INDIANAPOLIS – Jared Butler seemed to have a Freudian slip on Friday during Baylor’s men’s Final Four news conference.
“Last year, winning the national champion…(pauses). We had a goal of getting to the Final Four,” Butler told reporters.
The Bears (26-2) were among favorites to cut down the nets in 2020 but the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to COVID-19. While the health and safety of the nation was primary, Baylor’s players were disappointed and disenchanted.
“Being here now it’s like, ‘Wow this is what we missed out on last year.’ We missed out on a lot,” Butler said. “That’s the way the cookie crumbled. … It’s definitely been a driving force this season.”
The pathway to the 2021 national championship – not 2020’s – began when March Madness was canceled on March 12 of last year. Baylor returned virtually its entire roster for 2020-21, including Butler – the team’s first-team All-American – and all-Big 12 guards MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell.
“You have the desire and want of what we missed out (on) last year,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “That’s a big reason all these guys came back – to play in the NCAA Tournament. We’re grateful for the opportunity. We’re going to take advantage of that.”
The Bears, back in the Final Four for the first time in seven decades, host Houston in a national semifinal on Saturday (5:14 p.m., CBS). They’d be the national title favorite if it weren’t for Gonzaga’s historic season. The Zags are 30-0 and trying to become the first team to go undefeated since Indiana in 1976. Gonzaga plays UCLA in the second semifinal Saturday (8:34 p.m. ET, CBS). Much like Baylor, the Bulldogs are driven off of last year’s what-could-have-been season.
“It was definitely a roller coaster of emotions last year,” said Gonzaga big man Drew Timme, a carry-over from last season who’s averaged 25 points in the last three tournament games. “We had just won our conference tournament and felt like we were hitting our stride at the right time. Unfortunately, it was canceled. I think we understood at the end of the day the safety of many is more important than just a game. But we were hurt.”
For both Gonzaga and Baylor, this NCAA Tournament has been about unfinished business – and now they’re one game from facing each other and two games from a championship two years in the making.
“This March Madness is a buildup over two years,” All-American guard Corey Kispert told USA TODAY Sports in November. “Last year’s team, we had a lot of high goals and we were ready to push towards a national championship. We didn’t have a sense of completion. Now the biggest thing we’re trying to do with this year’s team is take nothing for granted. We’re going to make it count, to play for some of the guys on last year’s team that don’t get this chance.”
Make it count they have. Gonzaga’s offense has been one of the most dynamic in the past decade, with Kispert shooting 45% from beyond the arc on the season, as the Bulldogs lead the nation with 92 points a game and the top efficiency ranking on KenPom. One key addition to Gonzaga’s roster, filled with a cast of returners, has been freshman point guard Jalen Suggs – who had 18 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in an Elite Eight win over Southern California.
“If someone would have said we’d be undefeated I would have laughed,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, in his second Final Four in four years. “I would have absolutely laughed. Because it’s so hard to do in a normal season. To me, the hardest thing for our players was to walk out and see literally nobody in our (home stadium due to COVID-19 protocols). For these guys, to have channeled that competitive spirit, night in and night out, it’s amazing.”
Competitive spirit is what Butler said gave him and his Baylor teammates tunnel vision during a COVID-19-challenged season – with cancellations and postponements.
“At the end of the day, we’re ultra competitors,” Butler said. “We wanted to get Baylor to win the Big 12, to get to the first Final Four. After the tournament got canceled last year, a lot of us decided to come back. We decided to get the band back together because we had all these team goals we needed to meet. But we got better individually in the offseason and then everybody came back better.”
Drew echoed his top player’s sentiments.
“Last year, when we didn’t get to the tournament, we (had) a lot of guys spend time on their game,” Drew said. “Even though we had a pandemic, guys found ways and opportunities to improve themselves, running drills at a park. … That’s the reason we’re where we’re at.”
Timme said three former players from the 2019-20 season – Killian Tillie, Ryan Woolridge, Filip Petrusev – have been in constant communication and they serve as reminders for what this Gonzaga team is playing for: More than a historic season; two historic seasons.
“They keep in touch and are proud of us,” Timme said. “We’re doing it for them.”
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.