This article is part of our NCAA Championship Preview series.
No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs
Matchup Overview: After a men's college basketball season filled with unpredictability, Monday's National Championship game features two teams that have performed at an elite level all year. Gonzaga coasted to blowout victories in each of the first four rounds of the NCAA Tournament. However, the Zags pulled off a 93-90 overtime win in an all-time classic game against UCLA during the Final Four as freshman Jalen Suggs drilled a three-pointer from the logo at the buzzer.
While the 2019 National Championship game featured two slow-paced offenses, the 2021 matchup features Gonzaga and Baylor, who rank first and second in offensive efficiency, respectively (per KenPom). Baylor had a similar start to the tournament with four comfortable wins, and the team dismantled the strong Houston program for a 78-59 win to advance to the National Championship game. While Gonzaga ranks much higher in adjusted tempo (seventh) compared to Baylor (201st), Monday's matchup should feature plenty of scoring.
Strength: The undefeated Zags have plenty of strengths, but their two-point offense is especially potent. Gonzaga ranks first in the nation in effective field goal percentage and two-point percentage, per KenPom. The Bulldogs' offense inside the arc was on full display against UCLA, as the team shot 71.4 percent from two-point range during the narrow win. While Gonzaga is also proficient from the perimeter, Drew Timme and Corey Kispert are vital contributors in the frontcourt. Jalen Suggs rightly got most of the attention after his buzzer beater Saturday, but Timme shot 73.3 percent from the floor and led the Zags with 25 points, while he also drew a crucial charge with 1.1 seconds remaining in regulation during the Final Four matchup to force overtime. Part of the Bulldogs' efficiency in the frontcourt stems from their ability to create second and third chances on offense, and the team should have plenty of chances to do so against the Bears, whose defense ranks 280th in the nation in defensive rebounding rate.
Weakness: Gonzaga hasn't displayed many weaknesses during the season, but the Bulldogs struggled with perimeter defense against UCLA. The Bruins shot 47.1 percent from beyond the arc during the Final Four, but the Zags were able to keep up due to their offensive efficiency. However, Gonzaga will need to step up more against Baylor's top-rated three-point offense. Baylor's defense stood out against Houston on Saturday, but the Bears were also able to pull away by shooting 45.8 percent from three-point range. While the Zags managed to narrowly beat UCLA, Baylor has a much stronger defense, and the team showcased it by holding Houston to 20 points in the first half and 59 points throughout Saturday's game. If the Bulldogs are unable to contest three-point shots against Baylor, Gonzaga will have much more trouble keeping up with the Bears than they did against UCLA.
Intangibles: Gonzaga's starting five features more underclassmen than Baylor's starting rotation, but the Bulldogs advanced to the Elite Eight in 2019 and have more experience in the later rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Monday's National Championship game features two teams that will be playing for their first national title in program history, but the Zags face additional pressure as they seek to become the first undefeated national champion since the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers. While Baylor had an early exit from the Big 12 Tournament, Gonzaga didn't slip up all season against some formidable opponents and will attempt to make history Monday.
Gonzaga Will Win If: they successfully guard the perimeter. One of the reasons Gonzaga enters Monday's National Championship game with a 31-0 record is because the team has displayed the ability to run up the score regardless of the opponent's offensive production. The Zags could have more trouble doing so against Baylor. Houston ranked seventh in offensive efficiency this year (per KenPom), and the Cougars only managed to put up 59 points against the Bears. Gonzaga's offense still has an edge against Baylor, but the Bears rank first in the nation in three-point percentage. The Bulldogs will need to hold Baylor in check from three-point range in order to stay in control rather than trying to simply keep pace late in the game.
Gonzaga was put to the test during the Final Four on Saturday in a matchup that both teams deserved to win. Gonzaga and Baylor have both earned the right to play for their first national title Monday through their stellar play as two of the top teams in the nation throughout the year. The 2021 National Championship game should feature plenty of scoring between Baylor's top-rated three-point offense and Gonzaga's top-rated two-point offense. Gonzaga has risen to the occasion in every game this season, and the Zags have plenty of momentum following Saturday's thrilling overtime victory. While Baylor was dominant against Houston in the Final Four, the Zags should make history Monday to become the first undefeated national champions since 1975-76.
No. 1 Baylor Bears
Matchup: While the tournament featured several high-profile upsets, including 11-seed UCLA going from the play-in game to the Final Four, the National Championship will feature the two best teams this season. Gonzaga and Baylor were far and away the top two squads, and the 2020-2021 campaign will end with a battle of titanic proportions. The Bears dominated Houston from start to finish, jumping out to an early lead and not relenting. Meanwhile, Gonzaga won in the most dramatic fashion possible. Jalen Suggs hit a near half-court heave at the buzzer of overtime to break the hearts of the Bruins and catapult the 'Zags to the title game. Gonzaga has the chance to win the program's first National Championship and put an exclamation point on a perfect season, something that has not been accomplished since Indiana in 1976.
Strength: Offensive efficiency. Many felt the semifinal versus Houston would be an ugly slugfest played at a slow pace, as the Cougars boasted the No. 2 scoring defense in the country. However, the Cougars could do little to slow the offensive juggernaut that is the Bears. Baylor tallied a staggering 23 assists as a team and hit 52.7 percent of its shots from the field – including 45.8 percent from beyond the arc. Perhaps the success from downtown was not a surprise; the Bears were the best three-point shooting team in the country throughout the season. Baylor has also been among the top teams in the nation in scoring and assists this year. The trio of Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague has been simply sensational in the tourney.
Weakness: Lack of size. The Bears are actually a decent rebounding team despite the fact that they usually only play one player over 6-5 at a given time. Mark Vital is an elite rebounder at that height, but otherwise the Bears rotate Flo Thamba and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua at the other forward/center position. The lack of height has not hurt the Bears in the tournament just yet but facing Gonzaga will be a different animal. Drew Timme will be a handful at 6-foot-10 with his polished array of post moves, and Corey Kispert will be a matchup nightmare at 6-7 with his inside-outside game.
Intangibles: Baylor will attempt to disrupt the Gonzaga offense with constant pressure. This aggression could work wonders, or it could backfire. The 'Zags are among the more competent offensive teams in the history of college basketball. The idea of them being flustered at this point in the season does not seem likely. That being said, if the Bears decided to sit back and let the 'Zags run their offense, it could be easy pickings. Foul trouble could also play a role, as the Bears are undersized as referenced above, and a more aggressive style of defense could lead to increased foul issues.
Baylor Will Win If: it can get stops and force turnovers. As simple as it sounds, whichever team gets the most stops on the defensive end will win this contest. Both teams boast elite offenses; Gonzaga is averaging a staggering 91.6 points per contest, and the 'Zags are second in the nation in assists per tilt. Baylor is no slouch either as referenced above. The matchup between Davion Mitchell and Jalen Suggs could determine this contest. Mitchell will attempt to get Suggs out of his comfort zone and not allow him to set up the potent Gonzaga offense. If he can be disruptive, help force turnovers and contain the 'Zags outrageous offense, the Bears will have a great chance at denying Gonzaga's perfect season.
These teams are near mirror images of each other, each possessing standout offensive squads with incredible firepower. A perfect season for Gonzaga would be a storybook ending, but the Bears have other plans. Baylor can keep pace with Gonzaga's potent offense and boasts several excellent defenders that can at least slow the mighty Bulldogs offense. The Bears have been superb this tournament in forcing turnovers, while allowing just 60 points per game to the opposition. While it is extremely unlikely the 'Zags will be held to this number, the fact remains that Baylor has the defensive chops to show Gonzaga pressure like they have not faced this season. Baylor will be in the unusual position of being the underdog in this matchup, something the Bears will also be able to use to their advantage. In a thrilling affair, the Bears eke out the victory and capture their program's first title.