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Which Teams Could Realistically Prevent a Baylor-Gonzaga National Championship?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystFebruary 4, 2021

Baylor's Jared Butler
Baylor's Jared ButlerChuck Burton/Associated Press

In most men's college basketball seasons, the AP Top 25 is a deck of cards that gets shuffled every week. Teams get hotter than the sun and then go ice cold for a few games. Even the No. 1 and No. 2 spots change hands on a regular basis. Last year, seven teams spent at least one week at No. 1, and that was the fifth consecutive season with at least four different No. 1 teams.

But this year, the upper echelon of the AP Top 25 might as well be chiseled in stone.

It has been Gonzaga at No. 1 and Baylor at No. 2 in every one of the 11 polls this season. In light of Baylor's 83-69 road win over No. 6 Texas on Tuesday night, maybe they'll swap spots Monday. But there's no question that the 17-0 Zags and 17-0 Bears are the co-favorites to win the national championship.

Do you have any idea how rare that is?

Every now and again one team will go wire-to-wire at No. 1 in the polls. Kentucky did it in 2014-15. Aside from those Wildcats, the most recent example was Duke in 1991-92. In each of those seasons, though, six different teams spent time at No. 2. In other words, there was no clear top challenger to the favorite.

The same two teams in the top two spots for an entire season is unheard of.

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In fact, it's highly unusual for the top two teams in the preseason AP poll to even spend the entire year ranked in the Top Four.

I looked back through the past 50 years of AP poll data and found just one example of this phenomenon: Duke and Connecticut in 1998-99. And after four months of breathlessly waiting for that title-game pairing, fans actually got it. Neither the Blue Devils nor the Huskies played in a tournament game decided by fewer than five points until they squared off in a 77-74 instant classic for Connecticut's first national championship.

With any luck, Baylor and Gonzaga are headed for a similar fate.

Anything short of that would be disappointing, because they are head and shoulders ahead of the field. Based on adjusted efficiency margins on KenPom.com, the gap between No. 2 Gonzaga and No. 3 Michigan is wider than the gap between No. 3 Michigan and No. 16 Creighton.

But the NCAA tournament is a fickle beast that doesn't give a you-know-what about your efficiency.

That 2014-15 Kentucky team had, by far, the greatest AdjEM in KenPom history (36.91), and those Wildcats still lost in the Final Four. At 34.19, Duke finished four full points ahead of the next-closest team in 2001-02, yet the Blue Devils lost to No. 5 seed Indiana in the Sweet 16. Virginia was No. 1 on KenPom when it lost to UMBC in 2018.

So, let's play a little devil's advocate and ask the possible bracket-pool-winning question: Which teams could turn this two-headed dream into a nightmare by pulling off an upset?

             

Biggest Threats to Gonzaga

Gonzaga's Drew Timme
Gonzaga's Drew TimmeAshley Landis/Associated Press

Dating to the start of the 2018-19 season, Gonzaga has a record of 81-6. It has consistently had one of the most efficient offenses, and that primarily hinges on two-point buckets.

The Zags led the nation in two-point percentage in 2018-19 at 61.4 percent. Only Obi Toppin-led Dayton was better than Gonzaga in that department last year. And this year, the Bulldogs are making an outrageous 64.8 percent of their two-point attempts.

Beating this team starts with stifling that onslaught in the paint.

In the six losses in the last 87 games, Gonzaga shot a mortal 50.4 percent from inside the arc and averaged just 19.7 makes per game. (For reference, the Zags are averaging 27.9 two-point makes per game this year.)

It's also almost imperative to get hot from three-point range. Saint Mary's beat Gonzaga in the 2019 WCC championship while shooting 4-of-14 from deep by inexplicably holding the Zags to 47 points. But that's not a repeatable skill, and in the other five losses, Gonzaga's opponents had an average line of 11.4 makes in 25.4 attempts (44.9 percent).

This year's Gonzaga has been more susceptible to the deep ball than usual too. Opponents are shooting 34.4 percent against the Bulldogs, which ranks outside the top 200 nationally. This team isn't below the national average in many areas, and you need to exploit those Achilles' heels when you find them.

So, who can both defend the paint and make it rain at a high level?

No. 1 on that list is Michigan.

Led by 7'1" freshman Hunter Dickinson, the Wolverines boast the best two-point defense in the nation at 40.1 percent. And while they aren't living and dying by the three like they so often did under John Beilein, they've been known to stroke it on occasion. Over the last six games before they entered their COVID-19-related pause, they shot 41.9 percent and made 8.2 triples per contest.

In the Feb. 2 Bracket Matrix update, Michigan was a unanimous No. 1 seed in all 91 projections. There's plenty of time for that to change, but it's unlikely Gonzaga would run into the Wolverines before the Final Four.

There's another Big Ten team that's just as dangerous and could wind up as the No. 2 or No. 3 seed opposite Gonzaga: Illinois.

In Kofi Cockburn, the Illini have even more of a mountainous presence in the paint than Michigan has with Dickinson. Cockburn doesn't block many shots (1.4 per game), but opponents are only shooting 44.0 percent inside the arc against the Illini. And as a team, they're shooting just under 40 percent from distance on the year.

With Trent Frazier and Andre Curbelo stepping into the spotlight lately, Illinois is much more than just Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu. This team has become a threat to anyone, even Gonzaga.

A little further down the projected seed list, Creighton would be a dangerous Sweet 16 foe. Starting 6'7" Christian Bishop at the 5 against Drew Timme could prove disastrous for the Bluejays, and I imagine Gonzaga will dominate the rebounding battle if this matchup happens. But Creighton's two-point defense (44.2 percent) ranks in the top 25 in the nation, and we all know the Bluejays can shoot. They already have six games this season with at least 13 made triples.

             

Biggest Threats to Baylor

Virginia's Jay Huff
Virginia's Jay HuffLee Luther Jr./Associated Press

For eight years, Scott Drew has had an outstanding offensive rebounding team. It's been in the top 10 in the nation all eight years, in fact. That part of the Bears' winning formula is no surprise.

But this year, they're also one of the best shooting teams and one of the best turnover-forcing teams in the country, and that's not fair.

The Bears are shooting 43.9 percent from three-point range and forcing a turnover on 25.9 percent of defensive possessions. If you add those two unrelated but important numbers, you get 69.8. In the previous 15 seasons, Baylor never had a higher mark than 58.9and that team went to the 2012 Elite Eight before running into an Anthony Davis-sized brick wall.

This team defends and rebounds as well as Jevon Carter-led Press Virginia did, but Baylor can shoot too. Viewed another way, the Bears shoot and rebound as well as Michigan State did in 2015-16 with Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes and Eron Harris, but they also force turnovers nearly twice as often.

I don't know what the blueprint is for beating Baylor, because we've never seen a team quite like this.

As with Gonzaga's two-point shooting, though, the first step to an upset is mitigating the pain Baylor can inflict with its many strengths. A turnover-averse offense that doesn't allow many second-chance points should at least have a puncher's chance.

And that's Virginia basketball to a T.

The Cavaliers rank fifth in the nation in turnover percentage on offense and fourth in defensive rebounding. They were immediately rendered helpless in the 98-75 loss to Gonzaga, but no other opponent has scored more than 68 against the Wahoos this season.

While Virginia is built to neutralize two of Baylor's three calling cards, its defense is predicated on hoping the opponent will settle for long three-pointers, and the Bears are more than happy to take and make those shots.

It's always possible Baylor has an off shooting night and then can't make up for it with its usual supply of fast breaks and second chances, but it's also possible Jared Butler and Co. will drain 15 threes in a rout.

Houston could knock off Baylor in a Texas showdown. The Cougars have a sensational three-point defense (24.8 percent) and lead the nation in offensive rebounding. Defensive rebounding is probably Baylor's biggest weakness.

But it's hard to put much faith in a Houston team that has an effective field-goal percentage of 48.6good for 221st in the nation. The Cougars are also just OK in the turnover department and coughed the ball up 14 times against Texas Tech earlier this year.

Another big threat is Villanova. However, it's in a similar predicament as Virginia: It rarely commits turnovers and limits second chances but allows a lot of good looks from three-point range.

If we make all three categories a must, here's the full list of teams that rank in the top 50 in three-point defense, defensive rebounding and offensive turnover percentage:

Drake.

That's it. That's the list.

But not only does Drake barely rank in the top 50 in turnovers and rebounds, but it also has benefited from not facing a single team currently ranked in the KenPom Top 125. The Bulldogs' undefeated record is nice to look at, but it's hard to imagine that efficiency will hold up against perhaps the best team in the country.

     

So What Does It All Mean?

The TL;DR conclusion is there's a reason it feels like these two juggernauts are on an inevitable collision course for the national championship. Even the teams best suited to knock them off would need to play a near-perfect game to get it done.

Per DraftKings, both Baylor and Gonzaga are listed at +315 to win it all. That means you'd be getting basically even odds if you bet on both of them. (If you place $100 on each and one of them wins, you profit $215; if neither wins, you lose $200.)

Because we're still dealing with a pandemic that is wiping out games and pausing teams daily, I cannot, in good faith, endorse any futures bets.

In a normal year, though, that would be a no-brainer. That's how good and matchup-proof these teams are.

And with that, I will now start preparing myself for one of these teams to lose to a No. 9 seed in the second round before the other loses to the red-hot No. 3 seed that wins it all.

We're still talking about March Madness, after all.

                         

Statistics courtesy of Sports Reference and KenPom.com.

Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.

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