Gonzaga and Baylor. Baylor and Gonzaga. Corey Kispert. Jared Butler. Drew Timme. MaCio Teague. Jalen Suggs. Everyday Jon.
So much of the 2020-21 season has been about Gonzaga and Baylor, when it hasn’t been about teams going on pause for 10 days. Zags or Bears – who ya got?
If, and this is a gigantic if, Gonzaga and Baylor each were to soldier to the end of the regular season undefeated, and then to negotiate the NCAA-tournament bracket unscathed all the way to Monday night, April 5 in Indianapolis, it would make the 2020-21 season – for all its warts and rashes – the most memorable in the history of the sport.
A Gonzaga-Baylor final, each with spotless records, would be even a more unforgettable matchup than college hoops’ all-time most-watched game on television. That’s the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson Indiana State-Michigan State duel of 1979 in Salt Lake City.
But something I heard from Fran Fraschilla, the ESPN analyst, the other day got me to thinking. He was asked which of the two he’d favor in such a matchup in Indy, putting aside the element of either being undefeated. He said he honestly didn’t know, and that it would be 5-5 if they played 10 times.
The question, then, posed with the disclaimer that it’s far too late to tamper with the 2021 schedule: Would we be better served if the NCAA final were a best-of-three event rather than a 40-minute, winner-take-all stab that can come down to an official’s botched call with 25 seconds left? Do we want the best team to win the tournament, or the team that plays better on that night?
Of course, there is precedent. The NCAA baseball final is best-of-three. So is softball. Obviously, football is its own physical beast, but basketball isn’t so debilitating that it would preclude a best-of-three. What if you played the first game Monday night, the second Tuesday night, and if necessary, the third on Thursday night?
Some of what has caused college basketball’s flagging popularity is the constant churn of its principals. If the casual fan saw these guys occasionally through the tournament, and again on the final Monday, and perhaps once or twice beyond, wouldn’t that tend to attract eyeballs?
This wouldn’t be a good look, you say, demanding more of the athletes at a time when the NCAA has been slow to manage issues like name, image and likeness. Well, as a hedge, make a tangible, good-faith effort to settle those scores. Better yet, take a chunk of what would be a major boost in TV money, and send it toward worthy inner-city housing or educational initiatives as a way to address Black Lives Matter injustices. (Most of the guys you see on the floor, you may have noticed, are African-American.)
Of course, there’s a romance tied to the one-game, do-or-die factor. From the early-round mind-fryers – Valparaiso, Middle Tennessee, Maryland-Baltimore County – to Villanova shooting 78 percent to bring down Georgetown in the 1985 final, much of the appeal of the tournament is its now-or-never component, the idea that anything can happen. There’s a reason the crowning song isn’t “Three Shining Moments.”
But once you’ve waded through the inevitable stunners and the cream has ascended, would it be such an impertinence for the two survivors to truly determine which is better?
In the past, we’ve seen arguments for an expanded, 96-team tournament, even 128 teams. But we have enough convulsion, enough early upsets. How about a small but significant expansion at the climax?