Opinion: Gonzaga, Baylor get well-deserved do-overs with No. 1 seeds

Nancy Armour

Gonzaga and Baylor have been gifted with the rarest of things in sports: A do-over.

The teams hurt as much as anyone by last year’s cancellation of the NCAA tournaments drew No. 1 seeds Sunday night. It’s the reward for what they’ve done in this most challenging of seasons – Gonzaga still unbeaten and Baylor the No. 2 team in the country.

But it’s also a bit of karmic make-up for the bitter disappointment of a year ago.

"It's the product of the two years of playing hard, building a winning culture and getting the right group of guys to play together," Baylor's Jared Butler, The Associated Press' Big 12 player of the year, said Sunday night. "It’s been special and we’re just getting started."

The cancellation of last year’s NCAA tournaments was the right decision. The only decision, really, given how little we knew about COVID-19 then. That didn’t make it any easier for Gonzaga and Baylor, both of which had perhaps their best chances to win that elusive first national title.

Jalen Suggs, left, Mark Few and Gonzaga are back where they likely would have been last year as a top seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Gonzaga would have been a No. 1 seed or maybe, depending on how the rest of the conference tournaments shook out, a No. 2. It also likely would have played an NCAA Tournament game in Spokane for the first time, possible because the University of Idaho was the host school.

Baylor had been ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press top 25 for a school-record five consecutive weeks during the season. Even if it did finish second to Kansas in the Big 12, the Bears were a team nobody was going to want to see looming in their bracket.

But life isn’t always fair, a fact that has been hammered home over the past year.

When news broke last March that the tournament was being canceled, Gonzaga coach Mark Few said he was “extremely, extremely disappointed.” Baylor coach Scott Drew called it “devastating.” Of course they’d have another chance this season – oh, how naïve we were to be that certain then! – but there are never any guarantees, in life or in sports. Injuries happen. Rims are unforgiving. Balls take odd bounces.

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So to see Gonzaga and Baylor be standing atop the NCAA bracket again, in the spots where they both should have been last year, is fitting. It feels right, in a year when so little else has.

The NCAA selection committee made Gonzaga the overall No. 1 seed, and gifted the ‘Zags the easiest road of any team in the tournament. It’s hard to quibble with the choice.

At 26-0 – Gonzaga has 30 in a row going back to last season – the little Jesuit school from Spokane, Washington, is the lone unbeaten left. Should the ‘Zags win the title, they could be the first men’s team to go unbeaten since Indiana in 1976.

Gonzaga long ago ceased to be the cute and cuddly party crasher, and its résumé this season is as impressive as that of any traditional blueblood. It beat four top-16 teams in its first seven games this season, and three of those teams — Iowa, Kansas and Virginia — join Gonzaga in the West Region.

Gonzaga also knocked off West Virginia, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region.  

The ‘Zags lead the country in scoring — at 92.1 points per game, they’re scoring more than five points better than second-place Colgate — and shooting percentage (55 percent). Gonzaga won all but one game, against West Virginia, by double digits.

The ‘Zags could see Virginia, the No. 4 seed in the West, in the Sweet 16. But given the Cavaliers’ COVID-19 issues, there’s no telling if they’ll even make it that far or, if they do, what they’ll look like. Gonzaga wouldn’t face second-seeded Iowa or No. 3 Kansas until the Elite Eight.

As for Baylor, the first No. 1 seed in the men’s tournament in school history was hard-earned. Baylor played just three games in February because of COVID-19 disruptions, and had two games earlier in the season canceled, yet somehow managed not to unravel.

They have the third-most prolific offense in the country, at 84.4 points per game, and have seven wins over top-25 teams – including one over Illinois, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region.

Baylor did stumble against Oklahoma State in the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament. With a first conference title there for the taking, no less, without Kansas playing. But the Bears insist the surprise loss will make them better — and Drew noted that five of the last six teams to win the national title did so after losing in their conference tournaments.

"It's like when you put your hand on the stove and it burns you, you don't want to put your hand back on that hot stove,” Drew said. “When you get a loss, it makes you realize, 'Hey, I don't like that feeling. I don't want this again.' ''

Gonzaga and Baylor said that very thing a year ago, though for very different reasons. Now they're back on top, the NCAA title once again within their reach. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour