Yesterday, Peter broke down Gonzaga and Baylor’s offense. Today, I’m going to talk about the historic start of the Zags and Bears, both on an program level and a national level. It feels like everyone in the college basketball world expects these two teams to meet for the National Championship on April 5th. And with good reason, because these two schools are so far ahead of the pack, both analytically and with the eye test.
Let’s start with each program, both of which are having their best start in school history. KenPom has a ratings archive where you can go back to a certain date in time and do a year-by-year comparison, dating all the way back to the 2011-12 season. Here are the five best starts for Gonzaga and Baylor the last decade, based on their Adjusted Efficiency Margin on January 21 of a given year.
Baylor has never come close to anything like this. Even last year’s team that was likely to be a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament was not this good. Gonzaga has only had one season even close to what they’re doing right now, and they ended that season one basket away from winning a National Championship. That 2017 Gonzaga team was also number one in country on KenPom at this point in the season. The 2015 and 2019 teams were both fourth at the time. Somewhat surprisingly, the 2020 Zags were ahead of the 2013 squad. Baylor’s 2017 team was ninth at the time. In short, both teams are doing something they’ve never done before.
On a national scale, what these two teams are doing is also historic. The two teams are a combined 27-0 and have been ranked in the top two of the AP Poll the entire season. Why is that significant? This is only the second time in history that the same teams have been ranked 1-2 through the first nine polls. The other time was during the 1967-68 season.
The similarities between the two rosters are striking. They are doing it with experienced pre-season All-Americans (Jared Butler, Corey Kispert), do-it-all guards (Davion Mitchell, Joel Ayayi), glue guy forwards (Mark Vital, Anton Watson), electric playmakers (MaCio Teague, Jalen Suggs), breakout big men (Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, Drew Timme), and fire-starting sixth men (Adam Flagler, Andrew Nembhard). They are the two most talented rosters in college basketball without question, and by far the two most talented backcourts in the nation.
Only nine other teams in the last decade have entered this stretch of the season with an Adjusted Efficiency above +32.00. Six of those nine went on to the Final Four:
2013 Florida: +37.30 (Elite Eight)
2015 Kentucky: +36.80 (Final Four)
2019 Virginia: +35.34 (Champions)
2015 Virginia: +35.29 (Round of 32)
2018 Villanova: +32.94 (Champions)
2021 Gonzaga: +32.89
2021 Baylor: +32.78
2018 Purdue: +32.60 (Sweet 16)
2013 Michigan: +32.20 (Title Game)
2012 Ohio State: +32.07 (Final Four)
2015 Duke: +32.04 (Champions)
The only season that compares to what Gonzaga and Baylor are doing is 2015. Kentucky was 18-0 while Virginia was 17-0. Both of them, as you see above, were within 1.5 points of each other. The gap between those two and the next team? Five whole points. This season: Gonzaga is 14-0, Baylor is 13-0, and the gap between those two and the third team is four points.
Of course, this all means very little because the best team doesn’t always win the NCAA Tournament. That’s what makes it simultaneously maddening and exciting. That undefeated Kentucky team lost to Wisconsin in the Final Four. Virginia stumbled down the stretch of the season. The fifth place team at the time in 2015, Duke, won the National Title. As we know, it’s all about getting hot at the end of the season.
Nothing is guaranteed just because you have begin a season this dominant. But history does show that a start this good analytically gives you a really strong chance to at least make the Final Four. Baylor has not made it to that stage since 1950.
In 2012, Baylor started 17-0 and lost in the Elite Eight. Gonzaga started 29-0 in 2017 and lost in the National Championship. This year’s version of the Bears and Bulldogs are better than their undefeated predecessors. Whether that’s enough to catapult one of them over the hump and raise their first banner is yet to be determined. If chalk holds and they face each other for all the marbles, we could see one of the better National Title games in recent memory.