It’s Monday morning, more than 36 hours after the finish of Gonzaga’s remarkable NCAA Tournament victory over UCLA, and I still can’t quit thinking about it — about the absolute beauty of it. I am talking about the level of play, the competitiveness, the drama — all of it.
And, it is also just a few hours before 31-0 Gonzaga will take on 27-2 Baylor in one of the most intriguing Final Four championship games in memory. My take: College basketball doesn’t get any better than this.
And that seems to be the consensus of all the sports writers who have written about it, and all the TV and radio talking heads who have waxed on about it — especially about Gonzaga’s epic overtime victory over UCLA. So, I wondered if coaches felt the same. I wondered if, from a technical standpoint, coaches were as impressed as the rest of us.
The answer: Yes, they are. Specifically, I talked to Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis Jr. and Mississippi State coach Ben Howland, two coaches who have experienced memorable NCAA Tournament moments themselves. Five years ago, Davis’ Middle Tennessee State team, a 15-seed, pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA history, knocking off 2-seed Michigan State. Howland has coached four different schools into the NCAA Tournament and guided three of his UCLA teams into the Final Four. They qualify as experts.
“Just unbelievable basketball,” Davis said Monday morning. “Without a doubt one of the best games I have ever seen. I’m talking about how hard both teams played, how well-coached they were and how many big baskets they made, time after time after time.”
Howland, who was traveling, caught only the last few minutes of regulation and overtime of Gonzaga’s semifinal victory. “If the rest of it was like what I saw, I can only imagine,” Howland said. “From what I’ve read and what everybody is saying, it must have been. It was just an incredible finish. I could not believe that ending.”
Gonzaga freshman guard Jalen Suggs banked in a running 40-footer at the buzzer to give the Zags a 93-90 victory. Suggs’ shot was the biggest of a game of big shot after big shot. What made all the buckets seem so special was that both teams also played so well defensively. How many times in college basketball do we see a 93-90 game when both teams play excellent defense? Not many.
And how many times do you see a matchup where the tables are turned as much as they were for UCLA and Gonzaga. “You had UCLA which has won so many championships and been to so many Final Fours coming in as the 11-seed,” Davis said. “You had Gonzaga, which had been to the Final Four only once and had never won the championship, as the big favorite. From that standpoint, it was interesting even before the game.”
He’s right. The hunter had turned into the hunted and vice-versa. Both had no trouble adjusting to the role.
Keep in mind, UCLA, which lost its last four regular season games, was one of the last four teams to even get into the tournament. The Bruins had to win a play-in game to get into the round of 64. Davis’s Ole Miss team was one of the last four out.
“That just goes to show the parity in college basketball,” Davis said.
Davis made another point: “Could you believe how classy (Gonzaga coach Mark) Few was at the end of the game? The natural reaction is to run out there on the floor and celebrate with your players. Mark just turned about and looked at Mick (UCLA coach Cronin). You could tell he felt for him. He’s been there himself. To me that was so classy. Both those guys are as good a guy as they are coaches.”
Both Davis and Howland discussed how Saturday’s games might affect tonight’s. While Gonzaga’s victory had to take both a physical and emotional toll, Baylor won comfortably over Houston in the other semifinal.
Said Davis, “I think it’s more emotional than physical. When you play a game like that, it just takes a mental toll on you. It’s hard to explain how much it affects you emotionally. It’s hard to turn around and get ready with just one day in between.”
Howland agreed, but added, “There’s one way I think it helps Gonzaga. They really hadn’t played a close game all year. They got taken to the limit Saturday night. That’s got to help them.”
So, coaches, who do you like tonight?
“I think it will be close all the way,” Davis said. “Wouldn’t surprise me if it’s a lot like the UCLA-Gonzaga game because both these teams are too good, too well-coached to let the other run away with it. Gonzaga is such a great team, but for some reason, my gut says Baylor.”
Howland: “I’ve liked Gonzaga all season long, but Baylor, the way they are playing right now, it’s just hard to go against them. I lean toward Baylor.”
As for me, I still like Gonzaga, and I can’t wait.