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Gonzaga To Battle Baylor For Men's College Hoops Title

Basketball fans love two types of March Madness matchups.

David vs Goliath. The classic little school against big school with the hope that little prevails.

And then there's power vs power. While we may lose the shock of an underdog win, we gain the potential awesomeness of two complete, deep basketball teams going at each other and seeing who's left standing.

In other words, Gonzaga vs Baylor 2021.

It's a matchup (collision?) that should've happened last December, but the coronavirus intervened.

It's a matchup that probably should've happened last March, in the men's Division 1 tournament. But, well, see above.

You could argue it's a gamethat was two seasons in the making, given the dominance of both programs during that time. Baylor lost a total of six games, Gonzaga two.

They are consensus #1 in the nation (Gonzaga) and #2 (1a?) Baylor. Gonzaga hasn't lost all season and with one more win, the Zags, called a "generational team" by a number of awed hoops pundits, will become the first team to go undefeated since the Bob Knight-led Indiana Hoosiers in 1976.

So, you get it? Gonzaga vs Baylor is power versus power. And the way they've both been playing, an all-time power versus power game.

What to watch for

Gonzaga and Baylor enter the final on similar upward trajectories, although Baylor's was more emphatic.

Saturday the Bears mauled Houston 78-59 in one tournament semifinal game that sent a message to the basketball world: "We are really good, we are really ready and we are really hungry."

In the other semi, Gonzaga sent its own message. With a stunning 93-90 overtime win against UCLA, clinched by Jalen Suggs' shriek-inducing buzzer beating shot, the Bulldogs said, in a sense, "We've shown we can dominate teams – tonight we showed can also win pressure-packed games with guts and cool."

Las Vegas oddmakers like the gutty, cool guys – Gonzaga's a 4.5 point favorite.

So where might this game be decided?

1). Inside, close to the basket.

Gonzaga is very dangerous in this area, thanks to 6'10 sophomore Drew Timme ("Timmy"). While Suggs got deserved credit in the UCLA win, Timme was a revelation with his play, particularly late when he performed with controlled abandon while having four personal fouls, one short of being forced from the game.

Controlling Timme will be a challenge for Baylor. There are those who think the Bears are easily outmatched, and those who believe Baylor has larger players who can challenge Timme and have an impact inside. Players such as 6'10 Flo Thamba, 6'8 Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, 6'9 mullet-bro Matthew Mayer and even 6'5, 250 pound senior Mark Vital.

2). On the fingertips of Corey Kispert's right hand.

Gonzaga's sharp shooting forward Kispert has been an offensive star for the Bulldogs, especially with his (normally) dead-on outside shooting. But it's not been so dead-on recently. The last two games, Kispert has made only 12 of his 32 shot attempts, and five for 18 from 3 pt. range. That's worrisome – Kispert isn't one dimensional. He can rebound and pass and play defense well. But the Zags rely on that shooting. And with Baylor's hyper-aggressive defense, he won't be getting a lot of easy, uncontested outside shots.

3). Far from the basket where sublime guards meet.

Of all the great players on the court tonight, there's particular excitement about the clash between Baylor junior guard Davion Mitchell and Gonzaga freshman guard Jalen Suggs. They both have explosive speed, the ability to streak to the hoop and score from outside (in Suggs' case, as UCLA will attest, way outside). They are both physical, aggressive defenders – broadcasters calling their games always seem to work in football references when talking about Mitchell's and Suggs' toughness. In fact, it's not just talk in Suggs' case. He had quite the football resume before choosing basketball at Gonzaga.

You think UCLA wishes he stuck with pads and helmets?

A great battle

Championship games in any sport tend to give us unlikely heroes and unforeseen moments. It's what happens and should happen when there's so much hype and focus on certain individuals.

Which is a way to say all that's listed above, may not factor into the outcome. Or it may. Predicting is a highly inexact science and for that reason there will be none here.

But there is a request, mixed with hope. Shared by basketball fans throughout the galaxy (hey, you never know – intelligent life elsewhere hasto involve basketball fans, doesn't it?). Make this game match the expectations. For a close, exciting, naythrilling contest.

We may have used up all of that in the Gonzaga UCLA classic. Or there's more in store. A grand ending to a choppy, criticized but ultimately resilient college basketball season.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.