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Baylor: Shouldn’t We Have Known All Along?

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There is but small comfort knowing I’m among the many erstwhile college hoops scribes, with a delusional belief in the power of our observations of the game we love so much, who misfired. Or, were leery of pulling the trigger.

We woke up this morning with egg on our faces, before even heading into the kitchen to make breakfast.

It’s not that I picked Gonzaga to win the title. I did not. You can go look.

But I certainly did not listen to myself.

If only I’d had the confidence to listen to my convictions, I’d be able to lord my “expertise” over all this morning after.

On Sunday, after the national semis, I wrote this about the eventual champion: “In its semi-final smackdown, Baylor looked, well, let’s be frank here, UN BEAT A BLE.”

Then, yesterday, while whiling away the minutes until 9:20, I reiterated said proclamation, while questioning the out of kilter point spread: “Coming off its spectacular effort on Saturday, Baylor, which looked frankly unbeatable, opened as a 4 1/2 point underdog.”

Yet, ever the cautious one, not wanting to see that yolk on my chin this morning in the mirror, prevaricated: “No predictions here. I haven’t the slightest.”

What a wimp. Pass the washcloth.

* * * * *

In the end of this COVID-addled campaign, it was the disease that had the last laugh, that swatted away our observations like Dikembe Mutumbo in the cereal aisle of a grocery.

Had Gonzaga and Baylor played as they were meant to, on December 5 in the Indianapolis, we’d have known. The whole narrative of the season would have flipped.

We’d have known which school had clearly the better team.

Instead, without that more than likely setback, the Bulldogs gained momentum and a somewhat false confidence, beating up “powers” that weren’t quite their usual selves as it turned out. UVa. Kansas. Auburn.

After the Zags throttled Rock Chalk Jayhawk in the opener, I, like many, declared them undoubtedly the best in the land.

Then, after seeing Baylor do its thing, early on before its shutdowns, maybe against the Illini, I stepped back. The Bears might be better, thought I.

Then the schools didn’t play. Gonzaga conquered all. Baylor took a step back.

* * * * *

As exhilarating as Saturday’s semis were, the nightcap masked what we should have been our takeaway.

Baylor eviscerated Houston, a really good if offensively-bereft team, the tenth best defensive contingent in the country. From the get go. Up 25 at the break, they had broken the Cougars considerable will before intermission.

All of which we forgot in the thrall of the Zags’ exciting and entertaining escape over the Bruins.

We was dazzled, we was.

* * * * *

Then Scott Drew’s guys did it again Monday night.

Baylor won the tip. Mark Vital missed a shot. Retrieved his miss. Missed another shot. Snared that miss. Davion Mitchell J.

2 zip. Ball Game!

The Zags didn’t net a FG until after they were down double digits.

Midway through the 1st, Baylor had the game by the short and curlies, up 15.

The halftime margin of 10 was oh so deceiving.

When the defeated dared to cut the margin to single digits in the 2d, Baylor wagged its finger like you know who mugging for some insurance company, and went on a 9-2 run.

* * * * *

For me, the moment that displayed the disparity in microcosm came at the 11:04 mark of the 1st. Gonzaga ran one of those beautiful sets that look like a Clair Bee instructional video.

Corey Kispert got the rock on a stealthy cut to the hoop, and had a clear path for a layup. At which juncture, Flo Thamba swatted the ball all the way to Shapiro’s parking lot at McCarty and Meridian.

It was at the moment I checked myself. Are all those Gonzaga naysayers right that playing most of the year in the WCC is detrimental to the Bulldogs success, that they simply aren’t challenged enough game in and game out.

At Pepperdine’s Firestone Fieldhouse, up there on the hill in Malibu, Kispert scores easily. Same story, Jenny Craig Pavilion in San Diego against the Toreros. You get my point.

For steel to strengthen, it must be tempered by fire. A road trip to Portland and Loyola Marymount isn’t quite the test as one to Kansas and Oklahoma.

* * * * *

I do not mean to imply that Gonzaga was a fraud.

Far from it.

The Bulldogs were good. Really good.

But on the last night of the season, they hadn’t recovered from their buzzer beater against UCLA. They had the stare of Quinn Buckner buckling their knees.

And, undone, they lost to a clearly superior Baylor team.

A Baylor team, unlike Norma Desmond, truly ready for the brightest spotlight, for their close up with Mr. DeMille.

Best team won, and, blinded by the hype, most of us missed the signs ahead of time.

— c d kaplan