Western in 1966?

Details

  • Opening Lines: DraftKings had the odds open Gonzaga -14; O/U 145.5
  • Location: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, IN
  • Start Time: 9:20 PM ET
  • Television: CBS
  • Last Meeting: March 23rd, 2019- Gonzaga def. Baylor 83-71 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament
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Overview

The Baylor Bears dominated the Houston Cougars 78-59 for a chance to play for the school’s first national championship. It was a historic defensive performance, as the Bears held the Cougars to the fewest first-half points (20) in Final Four history. Baylor held Houston without a field goal for more than six minutes in the first half, as no one outside of Marcus Sasser could get going for Houston early. Baylor’s offense in the first half was not too shabby either. They averaged 1.47 points per possession and had a 71.4% effective field goal percentage. Perhaps the most impressive part was their 53.8% offensive rebounding percentage, doing to Houston what the Cougars had done to most opponents throughout the year.

Though Baylor is 4-0 ATS in their last four games, their performance in the Final Four most resembled the Bears team that started the season 13-4 ATS (17-0 SU) before a 21-day COVID-19 pause. Baylor shot 52.7% from the field, and 45.8% from three-point range against a Houston defense that entered the game ranked second in the country in effective field goal percentage. The Bears once again showed their versatility offensively, as five players scored in double figures. The Bears bench outscored Houston’s reserves 32-11, and Baylor out-rebounded one of the best teams in the country 33-28.

The Gonzaga Bulldogs are attempting to become the eighth national champion and the second in the last 45 years to spend an entire season as the AP Poll’s top-ranked team. The Bulldogs entered the Final Four with an efficiency margin of +38.82. To put that into historical perspective, the current end-of-season record is +36.91, set by the Kentucky Wildcats in 2014-15. The Bulldogs saw their 27-game winning streak by double digits end as they needed an overtime thriller to beat UCLA. However, their three-point win brought their tournament margin of victory to +99. The biggest margin of victory through an entire tournament is 1995-96 Kentucky’s +129.

The Bulldogs lead the country in scoring offense, field goal percentage, and two-point shooting percentage. They are the sixth team to win their first four tournament games by at least 15 points since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The last team to accomplish that, the 2004 UConn Huskies, also went on to win the national championship. And while Baylor’s offensive versatility was on full display against Houston, Gonzaga has been the most versatile offense all year long. In 26 of their 31 games, Gonzaga has had at least four double-digit scorers.

Trends

  • Gonzaga is 4-1 ATS in their last five games.
  • Gonzaga is 4-1-1 ATS in their last six games following an ATS loss.
  • Baylor is 4-0 ATS in their last four games.
  • Baylor is 6-1 ATS in their last seven games as an underdog.
  • The underdog is 4-0 ATS in the last four meetings between the two teams.
  • The under is 6-2 in Gonzaga’s last eight games following an ATS loss.
  • The over is 14-3 in Baylor’s last 17 games overall.
  • The over is 5-0-2 in Baylor’s last seven neutral site games as an underdog.

Bottom Line

It had been four months since Gonzaga ever felt threatened in a game, which coincidentally was the last time they won by single digits before last night (beat West Virginia 87-82 on December 2nd). Those who remained skeptical of Gonzaga entering the tournament wondered how the Bulldogs would respond in a tight contest, especially with the pressure of staying undefeated hanging over their heads. The answer? Shaky at best, although credit needs to be given to the UCLA Bruins for going toe-to-toe with the Bulldogs and playing an extremely efficient game on the offensive end.

The dilemma from a betting perspective entering Monday night 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 and had reached the Final Four after becoming the first team in NCAA tournament history to face four double-digit seeds in a single tournament.

However, one of the biggest takeaways from Saturday is how efficient Baylor’s offense was and how it appears they can go toe-to-toe with Gonzaga in either a track meet or in more of a half-court grind.

 

Gonzaga leads the country in scoring margin, but Baylor is third. Eighteen national champions led the nation in scoring margin, but just two of those came in the last 11 tournaments (2012 Kentucky, 2009 UNC). Gonzaga is favored because they are undefeated and because they have steamrolled their competition up to this point. However, it could be argued that Baylor’s two losses on the season were a product of them still recovering from a three-week COVID-19 pause. If their season had never been affected by the pandemic, would Baylor enter this game undefeated? And would a battle-tested, experienced Big 12 team still be underdogs then?

The most concerning statistic backing Baylor 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.

A pick supporting Baylor is also worrisome in the sense that it feels like too much of a knee-jerk reaction to the way the Final Four games played out. Baylor dominated, Gonzaga struggled. However, it is hard to argue with history and that no one has ended a regular season as undefeated national champions for the last 45 years. The Bulldogs may add their names to the record books on Monday night, but it will not come easy. And we are still contrarian (as we always prefer) by backing the Bears.

Pick: Baylor +4.5

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Mike Spector is a featured writer at BettingPros. For more from Mike, check out his archive and follow him @MikeSpector01.

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