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October 18, 2021
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Men’s 2021 national championship picks: Can Baylor finish the job and knock off Gonzaga?

Could anything possibly top that? The Gonzaga Bulldogs‘ thrilling 93-90 overtime victory versus the UCLA Bruins in Saturday’s Final Four — already being called one of the finest games in March Madness history — established a new standard for what we expect from our NCAA tournament games. But Monday night’s national championship game between the Zags and the Baylor Bears (9:20 p.m. ET, CBS) has, dare we say, similar potential for lasting memories. The Bulldogs and Bears have been college basketball’s best and most consistent pair of teams since the beginning of the 2019 season, losing a total eight times between them over that span. One will raise the NCAA championship trophy for the first time when all is said and done at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Ahead of Monday’s title game, ESPN.com’s college basketball team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi offered their score predictions for the championship game, an analysis of the Hall of Fame credentials of the two head coaches and the players most likely to take home Most Outstanding Player honors from what has been a sensational tournament.


We’ve talked about the player matchups we’re most looking forward to, but let’s consider the coaching matchup. Where would you rate Mark Few vs. Scott Drew on the all-time matchups of sideline bosses? Are these guys both Hall of Fame locks, even without a national title?

Medcalf: This is a great coaching matchup between a pair of guys who had to put in the work to reach this point. I think they’re both Hall of Famers. Hard to say they’re locks, though. Eddie Sutton was rejected six times before he was finally added to the Hall of Fame. There were past issues that impacted his mission, but not having a national title complicated the pursuit. Still, I think the Eddie Sutton types deserve inclusion. Both Few and Drew are on that list, if they don’t win a championship.

Drew inherited one of the worst situations in college basketball history. It has been almpst 19 years since Carlton Dotson was arrested for killing Patrick Dennehy. Dave Bliss left a mountain of issues in his wake: Drew couldn’t play nonconference games during his third year at Baylor because of the sanctions from the Bliss era. But Drew has built a powerhouse in Waco, Texas, from scratch. And Few has made Spokane, Washington, a hub for some of the top talent in America. Whether they get a title or not, I think they’ll get in the Hall of Fame. Both have many years left in coaching, so the numbers will continue to rise. And it’s just not fair to judge every coach, player and staffer by the events of a crapshoot known as the NCAA tournament. I think they’ll end up with Hall of Fame recognition, but there are never guarantees without a national title.

Borzello: I think they should both be Hall of Famers because of the uniquely terrific jobs they’ve done at their respective schools. Few has turned Gonzaga — GONZAGA — into a national powerhouse and one of the best programs in college basketball. Any number of mid-major programs have tried to replicate what the Zags have done to become the “next Gonzaga,” but nobody has come close, and nobody will. Gonzaga is a legitimate “new blood,” to steal a Florida State phrase. Since Few took over in 1999: 21 NCAA tournament appearances, 10 Sweet 16s, four Elite Eights, two Final Fours, two title game appearances. It’s unparalleled.

As for Drew, he has spearheaded one of the biggest rebuilding efforts in college sports history. He took a program that was mired in scandal and disarray, down to seven scholarship players and banned from playing nonconference games, as Myron mentioned — to the first 1-seed in program history and the national championship game. After missing the NCAA tournament during his first four years in charge, Drew has led the Bears to nine of the past 13 NCAA tournaments, including five Sweet 16 appearances, three Elite Eights and one Final Four. A title would seal his candidacy.

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2:04

Gonzaga coach Mark Few talks about his team’s run to the Final Four and the close-knit nature of the entire roster.

Gasaway: This is the all-time matchup of the ultimate program builders. The dire straits that Baylor found itself in when Drew took the job in 2003 have been well-documented. Now, he is at the helm of a program that would almost certainly be carrying its second consecutive No. 1 seed had there been an NCAA tournament in 2020.

Few’s narrative is a bit different but no less impressive. The Bulldogs were already on the rise under former coach Dan Fitzgerald and then made their NCAA tournament breakthrough and reached the 1999 Elite Eight under Dan Monson. Few inherited a better situation than Drew did — but look at what’s taken place since then. We’ve never seen a team become a perennial national power, one that competes for and usually earns No. 1 seeds annually, while remaining in its mid-major conference. In Scott Drew and Mark Few, we have two of the sport’s miracle workers. Now they’ll meet head-to-head with a national title on the line.

Lunardi: If Mark Few retired at halftime, he would still be a unanimous Hall of Famer. I mean, he has never missed the NCAA tournament, and the level sustained by the Bulldogs is outrageous on so many levels. As for Scott Drew, it can be argued that his work at Baylor exceeds even that of Gonzaga’s two-decade dynasty. Which program was in a deeper hole, especially relative to the competition? The answer would have to be Baylor, but Drew might still need a title for his invite to Springfield, Massachusetts. Just ask his Big 12 compatriot Bob Huggins.


Who’s on your short list for Most Outstanding Player of the tournament honors entering Monday’s game?

Lunardi: Too bad we don’t have a third-place game any longer, otherwise we might be looking at UCLA’s Johnny Juzang as the tourney’s Most Outstanding Player. It has happened. In 1965, Bill Bradley led Princeton to a third-place finish and scored a Final Four-record 58 points in a 118-82 victory over Wichita State (after Michigan “held” Bradley to 29 in the semifinals). History lesson aside, Drew Timme has been the tournament’s top performer (with Davion Mitchell the most valuable member of Baylor’s ensemble cast).

Gasaway: We need to get back to the tradition in which a player can earn MOP honors even if his team doesn’t win the title. And by “we need to,” I more specifically mean I wish to salute these two excellent candidates in advance of knowing which of their teams wins or loses. Mitchell was sensational against the Houston Cougars in the Final Four, recording a 12-11 points-assists double-double while mostly limiting Quentin Grimes to 13 points. (“Mostly” meaning when Marcus Sasser started hitting shots for Houston, Mitchell was reassigned.) Prior to the game against the Cougars, Mitchell was already the best all-around player on his team, distributing the ball, hitting shots and shutting down the leading scorer for the opponent.

Then again, Timme has been no less outstanding for Gonzaga. Amid all the richly deserved praise for the offensive rebounding of Baylor, for example, it bears mention that going into the Final Four, Timme was the outstanding individual offensive rebounder in the tournament among the surviving contestants. Plus. he has been distributing the ball and making well over 60% of his 2s as his team’s featured scorer.

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0:29

Baylor’s Davion Mitchell dials in a 3-pointer to end the first half that has him and his teammates fired up.

Medcalf: No matter what happens, Johnny Juzang should get an award for what he did during this run for the Bruins. But I think it’s Drew Timme and Davion Mitchell. Jared Butler had a championship performance for his team in the Final Four against Houston. But Mitchell and Timme have both made significant impacts on their teams throughout the NCAA tournament. And they’ve both done the job on offense and defense. They’re also playing next to stars. That makes it more difficult to stand out in these moments, but I think it’s clear that Baylor and Gonzaga wouldn’t have reached Monday’s national title game without the efforts of those two players. But for real, Johnny Juzang should get something for what he did for the Bruins. Amazing effort.

Borzello: If Gonzaga wins, the answer is Timme. If Baylor wins, the answer is Mitchell. Timme has been dominant since Gonzaga cruised past Norfolk State in the first round, going for 30 points, 13 rebounds and four assists against Oklahoma; 22 points, six rebounds and four assists against Creighton; and 23 points, five rebounds and four assists against the best post defender in the country in USC’s Evan Mobley. Timme then single-handedly willed Gonzaga to a win in overtime over UCLA.

Mitchell has been incredible at both ends of the floor. The best perimeter defender in college basketball, Mitchell has slowed down the likes of Moses Moody and Quentin Grimes, while also averaging 13.2 points and 6.0 assists in the NCAA tournament. He’ll also have to come up big against Gonzaga’s guards on Monday.


Give us your score prediction and what we’ll be saying about the winner afterward

Gasaway: Gonzaga 79, Baylor 75. We will be saying that Gonzaga earned a spot in history as the first national champion in 45 years to go undefeated. In retrospect, people will say that of course they saw this coming. It’s closer to the truth to say that no one did. Even making the national title game with a perfect record hasn’t happened in 42 years, and it has long been said that we will never see another undefeated champion again. There will even be people who try to put an asterisk next to this achievement because it happened during a shortened season that took place amid a global pandemic. But the numbers are clear enough: Gonzaga really is one of the best teams we have seen in recent years. Yes, UCLA took the Bulldogs to overtime, but that also happened to Indiana — twice! — in 1975-76.

Mark Few has done the impossible and built a perennial national power at a small Jesuit school in the West Coast Conference. We’ve already seen history made over the past 20 years, but a win Monday night would put an indelible exclamation point after all that has come before.

Borzello: Gonzaga 88, Baylor 83. I’d imagine a lot of people will be whining about Gonzaga playing in the WCC and how many losses they would have had in a Big Ten that had one team get out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament; but personally, the Bulldogs are the most dominant team I’ve seen in my lifetime. Granted, I was about 4 years old during those early 1990s runs by UNLV, so I can’t compare the two. But going into this season, the best team I can recall watching was Villanova’s 2018 team.

The 2018 Wildcats were simply a juggernaut in the NCAA tournament and never looked like they were in danger of losing. Gonzaga has done the same for most of the past three weeks, but they also did it for the entire past 4½ months. Being the first undefeated champion in 45 years is an unbelievable accomplishment, and the Bulldogs have done it in absolutely dominant fashion. They have lottery picks, they have pros, they have an elite starting five, they have an incredible coach and they have a generationally good offense. What more do you want?

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1:47

Dick Vitale breaks down what he expects to see from Baylor’s game vs. Gonzaga for the men’s national championship.

Medcalf: Gonzaga 92, Baylor 87. I think we’ll be saying that Mark Few definitely deserves to be mentioned with other elite coaches who’ve won a national title, including Tony Bennett, Tom Izzo and Bill Self. Few has been in that tier for years, but the championship solidifies it.

I think we’ll also call this one of the greatest runs we’ve ever seen. To beat Baylor — along with West Virginia, Kansas, Virginia, Iowa and USC in addition to the thriller over UCLA — on your way to a 32-0 season is undeniable validation too. I just think people will have to understand how difficult it is to go undefeated. And Gonzaga, if the team wins on Monday, will have done it during perhaps the most challenging season in the game’s history. More than anything, I think we’ll just appreciate what Few and Gonzaga achieved. Their story is the story of college basketball and the diversity within the game. That a team from Spokane, Washington, can win it all says a lot about the shifting landscape and college basketball’s potential.

Lunardi: If this were a best of seven, the series would go at least six games and maybe the limit. And my pick would be Gonzaga. Which game of that hypothetical series will we get on Monday night? Who knows? But I’m sticking with probability — and the Zags — 90-85, making history in the process.

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