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10 Observations from the National Championship

There were always two excellent teams this season and the Bears showcased a perfect team’s limitations

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Baylor vs Gonzaga IndyStar-USA TODAY Sports

The Zags finished their magical run with a decisive defeat to the Baylor Bears on Monday night. In the matchup of the year, one we’ve circled since way back in December, the Bears executed precisely in all categories that brought them to the title game.

Those points of emphasis for the team from Waco not only stymied the heralded Gonzaga offense, but also showed the blemishes of a team chasing perfection.

1. Due to the records and the overwhelming media narrative leading into March, many are going to focus on the defeat of Gonzaga and their inability to achieve perfection. But it does an incredible disservice to the season that Scott Drew and the Baylor Bears just completed.

From wire-to-wire it was the Bears and the Zags fighting for first place. The Bears were one point shy for the first place ranking in the preseason. A COVID pause and shaking off a three week hiatus seemed to be the only proven way to slow them down. Once in Indianapolis, they dismantled every team on their way to lifting up the trophy last night.

2. That decimation, including that of the Zags, is largely due to the absolute havoc and fearlessness that Baylor plays with on defense. In their losses to Kansas and Oklahoma State and the close game against Iowa State after the pause, Baylor’s defense was decidedly absent. There were a lot of questions if we’d see that defense return.

Well, this tournament we saw the Bears’ defense force 94 turnovers, twice as many as they gave up over the six games. The Bears forced 14 Gonzaga turnovers. Seven of those came in the first 10 minutes, prior to the first turnover committed by Baylor.

3. Monday night was the seventh time this season the Bulldogs either tied or lost the rebounding margin. Baylor racked up 38 rebounds to the 22 boards by the Zags. Ken Pomeroy previewed this wrinkle and Baylor strength leading up to the game.

Worse, 16 of the 38 rebounds were offensive rebounds for Baylor. Scrambling to contest a team that plays four shooters only heightens the importance and difficulty in preventing second looks.

4. Speaking of shooters, Baylor’s perimeter game was alive and well Monday night. Perimeter defense is always brought up when Zag fans bring up their frustrations in a loss and last night was no different. But the Zags defense fared as well as many teams Baylor faced all year. Baylor started off red hot with 5 threes, which forced Few and the coaches to turn to a zone defense to try and change looks for the Bears. Here is the ShotQuality reading for the game, which parallels the final result.

The Bears “cooled” off and shot 43.8% for the total of the game with a total of 10 made threes. That is only slightly better than their 41.2% average headed into the game. The Bears made what they hoped to make.

The Zags simply could not answer on their side of the basket. Three point shooting was never a major facet for the Zags this season. Corey Kispert was a phenomenal 44% headed into the game and would attempt about 6 perimeter shots a game (200 attempts for the season). But nobody else on this Zags team attempted 100 for the year.

The Zags couldn’t fight back from outside, shooting 29.4% and sitting at one made three until the 10:30 mark of the second half.

5. I hate that this article is largely about what Baylor did but ultimately this game was dictated by the Bears’ incredible aggression. They had 11 points before Gonzaga scored their first point. Their defense made the night absolutely miserable for the Zags’ guards and Flo Thamba and Johnathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua’s size and physicality was instant as Timme tried to initiate any opportunities on offense. The two Baylor bigs’ foul trouble were a result of that but inconsequential as the Bears front court didn’t allow any of the Gonzaga guards room to comfortably get into their system.

The sequence of this game that will forever stick out was the second half attempted run by Gonzaga to cut into the 12 point deficit. At 14:30, Andrew Nembhard cut the lead to 9, the lowest it had been since nearly the same clock time in the first half.

What followed was a Mark Vital layup, a Timme turnover, a foul by Nembhard resulting in two made free throws, a Timme layup and a MaCio Teague answer. Then Kispert drove the lane, was blocked and the Bears’ Adam Flagler sank a three-pointer returning the score to 67-51 and the Zags had to call a timeout. The boys from Spokane didn’t seem to land another punch.

6. Gonzaga has not seen a team as physical as this Baylor team. Few said in his post game press conference that his team hadn’t been tested with aggression in that way by anyone they played prior to last night’s matchup.

Their early season matchup with West Virginia and even UCLA on Saturday was physical in ways but not nearly to the level of this Bears squad. Vital and Davion Mitchell were on-ball bullies. Thamba showed a length that wasn’t really apparent even in the matchup against USC and the Mobley brothers. While the Zags scrambled to cover four shooters on every possession, Baylor made Gonzaga work on every pass and every possession and settle for tough takes.

7. Jalen Suggs showed how much of a fighter he is by a gutsy second half performance in the loss. Fellow Slipper Still Fits writer Steven Karr highlighted prior to the game the need for the Zags to take care of the ball considering the level of play from the Bears back court. The Zags faltered at the start and Suggs entered halftime with 7 points, 2 fouls and 3 turnovers.

Those were the only turnovers for Suggs the rest of the way. Fighting and trying to claw the team back into the game, Suggs finished with 22 points and 3 assists. Seeing him take ownership of the predicament the Zags found themselves in is exactly what you hope for in your most talented player. For his incredible single season to end like this is gut punch for him but also the entire fanbase who were lucky enough to see him play for Gonzaga.

He didn’t deserve to play in an empty Kennel and he didn’t deserve to go out like this.

8. Drew Timme has a tough decision ahead of him. This was clearly not the championship result or game that Timme hoped for, as his 71% field goal shooting is shadowed by five turnovers and foul trouble dealing with the aggressive fronts and defense Baylor threw at him. Seldom did he get a chance to even establish position to create tough matchups and execute his terrific footwork arsenal. The second half saw him saddled with fouls and an apparent leg issue that snuffed out his night.

The country wanted to turn Timme into Christian Laettner more than anything for the last month. People groaned at the continuation of his celebrations as his team faced a 15 point deficit. But the celebration seemed more of an attempt to get the Zags back on track. A way for them to finally get into any sort of groove and do what they’d done all season. It felt more for the four other guys and the bench than for him or any of the cameras. Unfortunately, the game had to end with shots of him bringing his guys together after a tough loss.

A championship could have made his decision easy, and it’s impossible to blame a guy who sky-rotted up the all-time points total for Bulldogs in the tournament and averaged 18.67 points in these six games. It’s likely he’s a Player of the Year candidate and Preseason All American if he comes back.

9. In an unpredictable year with a postseason robbed from us prior, Kispert and Joel Ayayi remained a constant. To see it end for Kispert, and potentially Ayayi, on the losing end of a drubbing after annihilating everyone else in their path is the sourest of notes to end on. Even in the loss, Kispert worked his tail off to find any way to get the team back within arm’s reach. The undersized four not known particularly for his defense got up to block a shot that didn’t seem within his range.

But even that highlight block and attempted recovery resulted in a swarm of Bears pouncing on the ball. Kispert throughout this tournament took a back seat when teams would over-pursue and his teammates were open. You could see that selflessness in the second half as his outside shooting was the only prayer the team had left. There were moments of apparent hesitancy due to this team’s penchant to pass for better looks, but those better looks were never really there.

Ayayi quietly made three of five and did his best to come close to the aggressive loose ball hustle he’s known to play. He recorded the lone offensive rebound for the team. Hopefully his tumble wasn’t severe.

10. As doom and gloom Gonzaga and their fans could be on this crummy ending of a storybook season, the future remains incredibly bright. There are so many questions on who is returning and who is coming headed into this offseason. We’re going to talk a lot about it in the coming days and subsequent months. The Zags may get the best high school player in the country. Timme and Ayayi might come back. A team full of freshmen and sophomores just notched an immeasurably venerating tournament run.

Worst case scenario for the Zags is they have four guys enter the NBA draft and fulfill their dreams. That’s still a major win and boon for the program. This iteration of the run came with the hopes of the “Tricky Trio” freshmen looking to join an All-American and Most Underrated player go win a National Championship for a school that hadn’t done it. It didn’t happen and it sure as hell is going to fuel everything they do moving forward—be it in Spokane or at the next level.

And as we appreciate this run and the lead-up to the next, we should also appreciate where this program has come and how the Zags aren’t going to be going anywhere anytime soon.