Rare air: Why Gonzaga vs. Baylor is a historic title game matchup

There’s an exclusivity inherent to the moment that college basketball coaches refer to as “Monday Night.” That’s the insider moniker for the sport’s national title game, which allows only two of the sport’s 357 teams to slip under the velvet rope for the final game.

After undefeated No. 1 Gonzaga (31-0) escaped an upset from UCLA and No. 1 Baylor (27-2) advanced to the national title game with Final Four victories on Saturday, it sets up the single-best national title game on paper in the history of the NCAA tournament considering how both programs uniquely separated themselves from the rest of the sport.

Gonzaga and Baylor have dominated this season so thoroughly that they were perched atop the Associated Press poll together for the first 14 polls, including the preseason. Overall, they were ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in 15 of the 17 AP polls. No two teams that have met for the title have spent that much time beside each other atop the polls in a single season. Gonzaga is attempting to become the first men’s Division I team to go undefeated and win the NCAA tournament since Indiana’s 1976 championship team.

Since the NCAA tournament began seeding teams in 1979, this marks the ninth time that two No. 1 NCAA tournament seeds met in the national title game. The frenetic nature of the NCAA tournament rarely allows two of the best four teams to play for the title, never mind two programs that have emerged as distinctly elite as the Zags and Bears.

Baylor and Gonzaga will meet in the NCAA men's tournament national title game on Monday. (AP/Getty)
Baylor and Gonzaga will meet in the NCAA men's tournament national title game on Monday. (AP/Getty)

How rare is it for the clear-cut two best teams to reach the NCAA title game? It could be considered a generational event. The closest comparison for the domination of the two top teams meeting in the national title game came in 1999, when UConn toppled Duke, 77-74, after they’d shared the top two spots in the polls for 12 weeks during that season. In 2005, UNC beat Illinois, 75-70, after they topped the polls together for five weeks. Not coincidentally, those are remembered as two of the best games the sport has been treated to in the last quarter century.

Overall, this is just the ninth time that a pair of No. 1 seeds have faced off since the tournament began seeding in 1979. Those games were — UNC over Georgetown in 1982, UNC over Michigan in 1993, UConn over Duke in 1999, UNC over Illinois in 2005, Florida over Ohio State in 2007, Kansas over Memphis in 2008, Duke over Wisconsin in 2015 and UNC over Gonzaga in 2017.

Monday night’s game between No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 1 Baylor will be added to that list. The winner will mark the first national championship for either program. Baylor hadn’t been to the Final Four since 1950. Gonzaga’s lone title game appearance came back in 2017 and the school didn’t appear in the NCAA tournament for the first time until 1995.

Gonzaga and Baylor were actually scheduled to meet earlier this season in Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Dec. 5. The game was canceled because of a pair of positive COVID-19 tests in Gonzaga’s traveling party. They were unable to reschedule.

"I think we match up pretty well," Baylor star Jared Butler said after the Bears clinched their spot in the title game. "They've got pros. We've got pros. They win a lot of games. We win a lot of games. I think we match up well."

But they now meet thanks to a collision of generational dominance, as the basketball gods have aligned for them to meet about a half-mile away at Lucas Oil Stadium from where their original matchup was scheduled. The element of mystery from the prior game being canceled adds to the aura of this game, which on paper projects as one of the best title games in NCAA history.

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