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Gonzaga Basketball

Milestone matchup: No. 1 Gonzaga faces toughest challenge yet against No. 2 Baylor

Baylor's Jared Butler (12) averages more than 16 points per game for the Bears.  (John Locher/Associated Press)

It was great in concept months ago when Gonzaga coach Mark Few and Baylor counterpart Scott Drew finalized a matchup of their powerhouse programs.

It looked even better when the programs were ranked 1-2, separated by one point, in the AP preseason poll. It’s an even bigger spectacle as Saturday’s heavyweight showdown nears with both teams off to impressive 3-0 starts.

College basketball’s undivided attention will be on No. 1 Gonzaga versus No. 2 Baylor at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis – probable host city of the NCAA Tournament – in a matchup that has late March, early April written all over it.

“We thought it was the right thing to do,” Few said. “We thought it’d be good not only for our programs, but it would be really good for college basketball, especially to do it this early in the year.”

It’ll be the 43rd meeting of AP top-two teams, but the first involving Gonzaga or Baylor. Top-ranked teams hold a 22-20 edge. Baylor was No. 1 by two points over No. 2 GU in the USA Today preseason poll. USA Today’s first regular-season rankings are expected next week.

The Zags’ tour of Big 12 Conference powers continues after posting wins over then-No. 6 Kansas and No. 11 West Virginia. Baylor, Kansas and West Virginia were 1-2-3 in the Big 12 preseason poll.

Baylor hammered Louisiana-Lafayette and Washington in Las Vegas before defeating No. 5 Illinois 82-69 on Wednesday.

“They’re really good and they’re old and they’re hungry,” Few said. “They felt much like we did that they got their NCAA (tournament) chance taken away last year and so they’re pretty much March ready already here in December.”

There is no shortage of storylines, but here are the two biggest:

• Two of the nation’s premier backcourts will be on display.

Baylor relies on AP preseason All-American Jared Butler (16.3 points, 4.0 assists), MaCio Teague (15.7 points, 5.0 rebounds), Presbyterian transfer Adam Flagler (15.7 points, 45% on 3-pointers) and Davion Mitchell (13.0 points, 6.7 assists).

Gonzaga counters with preseason All-American Corey Kispert (22.3 points, nine 3-pointers), Joel Ayayi (13.7 points, 7.7 rebounds), freshman Jalen Suggs (13.3 points, 6.3 assists) and Andrew Nembhard (11.7 points, 4.0 assists).

Suggs suffered an ankle injury in Wednesday’s win, but returned in the second half. He’s been sore the past few days but he’s expected to play.

“Just a real mature team that’s played together,” Nembhard said of Baylor. “It’s a winning program. They have some great guards over there. It’s going to be a tough fight for us and a good test to see where we’re at.”

Nemhbard has seen it firsthand. The Bears beat Florida 72-61 last season despite 16 points and eight assists from Nembhard, who was the Gators’ starting point guard.

• The clash between Gonzaga’s potent offense and Baylor’s elite defense. Mitchell and Mark Vital were finalists for the 2020 Naismith Defensive Player of the Year that went to Kansas guard Marcus Garrett.

Baylor was known for a stingy zone defense for years under Drew, but it’s been an adhesive man-to-man that has made the Bears one of the toughest teams to score on the past few seasons.

“At this point, we know we can’t control what people say,” Butler said on The Field of 68 podcast. “We can only control our play. I know for sure Gonzaga has a great offense. I think our defense is something we’re going to take pride in. ”

Baylor’s players, like Gonzaga’s, are versatile and athletic enough to switch on screens. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Vital could see extended time on the 6-7, 220-pound Kispert.

The Bears are averaging 93.3 points per game, a fraction more than Gonzaga’s 93.0.

“Can’t wait,” Nembhard said. “Playing big-time games against really good teams, that’s what you live for as a college basketball player.”