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Gonzaga Basketball

Having played both, Oklahoma coach says No. 1 seeds Gonzaga, Baylor ‘have separated themselves’ from rest of field

Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger on the sidelines in the second half of a second-round game against Gonzaga in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Monday, March 22, 2021.  (Associated Press)

It’s a distinction only two teams had before Monday’s Round of 32 game in the NCAA Tournament. Now Oklahoma can add itself to the list.

For much of the season, Gonzaga and Baylor held the top two spots in the Associated Press Top 25, collecting all 64 first-place votes – the Bulldogs with 60, the Bears with four – in a Week 14 edition of the poll when Mark Few’s team was 22-0 and Scott Drew’s was 17-0.

While Gonzaga kept its unbeaten record intact, Baylor dropped two Big-12 games down the stretch, allowing Illinois to pull ahead in the latest edition of the Top 25. Now that the No. 1-seeded Illini have been bounced from the NCAA Tournament, order has been restored, so to speak, within college basketball’s 2020-21 hierarchy.

GU and BU appear to be the most formidable teams still standing in the 2021 tournament. The Bulldogs have won consecutive tournament games by a combined 60 points and the Bears have hardly been challenged, beating their first two opponents by 37 points.

Just three teams have had the opportunity to play both: Kansas, West Virginia and  Oklahoma.

The Bulldogs and Sooners both had a game canceled against Baylor, but while Gonzaga never was able to find a makeup date, the Big-12 schedule pitted OU and BU against each other twice and the teams were able to play on Jan. 6 in Waco, Texas, before the rematch in Norman was wiped out by COVID-19.

Baylor won 76-61 despite a 19-point game from Oklahoma’s Austin Reaves, who was at his best during Monday’s matchup with Gonzaga, scoring 27 points in a 16-point loss.

As someone who’s game-planned both, Lon Kruger is as qualified as anyone in the college basketball world to handicap a potential national championship game between the Bulldogs and the Bears. Handicap, yes, but the 10th-year OU coach will hold off on picking a winner.

“They’re a special team, no question about it,” Kruger said of Gonzaga. “Like Baylor is a special team. We had a really deep conference, obviously. Those two through the course of the year have separated themselves and I think deservedly so and correctly. I think both those guys are really good and special guys and both coaches do a great job.

“Would be an interesting final game, if it turns out that way. For sure.”

Like Kruger, Kansas coach Bill Self and WVU’s Bob Huggins both have the credentials to enter a Gonzaga-Baylor conversation.

The Jayhawks lost a season opener to Gonzaga, 102-90, and split with Baylor, losing 77-69 in Waco before winning 71-58 in Lawrence, Kansas, to end the Bears’ perfect season. Gonzaga survived an early-season scare from WVU, winning 87-82 in Ft. Meyers, Florida. The Mountaineers had three games against Baylor either postponed or cancelled before losing to the Bears 94-89 in Morgantown, W.V.