If you’re like me, and my entire writing career is based on the faulty assumption that you are, you were ready to go to bed by 10 p.m. last night. I am now at the age where I practice triage when it comes to my primetime sports programming. The second any late-starting game threatens to become a blowout, I take that as permission to bail and get my beauty rest. I only stay up for the close ones. Under that criteria, I should have been safely asleep right after Baylor upped their lead to 19 points midway through the first half of the men’s national title game last night. The game was over. Baylor was kicking the shit out of Gonzaga.
But I still couldn’t stop watching, because the HOW of it all was too fascinating to look away from.
There were two moments when last night threatened to resemble a competitive basketball game. The first moment came at the end of the opening half, when Baylor got sloppy and let Gonzaga whittle down the lead to 10 at the break. That provided enough material for the halftime crew to pretend that this wasn’t already decided. The next moment came five minutes into the second half when Andrew Nembhard (great last name; sounds like a prescription medication) laid the ball in to cut Baylor’s lead to single digits for the first time in over 20 minutes of gameplay. In both of those instances, the order of college basketball threatened to reassert itself, as it so often and infuriatingly does:
You and I were told that Gonzaga was good at basketball. They were undefeated, on the verge of becoming the first men’s team to go unbeaten wire to wire in 45 years. They were fun, which isn’t always an easy quality for college basketball teams to attain (see: Ten, Big). They were deep. They might have been the best college basketball team of all time. So when Baylor sagged in those two moments, I thought to myself, “Oh OK, well here’s where Gonzaga gets their shit together.” I was already cheering for Baylor at this point, despite knowing what I knew about Baylor as an institution and as a haven for professional shitbags. I was steeling myself for disappointment.
I was not disappointed. Quite the contrary. Last night was a mismatch in terms of reputation one way, and in terms of basketball the opposite way. Rather than fold, Baylor re-asserted themselves any time Gonzaga dared to presume they deserved to share the court with them. Baylor grabbed every offensive rebound. Every pass they made BEFORE every assist was flawless. They spread out along the arc and then exploited the space inside of it by deftly passing the ball for wide-open mid-range jumpers. If the sport of basketball is currently experiencing a spacing crisis, here was a team inverting that crisis and finding gaping holes a mere 16 feet away from the hoop. Whenever Gonzaga mustered the energy to patch those holes, Baylor just hoisted up open threes, making nearly half of them. Oftentimes it looked like Baylor was just fucking with Gonzaga for their own personal amusement.
And lemme tell you, watching an underdog fuck with a favorite for 40 minutes makes for some outstanding television. Everything you heard about Gonzaga failed, in every way, to live up to what you saw with your own eyes.
Meanwhile, Baylor was a revelation. I should have known this ages ago, but I was too busy staging a loose boycott of college sports back when my Pandemic Cop sensibilities were at their peak. Once the tourney started, I took off my little tin star and gave back into the sport. I’m glad I did. Watching Baylor play last night was like watching a team fix college basketball in real time.
That they did so at Gonzaga’s expense made it all the more hypnotic, because we’re well past the point of the Bulldogs being unheralded. I remember when Gonzaga was known primarily as the school that somehow produced John Stockton. Then they made it to the Elite Eight against UConn in 1999 as a Cinderella and damn near made the Final Four. Since that run, Gonzaga hasn’t missed the tournament. They’re a goliath. They’re no longer warm and fuzzy. In fact, they’re downright annoying. Every year now, Gonzaga wins 30 games in the regular season and shits the bed against reality in any given round of March Madness. They are, fitting of the greatest NBA player they ever produced, the Utah Jazz of college basketball. Given that they hadn’t lost all season, it was easy to assume that THIS Gonzaga team was different from all the ones that preceded it. They weren’t. They were just another assemblage of tall mustaches. And so it was delightful to watch them get sonned all over the court all night long, even if it was Slightly More Respectable Oral Roberts doing the sonning.
A blowout is always fun if your favorite team is on the winning end of it. But there are rare, fantastic occasions where they keep you lingering even as a neutral observer. When the Pistons beat the piss out of the Shaq/Kobe Lakers in 2004. When Oklahoma depantsed world’s worst Heisman winner Chris Weinke in the 2001 Orange Bowl. When the Seahawks’ defense annihilated Peyton Manning in the 2014 Super Bowl. When Germany boatraced Brazil out of the World Cup IN BRAZIL.
I watched all of those matchups from beginning to end, and not because I had nothing better to do. Pregame expectations and reputations factored into my interest, naturally. When an underdog blows out a favorite, there comes a point in the game where you go from, “I can’t believe they’re doing this” to “I can’t believe this team was ever an underdog to begin with.” It’s always worth sticking around for that moment. To see the better team reveal itself. To see all the reputations and expectations crumpled up and thrown into a wastepaper basket. To watch Mark Few’s face grow a few inches longer than it already is.
But there’s value in these blowouts beyond mere surprise. Too often, I labor under the assumption that a game is only competitive if it’s close. That’s not true at all. It ain’t like Gonzaga WANTED to lose that game last night. They were trying. God, they were trying so hard. By the time it was over, all of the Bulldogs players were in visible anguish. They wanted that game just as much as Baylor did. They were competitive; they just ran into a goddamn freight train. And I never regret taking time out of my precious evening to watch that freight train barrel through.