Gonzaga and Baylor being Final Four locks is just silly01/18/2021
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The narrative is silly. It is overplayed. It is overdone. It flies in the face of what makes March so memorable.
After COVID-19, undefeated Gonzaga has dominated discussions in college basketball. There has been constant talk that the Bulldogs are a lock to reach the Final Four. A cinch to cut down the nets in Indianapolis. That something remarkable would have to happen for Gonzaga not to be the last team standing.
And, here’s the thing: I’m not even sure Gonzaga is the best team in the sport. Baylor is at least on par with Mark Few’s program.
Look, Gonzaga is very good. It may have the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft in elite freshman guard Jalen Suggs. It is deep and skilled, big and athletic. It manhandled Kansas and Iowa, two of the better teams in the country. It crushed Virginia, the class of the ACC.
But Baylor is the lone team in the country ranked in the top five in offensive and defensive efficiency, not Gonzaga. The Bears haven’t won a game by fewer than eight points this year. They will be better prepared by March to win it all, too, by playing in the rugged Big 12 compared to the series of glorified scrimmages the Zags will use as preparation. Furthermore, I’m not even certain either of these are locks, as much as they do seem to be the two premier teams in the country.
Let’s take a stroll down memory lane. In 2015, Kentucky was undefeated entering the NCAA Tournament. It fell in the national semifinals. Zion Williamson and Duke were supposed to be unbeatable two years ago. They didn’t make the Final Four.
The last overall No. 1 seed to win the title was Louisville way back in 2013.
This is what makes the NCAA Tournament so great, why college basketball is so vastly superior to college football and it’s four-team invitational. Champions aren’t inevitable in college basketball. The 68-team tournament is unpredictable. Missteps happen.
Gonzaga can be beaten. So can Baylor. History is our guide.
Get to the finish line
College basketball has made it to mid-January. Just seven weeks to go in the regular season for the power conferences. While COVID-19 has created a season unlike any other, an abbreviated non-conference season, and muted atmosphere either without fans or limited crowds, the sport has managed to survive thus far. And, really, the intention was always to merely get to March, to play an NCAA Tournament after one was unable to be staged last year. And the NCAA was at least smart and forward-thinking to play the tournament in just one location, to minimize risk and create something similar to a bubble.
There have of course been issues. Games canceled on extremely short notice. Teams going into multiple pauses due to positive tests. DePaul, LIU, Canisius and Siena have played only six games. North Carolina Central has played four games. Loyola has played just once. Saint Louis has yet to play a conference game.
But, all things considered, this season has been a success so far. Now it just has to be completed.
Big Ten could go to 12
In 2011, the Big East produced 11 tournament teams, which remains a record. The Big Ten could surpass that mark. It can send 12 teams to the dance. The only schools that don’t appear to be in contention are Nebraska and Penn State.
Game of the Week
No. 6 Kansas at No. 2 Baylor, Monday, 9 p.m.
Top-ranked Gonzaga is the team everyone has pegged as the overwhelming favorite for the national title, but Baylor isn’t too far behind. It is undefeated, has won every game by at least eight points and is incredibly deep. Now it gets a chance to make a big statement as Kansas comes to Waco in prime time. Baylor’s Jared Butler, the Big 12’s Preseason Player of the Year, against Ochai Agbaji of Kansas is reason enough to tune in.
A prediction of the top four seeds in the NCAA Tournament (listed in order):
You knew UConn joining the Big East would help Hurley, but it happened even faster than most could have predicted. He has the Huskies back in the top 25, has a top-10 recruiting class coming in next year and, despite star guard James Bouknight’s elbow injury, UConn has won four straight games. While it can struggle at times offensively, this team is deep up front, plays incredibly hard and figures only to improve as the year goes on and young big men Adama Sanogo and Akok Akok develop further.
There isn’t a better story in all of college basketball. A leukemia survivor who missed most of the last two seasons, Jones is the leading scorer for Texas, keying the Longhorns’ renaissance. The junior guard hit the game-winning 3-pointer in a recent victory at West Virginia and backed it up by averaging 19.5 points this past week in a loss to Texas Tech and victory over Kansas State.
It was only a month ago that Rutgers was knocking on the door of the top 10, looking every bit like a Final Four contender. Then, injuries hit. Underperformance followed. The top-25 ranking vanished. The Scarlet Knights are closer to the Big Ten cellar than its penthouse. But not all is lost. Ron Harper Jr., Cliff Omoruyi and Caleb McConnell have returned from injury. The losses have come to quality opponents in Ohio State (twice), Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan State. The schedule eases up, giving Steve Pikiell’s team a chance to regain its swagger.
The Orange weren’t going to make the NCAA Tournament last year had it been played and they don’t look like they will make it this year. That hasn’t happened to Syracuse in back-to-back years since 2007-08. And the future isn’t necessarily bright. Next year’s recruiting class is ranked 67th by 247Sports.com, behind the likes of Tulsa, Santa Clara and Nevada. This year’s team doesn’t have a top-100 win and is coming off an embarrassing 20-point defeat at ACC also-ran Pittsburgh on Saturday. After the loss, coach Jim Boeheim said his team’s second-half defense — Pittsburgh put up 64 points after the break — was “the worst I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”
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