In my opinion, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is the world’s premier sporting event.
If you want to argue it’s the World Series, the Master’s, the Stanley Cup playoffs or the World Cup, I won’t dispute you. But, for my money, the NCAA tournament is unparalleled.
I’d watch the first week, just to see mid-major underdogs knock off top-seeded teams from power conferences. And, admittedly, in most years my interest wanes by the time the Sweet 16 rolls around because the number of upsets diminish.
But, this year, there were compelling story lines that kept me riveted to the television.
There was Oral Roberts. There was Loyola making another deep run. Oregon State and UCLA, both double-digit seeds making deep runs.
However, Aaron Cook’s presence on Gonzaga’s roster gave me a serious rooting interest right into the championship game. Cook, who was a mainstay at SIU for three years, transferred to Gonzaga as a graduate student to complete his eligibility.
Watching someone you know perform on one of the biggest stages in sports, well, it was a unique experience.
I wanted Gonzaga to get to the championship game for numerous reasons. Cook’s presence, of course, but the Zags are something of an underdog – they don’t compete in a Power 5 conference. Plus, I loved their game – a compelling combination of athleticism, devotion to detail and a blue-collar mentality.
And, I wanted Baylor to be the Zags’ opponent in the championship game. The Bears’ depth at guard, their ability to shoot from long distance and their team-first concept – it seemed like Baylor would be an outstanding test for unbeaten Gonzaga.
I got the desired matchup, but not the game I wanted.
Baylor took command of the game in the first 90 seconds. The Bears had four offensive rebounds on their first three possessions, jumped out to a 9-0 lead and never looked back. When pundits talks about dominating performances 50 years from now, they will point to the 2021 NCAA national championship game.
The most compelling game of the tournament was Gonzaga’s overtime win over UCLA in the national semifinal. Jalen Suggs knocked down a long 3-pointer, with the assistance of a kind kiss off the glass, as time expired in overtime to get Gonzaga to the title game.
As the Zags got off to a slow start in the championship game two nights later there was plenty of speculation that the overtime win left Gonzaga emotionally spent. The sluggish start could be expected after the huge adrenaline rush from the last-second win.
Was there a hangover effect? Possibly, but that wasn’t the big issue.
Baylor opened the game by moving the ball sharply. The Bears zipped the ball patiently around the perimeter until one of their three guards was wide open beyond the arc or one of their journeymen-type bigs was wide open under the basket.
In the meantime, Gonzaga tried to force their action, driving to the hoop when lanes didn’t exist or taking forced jumpers. Baylor stayed in system, Gonzaga didn’t.
By the time Gonzaga figured it out, the Zags were already down by double digits.
Yet, Gonzaga was down just 10 at intermission. And, the Bears were so perfect in the first half, it was inconceivable they wouldn’t falter at some point in the final 20 minutes.
The second half was 14 minutes old before the Bears committed their first turnover, and that was when a player ran out of bounds and caught a pass before re-establishing position on the floor.
When the final seconds ticked off the clock, I found myself disappointed for Cook, yet convinced the better team had won. It just would have been nice to have a touch more drama.
LES WINKELER is the former sports editor of The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at email@example.com, on Twitter @LesWinkeler.