Monday night was supposed to mark the coronation of one of the greatest college basketball teams of all time. Gonzaga had gone 31-0 to that point in the season (with 29 double-digit victories), and advanced to the national championship game with an iconic overtime buzzer-beater in the Final Four. The team had pro talent, great coaching, and a cohesive style of play. It was as close to perfect as any team had been in decades, and played as perfectly as any team has ever played.
And then Baylor stepped into the building and whooped the Zags’ asses for 40 minutes.
The 86-70 Baylor win was a complete, thorough demolition, the likes of which you normally only see in video games—specifically, Mortal Kombat. The Bears made the championship game look like a first-round matchup, or if a heavyweight title fight ended with one boxer picking the other boxer up, taking them into the nearest bathroom, and giving them a swirlie. Sorry about your perfect season!
The rout started early, with Baylor jumping out to a 9-0 lead in the opening two and a half minutes. Despite the early deficit, I expected Gonzaga to start hitting shots eventually, like always, and it did to an extent: Gonzaga finished the night shooting over 50 percent from the field. It’s just that Baylor was better in every conceivable way.
The Bears had an incredible shooting performance, hitting at least seven 3s that were listed as contested shots by ESPN Stats and Info. (Gonzaga, meanwhile, hit only five 3s, total.) On the rare occasion that they missed shots, they also rebounded well, getting 16 offensive rebounds while Gonzaga had only 17 defensive boards. The Bears forced more turnovers than Gonzaga, hit more shots than Gonzaga, and blocked more shots than Gonzaga. They played harder than Gonzaga, shot better than Gonzaga, and looked more athletic than Gonzaga. If one team has more heart, more skills, and more talent, what’s left?
Monday’s win earned Baylor its first men’s national championship, and the team’s game on Saturday marked the program’s first Final Four appearance since 1950. The university’s women’s team is a perennial powerhouse, winning national titles in 2005, 2012, and 2019—but the men came from the lowest place possible.
When head coach Scott Drew accepted the position in 2003 after one year as head coach at Valparaiso, it was the least desirable job in college basketball. Weeks before, then-head coach Dave Bliss had resigned in the midst of one of the ugliest scandals in college sports history: One of his players, Patrick Dennehy, was murdered by teammate Carlton Dotson, after which Bliss smeared Dennehy in a move that many saw as an attempt to prevent the NCAA from investigating violations Bliss had committed by paying Dennehy’s tuition. It’s probably unfair to Baylor to mention this on the night of the greatest moment in program history—but it illustrates what Drew was stepping into.
Drew’s first teams were hopeless, going 36-69 in his first four seasons. But the coach eventually figured out how to build teams around athleticism and offensive rebounding. In 2010, the Bears made the Elite Eight. In 2012, they went back. In 2014 and 2017, they made the Sweet 16—at this point, people were thinking less about where Drew had come from and more about why he couldn’t get his clearly talented teams deeper into March. They seemed ready to have a breakthrough last year, finishing the regular season 26-4—and then the NCAA tournament got canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But this year’s team was great in a way no other Drew team had been: shooting the ball. None of Drew’s previous teams had ever cracked the top 30 in the country in 3-point percentage. Most failed to crack the top 100. This year, though, Baylor shot 41.3 percent from 3, the best in the nation. The team was also tied for fifth in offensive rebound rate, as they grabbed 37.3 percent of their misses, and fourth in turnover rate, stealing the ball on 24.4 percent of opposing possessions. I’m sorry for listing so many stats, but this is exactly how they won the national championship: They hit 10 3s, had 16 offensive rebounds, and forced 14 turnovers.
The Bears didn’t finish the season with a perfect record, but it feels like they probably could have. They were 17-0 in February—with 15 double-digit wins—when the program had to go on pause for three weeks due to a COVID-19 outbreak on the team. After that time away, the team’s play dropped off, and they went 5-2 to close the regular season. But once the tournament started, they found their form and were absolutely maniacal. They looked more athletic and more talented than every team they played—including Gonzaga, a team that often made everybody else look that way.
What amazes me most about Baylor is its depth. In a sport typically defined by teams with a few stars and some passable fringe players, Baylor built a group where it was tough to decide who should win Most Outstanding Player. The award went to Jared Butler, who had 22 points in the championship game—although my personal favorite performance of the night came from 6-foot-5 Mark Vital, who looks more like a linebacker than a basketball player and hauled in 11 rebounds by moving taller Gonzaga players out of the way.
Baylor doesn’t have any players projected as lottery picks in the upcoming NBA draft, and none of its guys were five-star recruits. They have no one-and-done players, and only one freshman, L.J. Cryer, in the rotation. It’s actually stunning how many of their players took unusual journeys to the Bears—Butler transferred from Alabama; MaCio Teague, whose ugly jumper was good for 19 points on Monday, started his career at UNC-Asheville; Davion Mitchell, who had 15 points, came from Auburn; Adam Flagler, who drilled three 3s, transferred from Presbyterian; Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, who played valuable big man minutes, came from UNLV.
So many things about what Baylor did feel impossible—how did Drew take the program from such a low to such a peak? How did a team without top-tier high school talent or pro-level prospects end up becoming so much better than all the teams that had seemingly better players? How did players from such disparate backgrounds mesh so well? This group feels like a basketball miracle.
But watching them play in this tournament, they didn’t seem miraculous: They just seemed better than everybody else. Time after time, they looked like they could dominate their opponent in the weight room or in a shooting contest. They kept making some of the best teams in the nation look like JV squads—and then they did it to Gonzaga, a team that had looked unbeatable up to that point. As it turns out, Monday night was the coronation of one of the greatest college basketball teams of all time: these Baylor Bears, who truly did look like a perfect college basketball team.