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John Blanchette: Holding the Gonzaga-Baylor showdown for the title tilt is college’s basketball’s best gift in a year of duds

UPDATED: Sun., April 4, 2021

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

INDIANAPOLIS – They tried everywhere, man, they tried everywhere.

Scheduling’s a nightmare, man. Check the calen-dare, man.

They tried Vegas, Denver, Fort Worth, Sioux … OK, you get the idea.

It’s true. Maybe it sounded like lip service at the time, but it wasn’t at all. Gonzaga coach Mark Few and his Baylor buddy Scott Drew did all they could to rebook the Dec. 5 game in Indianapolis they had scheduled before the Bulldogs came up with a positive COVID-19 test the morning of tipoff.

To our lasting delight, they failed.

Best brick of the NCAA Tournament.

Since the first polls of the college basketball season were issued back in November, they have been inextricably linked – Gonzaga No. 1 over Baylor by a mere point in the Associated Press poll, Baylor over the Zags by two points in the coaches’ version. Now they finally get to settle it Monday night as March Madness 2021-style – off-kilter, often ghostly – comes to a close.

Few and Drew were trying to do right by college basketball then.

They’re doing even better by it now.

“We had our little futile human plans,” said Few. “God always has a plan and as is usually the case, his is better than ours.”

OK, but as futile human planners go, the two coaches had their hearts in the right place.

The COVID-19 pandemic that exploded in March 2020 and took a devastating toll on the global population wasn’t going to spare little old college basketball. It wiped out the sport’s showcase event and left players and coaches without closure, even as they accepted their sacrifice as necessary. In the case of Few and Drew, their teams had legitimate championship aspirations in 2020: Both were book-it No. 1 seeds.

There would be no do-overs, but the two coaches had some ideas about regaining the sport’s momentum.

“Scott and I were planning (a game) all the way back in July,” Few said. “We tried like crazy to actively get out and talk to other coaches who were great about scheduling games and playing (good) games to just – after losing the tournament last year – put college basketball back in the forefront of everybody’s minds. “We always knew we wanted to play because we knew we’d be in the top five in some fashion.”

COVID had other ideas.

After the cancellation, the two programs just kept on winning – the Zags though the rest of their murderous December, the Bears into the rugged Big 12. Still, the coaches tried to find a new date and site – in part obliged to CBS, which lost out on a payday.

“We looked at a lot of places,” Few said. “Scott threw out Fort Worth and I wasn’t too keen on that. We looked at Vegas, Denver, we were trying Kansas City. The Pentagon in Sioux Falls was up for consideration. Phoenix – his brother is at Grand Canyon and one of my staff member’s kids (Tommy Lloyd’s son Liam) plays there.”

But cancellations and makeups in the Big 12 squeezed the schedule, and by mid-January it was moot.

“So we said let’s do all we can to make it to this point,” Few said. “Pretty amazing that we both did.”

Well, yes and no.

They are the two best teams, period. That’s no guarantee of survival – use Gonzaga’s escape against UCLA on Saturday as a reference – but the odds were always with them.

In the long view, however, they are the standard-bearers of basketball’s newbloods with the odds against them. The Zag history you know by heart. The Baylor tale is something altogether different – Drew taking over a program in 2003 from the despicable Dave Bliss that probably should have received the NCAA death penalty, resurrecting it from what Few called “a dark place.”

By 2012, he’d had the Bears in the Elite Eight twice.

Drew wasn’t trying to have Baylor be “the next Gonzaga.” But he does admit to scoreboard watching this year.

“We’ve followed what they’ve done, they’ve followed what we’ve done,” he said. “They’ve motivated us to keep up and keep pace. You need that competition. You need teams like this to bring out the best in you.”

The Bears couldn’t quite keep pace – a COVID pause and a sluggish return led to a loss to Kansas. That’s taken no shine off this showdown whatsoever. And the fact that original game never got played simply adds to the drama.

“In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have lost this year, they wouldn’t have lost this year and we played right now,” Drew said. “If I was God, I think I’d have done that script. There’s something about the first time you play, the excitement about that.

“This is perfect how it’s worked out.”

Because after they tried everywhere, they tried Indy. One last time.

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