This NCAA Tournament couldn't have worked out any better.
A few Cinderellas knocking out heavyweights in their path. A record-number of double-digit seeds making the Sweet Sixteen. Improbably runs from Loyola-Chicago, Oral Roberts, Oregon State and Syracuse. The UCLA run to the Final Four, which included two instant classics against Alabama and Gonzaga.
At the end of the day, the tournament gave us exactly what we all wanted and needed: a national championship showdown between the clear-cut two best teams all season long. Gonzaga, coming into the title game 31-0 and looking to secure the first perfect season in nearly 50 years, has proven more vulnerable during the tournament than the regular season. Baylor, at 27-2, has stifling defense, balanced offense with some incredible guard play and a relentlessness that makes them feared.
Ahead of Monday night's title game, let's look at ten storylines, schematic points and tactical decisions that will help write the story of the 2021 National Championship.
1. Baylor's "No-Middle" Defense
Basketball really is a copycat game. After Texas Tech made their improbable run to the 2019 title game, Baylor coach Scott Drew went back to the drawing board. He was stocked with pugnacious guard play, and felt as if the limits of his 1-3-1 matchup zone had been reached. The Red Raiders made waves with their aggressive "no middle" defense, funneling everything to the baseline, sending multiple help defenders flying at the ball and flying around on every possession. It was Chris Beard's meal ticket, and a nightmare for teams like Baylor to play against.
Drew copied it to better fit his personnel. A year ago, they had a switchable and impactful rim protector in Freddie Gillespie. They're a tad smaller this year, but their level of aggression on the perimeter gives opponents fits:
It's a really difficult team to score on because it takes teams out of a lot of what they run. According to Synergy Sports, they're in the top-ten percent in the nation in half-court defense, and 8th overall in turnover rate. That turnover ranking is tops among power-five teams, and forces a takeaway on one out of every five half-court possessions.
Why is that particularly important against Gonzaga?
2. The Well-Oiled Offensive Machine
Year after year, Mark Few's Gonzaga teams rewrite the record books on offensive efficiency. They are, once again, the top offense in the nation. They average 1.053 points per possession in the half-court. Only 7 teams in the nation are above 1 PPP. Add in transition and they average literally 1.089 PPP, a historic pace. The gap between them and #2 Liberty (1.42) is the same as the gap between #2 in the nation and #15.
The Zags are efficient because they don't turn it over a lot, are WILDLY efficient at the rim and have excellent shot selection. Just how good are they at the rim? They shoot 66.6% at the rim as a team in the half-court. score 26 points per game there and have three players in their rotation shooting OVER 70% on layups:
Drew Timme - 70.8%
Joel Ayayi - 70%
Anton Watson - 75.8%
They have multiple guards who can create their own shot, and all are willing and able passers. They have college's best 3-point shooter in Corey Kispert. Drew Timme is shooting 67.3% on his post-ups. He's the most efficient guy in college with at least 100 post-ups. The next most efficient on the same volume shoots 61.4%.
How do you a stop a team built with the nation's best post-up threat, 3-point shooter, diverse guards and guys who all take the right shots?
3. The Pressure of Mitchell
Despite their overall balance, Gonzaga does have a head of the snake: Jalen Suggs. The potential top-five pick hit the sensational half-court shot to vanquish UCLA on Saturday night, and that was certainly not the first time he rose to the occasion. He's a big-game player who deserves the top spot on Baylor's scouting report.
That's why Davion Mitchell should be the guy who draws the matchup. Suggs hasn't faced someone like Mitchell yet, the best on-ball defender in college basketball. He's so aggressive on the ball that guys cannot wait to get rid of the ball against him. Suggs is the guy on the Zags who turns it over the most: he has a 20.7% turnover rate and isn't the elite athlete who separates from his man.
âMitchell could be a true disruptor of Suggs and the Gonzaga offense:
This is the heavyweight matchup to watch. Can Suggs elevate his game against the best defender in the land when the stakes are highest? Can Mitchell lock down a future NBA superstar? Will the Bears break some of their switchy, fly-around tendencies to keep Mitchell attached to Suggs more often?
4. Run 'em off the line
We've already alluded to how great the Gonzaga offense is, but Baylor's offense is one worth noting. They are the nation's best shooting team, making 43.7% of their catch-and-shoot jumpers and 40.3% of their overall threes. Mitchell (45.3%), Jared Butler (41.5%), Adam Flagler (42.2%), Matthew Mayer (40%) and MaCio Teague (38.9%) all play together; Flagler and Mayer come off the bench when bruisers Mark Vital and Flo Thamba go to the bench.
The Zags have to be ready to limit the catch-and-shoot looks that Baylor gets. They're far too automatic, and have too many elite threats to bank on a cold shooting night. Gonzaga's defense isn't great, though it is underrated. One thing they don't do incredibly well: stop teams from getting 3-point looks. They give up 15 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers a game; that would be the equivalent of 18 points from Baylor.
We'll see how aggressive Mark Few is in instructing his team to run shooters off the line. The downside to that can be fairly apparent:
5. Going After Timme
The weakest link in the Gonzaga defense is Drew Timme -- and he's able to be exploited. In one-on-one post-up situations, opponents score 58.3% of the time. He's not a rim protector, and is so offensively vital to this group that he'll shy away from contact to avoid picking up fouls.
Timme is counting his blessings right now. The Bears do not run post-ups -- they've only called 38 of them all year, and are pretty inefficient when they do. None of their bigs are particularly effective with their back to the basket. It's a shame; UCLA had a ton of success going at him, and even got him in foul trouble.
So how could the Bears find ways to target Timme?
The easiest way to target Timme without posting him up is to go after him in space. They need to force him to switch ball screens or end up on smalls. The easiest way?
âTimme can get blitzed by guards who get him, spread the floor and attack. Baylor has the personnel to go after him, with so many capable drivers and a two-headed machine at the point. They all shoot it well enough to keep help defenders away. Spread the floor and attack Timme one-on-one, then force the Zags to make a decision: give up layups and leave Timme on an island, or collapse and live with the best shooting team in the country taking a lot of jumpers.
7. That Other Backcourt Matchup
While Mitchell and Suggs will go toe to toe all evening, the other backcourt matchup might be more indicative of each team's success. Jared Butler vs. Joel Ayayi has the potential to be an elite guard matchup on any night, regardless of whether Suggs or Mitchell are present.
Let's start with Ayayi. At 6'5", he has great size for a combo guard and is the team's unsung hero from last night, carrying the early scoring load. He's a seasoned upperclassmen who has been on the big stage before, and is an elite rebounder (7.0 per game) for his size. He'll be the best secondary guard the Bears have faced all season, and too much attention paid to Suggs could set him loose.
Unfortunately, he'll be guarded by this:
It feels unfair with Baylor. They put Mitchell on the top guy, and someone else still has to deal with the pressure of Butler. Butler has the same size and length as Ayayi, is really active on the ball and should be able to go shot for shot.
On the other end, Butler is a First-Team All-American who can be instant offense. He has one of my favorite characteristics in a lead guard: he always has his eyes up. He's a terrific ball handler who isn't easily disrupted. About once a game, he'll find a teammate naked near the rim and just... hit him. It's a play most people don't see, and a window that's barely open, but Butler will notice it and zip the ball through to his teammate.
8. Butler's Self-Creation
When the clock is winding down or the game is on the line, we've seen that Suggs can rise to the occasion for the Zags and make things happen.
Baylor has that guy, too, in Jared Butler. His self-creation has taken a massive step this year, especially from 3. He's an incredibly good shooter who can make deep step-backs, tough shots and break down his man one-on-one.
Shots like these could be the difference for Baylor in beating the Zags, whether they come in the middle of the first-half at the end of a clock or in the final two minutes of the game:
9. The Bench Impact
In big games like these, someone off the bench always steps up in a key moment. Whether it's a big shot from a role player, a defensive effort play or someone exploding far beyond their average to exploit a weakness in their opponent, it never seems to fail.
Both teams have excellent benches. Gonzaga's rotation is a little shorter, bringing only two guys off the bench for extended runs: 6'8" backup forward Anton Watson and 6'1" guard Aaron Cook. Gonzaga only played these seven on Saturday night, while all five starters played 38 minutes or more. They could really use a punch off the bench, and at least solid minutes so their guys don't show any effects of the battle against UCLA early.
For Baylor, they're a bit deeper, especially in the frontcourt. They play essentially four guards, though Mark Vital is more of a PJ Tucker-esque small-ball 4. Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua comes off the bench and logs more minutes than starting 5-man Flo Thamba; their relentlessness on the glass (3.7 offensive rebounds per game) wears teams down, and by playing both low minutes counts, they are constant sources of energy when in. Mayer and Flagler drill shots off the bench, rounding out the 8-man rotation.
10. The Battle at the 4
There's a rule of thumb that whoever you play at the 4 dictates the style of play you deploy. Gonzaga made an adjustment mid-way through the year to put Watson, more of an interior posting frontcourt presence, to the second unit. They slid combo guard Andrew Nembhard into the lineup, which effectively moved Corey Kispert (a strong 6'8" who can guard up) to the 4. Now, the Zags were much more dribble-drive oriented, hypercharged with their shooting and able to match teams who tried to spread them out and attack with guard play. It's worked.
Baylor plays three legit guards in Teague, Butler and Mitchell. Flagler coming off the bench is a great option to slide in with any of them. The real test for Scott Drew on Monday will be how he balances his minutes at the 4 around Kispert's matchup. Mark Vital, who only played 15 minutes against Houston and plays 23 a game, starts at the 4. He's a powerhouse defender who can be physically imposing on Kispert. He'll make Kispert physically exert himself through box outs and can move with him a little bit.
Then, there's Mayer, the sweet-shooting 6'6" wing who is their de facto backup 4. Everything he does is about skill and finesse, not power and brute force. If the Bears get down and need offense or shooting to climb back in, or embrace their style to attack Timme in space and give the Zags nowhere to help off, Mayer could get an extended run at the 4 in a small-ball Baylor lineup.
But Vital may have a, pardon the pun, vital role to play in stopping the nation's best shooter. Kispert is a legitimate threat. He's close to a 50-40-90 season, makes three treys a game and is the team's second-leading scorer. To me, the ultimate test of this championship game from a coaching perspective will be the decisions made rotationally by Scott Drew and how he manages minutes at the 4.
Prediction: Gonzaga 88, Baylor 83
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Assistant Men's Basketball Coach, Dickinson College.