By Lenn Robbins
This is so unfair, so terribly unfair.
Baylor wins the national championship, in not convincing but dominating fashion, and guys like me want to write about Gonzaga. So let’s make sure we give the Bears (28-2) more than their due because they are more than merely a great basketball team. They are talented, deep, physical, coachable, unselfish and play as a team on both ends of the court.
For most college basketball fans, Baylor beating Gonzaga in a won-or-done tournament was not surprising. Baylor delivering a knockout punch 10 minutes into an 86-70 pasting of a previously unbeaten and No.1 Gonzaga team was shocking.
“Our team has been special,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “Last two years winningest team in the Power Five. We’ve been really, really good. And they’re even better people. Four weeks in the bubble, trust me, I’d tell you if they’re not.”
Those last sentences should be emphasized. A big part of Gonzaga’s appeal was that the Zags were what we crave in a team – unselfish, coachable, and good people.
The other appeal is that their style was so refreshing. It wasn’t three-pointer after three-pointer. It was get out and run. It was pass and cut to the basketball. It was a coach in Mark Few who let his team play and didn’t micromanage every second of the final four minutes of games.
Come to think of it, it was also Baylor’s Drew. His team averaged 10 made threes per game but they also played a chest-to-chest defense that coaches dream of getting their teams to play. Drew let’s his team play.
So why the love affair with Gonzaga and the slight of Baylor? The No.1-ranked team from start to finish will always garner more interest than the No.2 team for most of the season.
Or maybe we’re clinging to the antiquated notion that Gonzaga, 31-1, is the Little Engine That Could. The engine is in a private charter. There’s a waiting list for season tickets. There’s a state of the art training and practice facility that opened in 2018. The Zags have had three first-round NBA draft picks in the last four years and could have multiple first-rounds this year.
Corey Kispert, Gonzaga’s All-American guard who could be one of those players drafted, was asked how he wants to be remembered in Spokane.
“I just want people to remember how much I cared, how much I cared about the red and blue,” he said. “You know, being a Zag is much more than just the 40 minutes you put into the time you spent on the floor. It means being a great person off the floor. It means being a great son, a brother, a great friend.
“And I want people to remember me for being able to do all those things as good or better than I’ve played on the floor. And I’m hoping that little kids out there look at our team and look at me and realize they can kind of make it and do it the right way, too.”
Jared Butler was asked how the Baylor was able to remain a force, even after a three-week suspension of activities due to COVID protocols.
“I don’t know how we got through it,” he said. “We got through it. We loved each other. Played so many games of Connect Four, and played Cornhole and ate together, watched movies together and did everything together. It’s just a really cool thing.
“I’ll probably remember that more than winning the championship. They’re just great guys, they’re great people. That’s what I’ll remember, for sure.”
Maybe the ascension of Baylor, the pariah of college basketball in 2003 after a teammate murdered another teammate and the coach tried to cover it up, is a better story than the rise of Gonzaga.
Maybe this Baylor program, and the walk-ons from 2003 who were in Lucas Oil Stadium Monday night, deserve to be remembered as one of the greatest resurrections in the history of the sport.
Maybe the Bears deserve better from reporters like me who latched onto Gonzaga’s quest to become the first undefeated champion since Indiana in 1976 and missed the incredible story known as Baylor, 2021 NCAA Tournament champion.