BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 04/06/2021

Thiel: Baylor showed Zags had little left in tank

It’s considered poor sports form to lament about the ordeal from the previous game. Fortunately, Baylor’s ruthless win over Gonzaga negated the urge to peck at details.

Scott Drew, head coach at Baylor for 18 years, knows which guys he would take with him to war. / Ben Queen via Wilkimedia Commons

If you’re a Gonzaga fan, you probably won’t agree. But it’s better this way.

Best to be blown out and leave no doubt about the worthiness of the NCAA men’s tourney national champions. Really, you don’t want to lose to the Baylor Bears on a 40-foot buzzer-beater, and fill spring and summer with lamentations and recriminations about glory snatched away at the pinnacle moment.

Said coach Mark Few after the 86-70 (box) blistering Monday night in Indianapolis, the Bulldogs’ first defeat of the season in their last game: “They beat us in every facet.”

Clean. Clear. Clinical.

A little less definitive was the reason why. Since the cultural training of players and coaches is to offer no excuses, they will not help with the truth.

So let’s posit this: Anyone familiar with basic human psychology and physiology understands that the Zags spent themselves Saturday.

The spellbinding 93-90 overtime triumph over UCLA in the semifinals gassed the Zags. Evidence for the claim is clear in two items from Monday’s box score:

Offensive rebounding:

Baylor 14, Gonzaga 1.

Three-point shooting:

Baylor 10-for-23, Gonzaga 5-for-17 (Notably, the Bears hit their first five and Gonzaga never recovered).

Those parts of the game are mostly about legs and energy. The Zags Monday had none for either task.

Every NCAA tourney has the standard day off between games. And every coach who wins the first one in a demanding manner knows the perils of the quick turnaround against a presumably better opponent.

But almost none of those coaches experienced the high-level, high-stakes tautness of Saturday’s game for the ages, and the subsequent jubilation. Who among the Zags slept Saturday night, or for that matter, Sunday?

By contrast, Baylor in the other semifinal practically had a walk-over against Houston — which had the good bracket fortune of beating four double-digit seeds — that was in no way taxing beyond a normal game.

But even with time to refocus, the Zags still would have lost.

At least Zags’ Corey Kispert, the sharpshooter from Edmonds who didn’t have a great Final Four, acknowledged the disparity of approach.

“They were more aggressive rebounding, they were more aggressive on defense, and the more aggressive team usually wins,” he said. “They punched us in the mouth right from the get-go. It took a long time for us to kind of recover, and start playing them even again. But then it was too late.

“They just literally busted us out of anything we could possibly do on offense.”

Then there was the burden of maintaining the undefeated season, which, of course, was always denied.

For at least half of the season when it was plain that this might be Gonzaga’s best team, every story the players read about themselves included the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, the seventh and most recent team, at 31-0, to go undefeated.

That team included future NBAers Scott May, Kent Benson, Tom Abernethy, Quinn Buckner and former Sonic Bobby Wilkerson. (On the bench was a skinny freshman guard who scored 35 points in 17 games, then transferred to Duke. Bob Bender went on to coach the Washington Huskies from 1993-2002.)

The Zags have one solid NBA player in Jalen Suggs. Kispert and Drew Timme will probably get some bench time for a few seasons, followed by careers in Europe or Asia. While the Zags have been a brilliant team, they were beaten by better, fresher athletes who were all about playing the chip of disrespect that could not be claimed Gonzaga.

Said Few: “We were No. 1 in July, and stayed there.”

The upshot was the nation’s best offense was held to a season low in points. It was an exercise in power and energy. As Bears coach Scott Drew offered from the post-game stage after receiving the championship trophy, he pointed over his shoulder and said, “If you’re going to war, I’m taking these guys.”

He’s probably right. If COVID-19 hadn’t shut down the previous season, an argument could be made that Baylor would have won its second title in a row Monday night.

As for the Zags, as in 2017, they were denied the championship in the season’s final game. Gonzaga is the fifth team to enter the tourney undefeated and not win it all.

After 22 consecutive tourney appearances, they remain a title oh-fer.

As is the state of Washington, despite having four colleges at least reach the semifinals.

After a Washington State team reached the national semis in 1941 and lost, the University of Washington made it in 1953 behind 6-7 center Bob Houbregs, who averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds a game.

The Huskies advanced to the semifinals of a 22-team field in Kansas City, and were routed 79-53 by defending national champion Kansas. Coach Phog Allen’s Jayhawks knew Houbregs was the NCAA player of the year, got him in early foul trouble, and the Huskies never recovered.

Five years later, different school and player, same tactic.

Seattle University rode the enormous talents of future NBA Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor to the national final in Louisville. Despite a rib injury and suspicious early foul trouble, Baylor had 25 points and 19 rebounds, but the Chieftains lost to Adolph Rupp’s Wildcats, 84-72.

And Suggs Monday was on the Zags bench inside the first three minutes with his second  personal. Not saying there’s any conspiracy, but coincidences can be cruel.

After a time for fly-fishing and turning down other job offers, Few will be back with his shoulder leveraged under the rock, ready for another roll up the hill. It’s not much consolation for him, but ESPN reported that Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill already has posted the Bulldogs as top betting favorite to win the 2022 title.

All Few needs to do is figure out how to save the Zags’ best for last.


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YourThoughts

  • 2nd place is 1st loser

    An unfortunate outcome after such a great season. I believe that the Zags played their championship game against the Bruins and left it all on the floor that night. Honestly the Zags were fortunate to have gotten past the Bruins. It was apparent that the Zags were just flat out of gas against Baylor and that’s not an excuse. The bears were simply the better team last night and it showed from the start to finish. Outside of the state of Wa. not many will remember that Gonzaga was such a dominant team throughout the year until the bitter end, but that’s the nature of the game. Like my user name so eloquently says. 2nd place is 1st loser.

    • art thiel

      I think most college hoops fans will remember the Zags’ narrative for a long time. Most paid little attention to the goings-on in Waco. Who imagined Spokane would be the big city in the title matchup?

  • Kevin Lynch

    Excellent synopsis, Art. Baylor’s opening moves were so damn impressive. The offensive rebounds made a huge statement. But, it was a great year for the Zags and a significant year for the Pac-12 and West Coast ball in general.

    • art thiel

      Little picture bad, big picture good. It was a surprisingly robust year for the Left Coast, with a notable void in the Montlake area.

  • Mark Stratton

    Poor three-point and free throw shooting comes from dead legs, but does fatigue cause choking? That’s a serious question and I don’t suggest that I know the answer, but on top of being sluggish Gonzaga made a ton of uncharacteristic mistakes.

    • art thiel

      There’s no choking in allowing a foe to get out to leads of leads of 11-1 and 29-10. The Zags were not ready psychologically to reach a pinnacle twice in three nights.

  • Stephen Pitell

    Naw! Those are just excuses. Baylor was the better team. I wish Baylor’s second string would play for the Washington Huskies.

    A game between Baylor’s second stringers and Gonzaga’s starters might have been competitive.

    If there was any letdown after barely beating UCLA it was all psychological.

    • art thiel

      Coaches and fans love to rely on the no-excuses mantra, mostly because it’s easy. But the Saturday drama was a reason, not an excuse, for the blowout. As I wrote, the Bears would have won even if the Zags were rested and prepped. But if would have been a game, not a rout.

  • 1coolguy

    After Baylor jumped out to a 19 point lead in the first few minutes (29-10) it was clearly a case that Gonzaga didn’t have the horses to overcome such a deficit. They reduced the spread to 9, but that was momentary. Baylor had a deeper bench and their players were kept fresh all game and Kispert summed up the game honestly and accurately.
    I suggest most fans went away unhappy, yet also very impressed by Baylor.

    • art thiel

      Better team won, without complaint, regret or if-then.

  • jafabian

    The Zags have a championship in their future. Coach K lost twice in the championship game before winning it all. Multiple times. They just ran into what the Sounders did in last year’s Cup or the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX: they did so much to get there they couldn’t take that last step. It could be said the 2014 and 2017 Sounders, 1993 UW football team, 1980 Sonics and the 2001 Mariners all ran into similar circumstances. There’s no shame in finishing second. Especially if you learn from what happened and Mark Few is too good a coach for that not to happen. If anything if there is any question that he might leave Gonzaga I doubt it. He has unfinished business.

    • art thiel

      All true. It’s just that running the tourney field to get to the title game is so difficult. To go 0-2 is profoundly aggravating for all involved. Not saying the Zags won’t get there, but random actions like injuries or foul trouble can thwart the best.

  • Husky73

    Down goes Fray-zhah! Down goes Fray-zhah!

    • art thiel

      Round one, ya done. Round two, ya through. Round three, it’s all over but me. Round four, ya out the door . . .

      The poetry of Ali.

      • Husky73

        Baylor was Tyson, not Ali…”Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the mouth.”

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  • DB

    When Suggs jumped up on the table after the semi-final win he wanted to be like Kobe or D-Wade. When the Championship game was over he got to channel Larry Bird.

    • art thiel

      Cold. But true.

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  • ll9956

    As someone who doesn’t know alot about big-time basketball, I hesitated to express my concern before the game that the Zags had to play the championship game less than 48 hours after a bruising overtime victory. I was thinking “What’s the rush?!!! Are they worried about the additional expense for meals and lodging? Both teams and the NCAA are up to their eyeballs in money. Why not give both teams a couple of extra days to rest and prepare?”

    After hearing what the announcers said during the game and reading the AP article immediately after the game ( ” . . 46 hours after that emotional roller coaster, it was clear the Zags were gassed”) and your devoting considerable space to describing the fact that the Zags were at a disadvantage, Art, I am no longer hesitant to speak my mind, come what may.

    The championship game was not played on a level playing field by any stretch of the imagination. I’m not making excuses for the Zags, but facts are facts. Baylor had a vastly easier time of it in their pre-championship game, which they won by 19 points (no overtime). I can’t help but wonder whether, if the pre-championship game experiences of the two teams were reversed, the outcome would have been also reversed. If I could ask both coaches the same question, it would be, “If, before the Final Four happened, you were given the option to schedule the championship game a couple of days later than originally planned, what would have been your response?” I’m willing to wager that both coaches would have opted to put off the game a couple of days to afford them more time to rest and prepare. I’m reminded that Super Bowl teams get a couple of weeks to prepare.

    • LarryLurex70

      The championship game is always the Monday after Final Four weekend. Regardless which schools advance. That does not change. Regardless how long the National Semi’s are on Saturday. Your suggestion that “the championship game was not played on a level playing field by any stretch of the imagination” is a predictable response from someone who was possibly pulling for the team that came up short. Whether you were or weren’t, it’s not a good look, and, you get a pass only if you’re genuinely unaware of the National Semi’s and Title game timeframe. It’s the same every year regardless which schools qualify to participate.

      • art thiel

        Larry is correct. The format has been the same since the 64-team field was adopted. All teams know and accept that the semis and finals 48 hrs apart. The degree of difficulty for the Zags was just part of the game, like injuries or bad officiating. No reason to accommodate.

      • ll9956

        I was in fact “genuinely unaware of the National Semi’s and Title game timeframe”, so according to your standards, I should be granted a pass. As far as I’m concerned, that is quite irrelevant.

        “The championship game is always the Monday after Final Four weekend.” Therein lies the problem. At the time the game started the Gonzaga players were still in the process of recovering from mental and physical exhaustion. The Baylor players were fresh as a daisy. Regardless of how it’s always been done and that all teams have agreed to it, no way is that a level playing field. Maybe, as Art puts it, that’s “just part of the game, like injuries and bad officiating”. It’s hard to avoid these, but faulty scheduling can be at least partially remedied.

        It comes down to a question of what is the objective. If the objective is to have the games be as fair and competitive as possible, then this game is a prime example of why the rules are overdue for a re-visit. If on the other hand maximizing fairness and competitiveness is not a goal, then so be it. I am not contending that if the Zags had a couple more days to prepare, that they would have won. That would be pure stupidity. I am claiming that the game would have been fairer and more competitive. As Art put it in response to Stephen Pitell, ” . . . it would have been a game, not a rout”.

        • art thiel

          The standard regular season for college basketball is a pair of games per week, typically Thursday-Saturday, or Friday-Sunday. That’s the same formula for the NCAA tourney. All coaches/players are used to and accept the format.

        • LarryLurex70

          I’m trying my best not to get into a whole thing with you here on this, but, you’re making it difficult with your going on and on about a supposed lack of fairness and level playing fields. If you already knew the schedule, then, I’m assuming you’re just a sore loser? Monday night’s game wasn’t the first beatdown in championship Monday history. Did you not watch the 1990 game in Denver? Routs are part of sports. Sometimes one team is just more prepared and plays better than the other one. It happens.