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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

‘Another big-time game’: Different Gonzaga, Baylor teams meet two years after national championship clash

Dec. 1, 2022 Updated Thu., Dec. 1, 2022 at 8:45 p.m.

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – Julian Strawther watched from Gonzaga’s bench two years ago as Baylor’s lead grew from big to bigger to insurmountable. Strawther, used sparingly during his freshman season at Gonzaga, couldn’t do much about the final outcome at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, but that didn’t make the sights and sounds of an 86-70 national championship loss any easier to swallow.

Most of those were permanently seared into Strawther’s brain – green and gold confetti showers, Baylor players parading around the court with the elusive wooden trophy, “One Shining Moment” playing loudly on a jumbotron.

The Zags can’t undo the past, but the future presents another opportunity against the team that spoiled their perfect season two years ago. Strawther can’t speak for every teammate, but the junior wing has been anticipating Friday’s Baylor-Gonzaga rematch at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, since it was added to the schedule. The game, which tips off at 5 p.m. , will air exclusively on the Peacock streaming platform.

“Every time I see Baylor play, I just think to that national championship game,” Strawther said. “So for sure, just excited to go out there and play against a great team at a neutral site and I feel like it’s going to be fun. Those are the games all great players dream to play in. It’s a top matchup, bunch of great guys on the court, so we’re super excited.”

There may not be two programs that have embodied college basketball excellence over the past three seasons than Gonzaga and Baylor.

In a news conference earlier this week, Bears coach Scott Drew pointed out his team and Mark Few’s are the only to hold a No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 each of the past three seasons. The Zags went wire to wire in the AP poll during the 2020-21 season, but the Bears stole that mantle by winning the title, even if the rankings never reflected it.

Gonzaga and Baylor are also the only programs in the country with top-10 draft picks each of the past two years. The Bulldogs’ Jalen Suggs went fifth overall to the Orlando Magic in 2021 before the Bears’ Davion Mitchell was taken No. 9 by the Sacramento Kings. In 2022, Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren was selected No. 2 by the Oklahoma City Thunder and Baylor’s Jeremy Sochan was taken No. 9 by the San Antonio Spurs.

“We’ve both had our shares of wins in the last three years, for sure,” Drew said.

Both have also dealt with confounding losses this season – results that have taken some shine away from Friday’s game. In the preseason poll, Gonzaga checked in at No. 2 while Baylor was tied with Kansas at No. 5. The Bulldogs, now ranked No. 14, have two double-digit losses under their belt, to Texas and Purdue, while the sixth-ranked Bears are likely to slip in the poll – regardless of what they do against Gonzaga – after Tuesday’s 26-point loss to unranked Marquette.

“Like every team, they’ve got new pieces. They’re growing,” Drew said. “They played three competitive games in the Phil Knight tournament and they’ve got to be feeling well with the last win they had. That’s a team that’s used to winning, finds ways to win. … So why you love playing a team like that is you’re going to get better. They’re not going to beat themselves and it’s going to be a game where if you win, you’ve done a lot of things really well.”

The 2021 game pitted Gonzaga’s efficient offense against Baylor’s ever-sturdy defense.

This game features the nation’s leaders in adjusted offense, according to KenPom.com, but two teams that have yet to string together consistent games on the defensive end. Gonzaga’s adjusted defense (94.3) ranks No. 51 in the country while Baylor (96.4) tumbled to No. 77 after conceding 96 points to Marquette.

“Playing games like that, there’s no loser,” Drew said. “Meaning … there’s a quality win available and a chance for your team to improve and get better and play one of the nation’s best programs.”

GU’s Drew Timme (20.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and Baylor’s Flo Thamba (4.3 ppg, 4.9 ppg) are the returning starters from the national championship game. The Bears lost three starters from last year’s team, but reloaded by signing a top-10 high school recruit in guard Keyonte George (14.4 ppg, 4.3 apg), adding West Virginia forward transfer Jalen Bridges (9.4 ppg, 3.7 apg) and bringing in BYU forward Caleb Lohner (6.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg), who was booed by Gonzaga fans during the Cougars’ trip to Spokane last season after telling local reporters, “Everyone hates Gonzaga, so it’s fun to go play them.”

“I know they’re good guys, they’re hard workers and they play the right way,” said Timme, who’s familiar with Lohner, a fellow Texan, from their time in the West Coast Conference and followed George’s prep career at Lewisville High School in Texas and IMG Academy.

Timme was held to 12 points in the 2021 national title game after scoring 100 in four prior games against UCLA, USC, Creighton and Oklahoma, but the All-American forward isn’t viewing Friday’s game as a revenge match .

“Honestly, I don’t really think about it that much,” Timme said. “It happened. You can’t change the past, but they’re a different team, we’re a different team. Yes, we have some people on our team and they do, but it’ll be another big-time game.

“That’s what our schedule is, just big-time games.”

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