Baylor wasn’t perfect this season, but they were close to it on Monday night.
The Bears did what 31 other teams couldn’t accomplish this season. They defeated previously unbeaten Gonzaga in a battle of the top two NCAA Tournament teams, 86-70, winning their program’s first men’s tournament national championship.
It was the showdown everyone hoped for with an outcome few expected.
The 28-2 Bears’ physicality and aggressiveness flustered the 31-1 Bulldogs from the start, and they led by as many as 19 points in the first half at Lucas Oil Stadium.
And now the 1976 Indiana champions — the last to survive a season without a loss — can celebrate.
Here are three takeaways from the championship:
1. Credit Baylor instead of dogging Gonzaga.
There will be a lot of excuses and explanations in trying to figure out what went wrong for Gonzaga.
Were the ‘Zags exhausted from Saturday’s overtime buzzer-beating Final Four victory against UCLA? Is this a sign that Gonzaga’s weak conference didn’t properly prepare the team for physical battles?
This had everything to do with Baylor’s superiority.
These were clearly the two best teams in college basketball — and Baylor was clearly the better of the two.
The Bears’ tough guards, physical play on the boards, aggressive offense and smothering defense shaped the game from the start. They jumped to a 9-0 lead and led by as many as 19 points in the first half.
“They punched us in the mouth right from the get-go,” Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert said.
Even after Gonzaga cut Baylor’s lead to nine points in the second half, the Bears locked in even more and went up by 20 points. The ‘Zags never led.
Baylor, whose two losses came after a three-week pause for a COVID-19 issue, were dominant on the glass with a 38-22 edge, including 16-5 on the offensive boards.
Jared Butler led the way with 22 points and seven assists, making four of the Bears’ 10 3-pointers.
It wasn’t that Baylor didn’t let Gonzaga get clear shots — Gonzaga couldn’t even get enough shots. Baylor took 18 more than Gonzaga. The Bulldogs couldn’t even get their first field goal until 5 minutes, 32 seconds had passed after tipoff.
“They were just so much more aggressive,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “We haven’t played like that this year. They literally busted us out of anything we could possibly do on offense. We were playing with our back to the basket, not facing up. And we couldn’t get anything generated to the basket. We were kind of playing sideways.”
2. Scott Drew’s rebuild worked. A chorus of college basketball fans wondered if Drew could ever win the title at Baylor.
He took over in 2003 after a horrendous scandal involving Baylor basketball player Carlton Dotson, who murdered his teammate Patrick Dennehy, and former coach Dave Bliss, who attempted to frame Dennehy as a drug dealer to cover up NCAA rules violations.
It was an unenviable position for many reasons. The program was dealing with sanctions and the decimated roster.
“Going into every game being 30- or 40-point underdogs and half your team walk-ons,” Drew described his first season in Waco, Texas, “and, you know, as a coach, if we can just keep it close, keep it within 20 by the first half or 10.
“But really credit those guys who won three games that year. And they laid the foundation. Those guys have stayed with the program and helped support these guys. And that’s what you love, over 18 years, there’s so many people that put in hard work and sweat.”
He vowed to eventually win a championship at Baylor.
Drew, the son of former Valparaiso coach Homer Drew and a former one-year coach at Valpo himself, coached in eight previous NCAA Tournaments, getting as far as the Elite Eight in 2010 and 2012.
The Bears were 26-4 last season before COVID-19 protocols canceled the postseason.
“Everybody sacrificed for it,” Butler said. “Everybody came back. We got the band back together and we won it.”
3. March Madness pulled it off. The doubts about whether the NCAA Tournament would reach a conclusion were legitimate.
Numerous games were canceled this season. Schedules were reshuffled. Even during the tournament, VCU was sent home after positive tests resulting in a no-contest game.
But a year after no March Madness, the 2021 tournament played to completion.
It wasn’t a complete bubble like the NBA had in the 2020 summer restart, but the games were played with few interruptions as teams quarantined in their hotels between games.
“All year long, when games would get canceled, we really took it as a blessing when games were played,” Drew said. “It was really easy to motivate because when you had three or four or five or six games canceled, for your players, you want to find games. … I’m just saying how pleased and blessed we all are that we played games, had this championship. And I’m speaking for the players and the coaches.”
We saw one of the most spectacular Final Four games — the memorable buzzer-beater by Jalen Suggs against UCLA — and Baylor proved itself a champion with its dominating performance.