Baylor looked like it was in trouble, trailing Villanova by seven points in the first half of Saturday’s Sweet 16 game.
Then we saw the No. 1 seeded team that’s a national title contender in the second half, especially in the final 10 minutes when the Bears went on a 23-10 run to flex their muscles as a top-tier team and secure their trip to the Elite Eight.
Much of the hype this season has gone to undefeated Gonzaga, the top overall seed in the tournament. Much like the ‘Zags, Baylor brought back its core roster from last year’s team that would have been a No. 1 seed in the 2020 men’s NCAA Tournament had it not been cancelled because of the pandemic. Gonzaga was the preseason No. 1 in the Associated Press poll, while Baylor led the Ferris Mowers Coaches Poll.
Gonzaga and Baylor have been 1-2 practically all year. Both teams were slated to play each other Dec. 5 before that game was canceled due to COVID-19. Would the Bulldogs still be undefeated if they played? We can only determine which team’s better if they meet in the national championship game April 5.
With no disrespect to the teams of the East and Midwest regions, here’s why No. 1 Baylor – the second top seed in this tournament – will be the team cutting down the nets, and not Gonzaga.
1. Better guard play
The Bears have a three-headed monster backcourt of Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell and MaCio Vital, who combine for 47.1 points a game. In Saturday’s win over Villanova, Butler played poorly – shooting 1-for-9 from three-point land and finishing with nine points. Yet Baylor still outplayed the Wildcats down the stretch, thanks in large part to Mitchell carving through ‘Nova’s defense. They also got 16 points from Adam Flagler.
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2. More tested in conference, NCAAs
Gonzaga always challenges itself in non-conference action and as a result, had the nation’s best NET score. But the Bulldogs (28-0) haven’t played a team with a top-30 NET score outside of second place West Coast Conference finisher Brigham Young since December, when they beat Iowa and Virginia. The Bears, meanwhile, won the Big 12 regular season and played 11 top-30 NET teams. Facing better competition doesn’t always translate, as we’ve seen with the Big Ten this NCAA Tournament. But Baylor will be undoubtedly more battle-tested should this No. 1-seed national championship materialize, having played tougher teams in the Big Dance, too. Baylor pummeled the same Oklahoma team in January that Gonzaga faced in the second round, while Baylor’s got more challenging tests vs. Wisconsin and Villanova in the second round and Sweet 16.
3. Baylor leads the nation in threes
While Gonzaga’s Drew Timme would be a problem for Baylor in a potential matchup, defending beyond the arc would be a primary concern for the ‘Zags. The Bears lead the nation in three-point field goal percentage (42%) and make over 10 triples a game. It’s why coach Scott Drew’s offense ranks third in KenPom.com rankings and can explode and turn the game’s momentum in Baylor’s favor.
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.