The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Baylor set the tone, then the standard, in denying Gonzaga perfection

Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs, the hero of the Bulldogs’ dramatic win over UCLA two nights earlier, is forlorn after the first loss of the season — against Baylor in the national championship game. (Michael Conroy/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

INDIANAPOLIS — Bob Knight can rest easy for at least another year.

Fifty-one miles north of Bloomington, where Knight put together Indiana’s 30-0 masterpiece in 1975-76, Gonzaga walked onto the floor of Lucas Oil Stadium on Monday night one victory from becoming the first men’s college basketball team to go undefeated since those Hoosiers were perfect 45 years ago.

The Bulldogs walked off that floor two hours later, heads bowed, emotionally and physically drained after being pounded, 86-70, by Baylor in a game that wasn’t as close as the margin would indicate.

Baylor defeats Gonzaga, earns first men’s basketball national title

A handful of numbers tell the story of this game very clearly. The last tie was at 0-0. Baylor jumped to a 9-0 lead. Gonzaga star Jalen Suggs, the hero of Saturday night’s overtime escape against UCLA, was on the bench with two fouls before his team scored a point. The lead quickly stretched to 23-8, and although the Bulldogs closed the gap to 47-37 at the half, they got the margin into single digits only once, cutting the lead to 58-49 on an Andrew Nembhard jumper with 14:30 left to play.

That may have been the one time all night the Gonzaga fans in the largely empty building stirred and the Baylor fans buzzed with a hint of nerves. It didn’t last long. The Bears went on a quick 9-2 run to extend the margin to 16, and the last 13 minutes were little more than a victory march.

There’s no excuse-making in the Final Four, but it is very possible that Baylor won this championship on Saturday when it cruised to a 78-59 victory over Houston while Gonzaga had to scrap for 45 exhausting minutes against UCLA. Only then did Suggs (who led his team with 22 points Monday in what was probably his final college game) finally rescue his team with a buzzer-beating bank shot that gave Gonzaga a 93-90 overtime victory.

One team had a semifinal cakewalk; the other was involved in a rock fight.

The first 80 seconds of the title game — seriously — set the tone for the entire night. Baylor’s Mark Vital missed a shot inside and got his own rebound. He missed a second time and again got his own rebound. This time he pitched the ball to Davion Mitchell, who swished a jump shot. Suggs then missed a three at the other end, and MaCio Teague missed for the Bears.

While Gonzaga crushed its foes, Indiana had close calls on its way to perfection in 1976

Once more, Vital got the offensive rebound and slipped the ball to Jared Butler for a layup to make it 4-0. In 78 seconds, Vital had three offensive rebounds — he would finish with eight. Gonzaga had five all night.

Baylor was simply too quick and too deep for the Bulldogs. When Gonzaga couldn’t guard the Bears man-to-man, Coach Mark Few went to a zone. That didn’t work, either. Gonzaga is not a zone team, and Baylor can shoot almost anyone out of a zone. Few was like a lion tamer who had his whip stolen. His superb team, 31-0 coming into this game, was overmatched for almost the entire 40 minutes.

This championship was a long time coming for Baylor in many ways. The Bears last reached the title game in 1948 — 22 years before Coach Scott Drew was born. But the more remarkable story is the one that Drew has written since he became the school’s coach in August 2003.

That was two months after Patrick Dennehy had been killed by teammate Carlton Dotson, and coach Dave Bliss was fired after being accused of urging his players to cover up what had happened.

The case could be made that Baylor was the worst job in college basketball at that moment. Drew had succeeded his father, Homer, as the coach at Valparaiso a year earlier and had gone to the NIT in his first season. Most in coaching thought he had lost his mind when he took the Baylor job, and his first three seasons seemed to confirm that notion.

Dealing with NCAA penalties and the stains of the scandal, Baylor went 21-53. A year later, with his recruiting slowly kicking in, the Bears were 15-16. Since then, they’ve been to nine of the past 13 NCAA tournaments, peaking with this team’s remarkable 28-2 season that might have been even better — perhaps even perfect? — if not for coronavirus pauses that preceded losses to Kansas and Oklahoma State.

The team Drew has put together appears to be quick and then quicker at each position. Butler, Mitchell and Teague can both score from beyond the arc but can beat you off the dribble if you try to get up on them. The bench is deep, as sophomore Adam Flagler proved Monday by chipping in 13 points in 22 minutes. But the heart and soul of this team is Vital, a redshirt senior who scored six points in the title game — his average for the season.

But he also had 11 rebounds — including those eight on the offensive end — two assists, two steals and a block. The rebounding margin for the night was 38-22, and Vital was a vital part of those numbers.

For Gonzaga, the final represented heartbreak. As well as the Bulldogs played all season, dominating teams such as Kansas, Virginia, Iowa and Auburn in nonconference play, their final memory of this season will be a night they never led and were outplayed from start to finish. Their victory over UCLA will still go down as one of the best-played and most dramatic Final Four games ever.

Forecasting next season’s top 25 in college hoops: Alabama leads the way (yes, in basketball)

But it is entirely possible that the emotions of that victory were just a little too much to bounce back from. The Bulldogs — justifiably — celebrated wildly after their win when they still had to play one more game.

In 1991, when Duke stunned an undefeated UNLV team in the semifinals, Coach Mike Krzyzewski raced onto the court after Anderson Hunt’s last-second shot bounced off the rim with his palms down, telling his players not to celebrate. He remembered that five years earlier his team had won a dramatic semifinal against Kansas and didn’t have enough left in its emotional tank for the championship game.

Few didn’t have the benefit of that experience. On the other hand, the case can be made that Baylor would have won this game if Gonzaga had been given a bye into the final. The Bears were that good.

In all, this last game, for those not wearing Baylor green, was an anticlimactic ending to the strangest season college basketball has ever seen.

That shouldn’t take anything away from what Baylor has accomplished. It took a while, but Drew brought the school back from death — if not from the dead — to this emphatic title.

Fifty-one miles down State Road 37 in Bloomington, an 80-year-old former Indiana coach was no doubt very pleased to see what the 50-year-old coach raised in Indiana accomplished on a warm — though not rainy — Monday night in Indiana.