The trio of Gonzaga, Baylor and Illinois are backed on 25% of the outright NCAA tournament champions futures on PointsBet. Based on those percentages, our analysts -- Drew Dinsick, Vaughn Dalzell, Raphielle Johnson and myself -- share their thoughts on whether they would take those three or the field.
According to PointsBet, this odds would look like this: Gonzaga/Baylor/Illinois (-130) vs. The Field (+100) to win it all.
By virtually every team-level metric, Gonzaga is the best team in the country. The Bulldogs have the No. 1 offense, experienced players, redundancy at key positions, an impressive resume of wins (including over every top seed in their region), and a top-five coach in college basketball. Even though it sounds cliche, they only need to worry about beating themselves. The pressure of completing an undefeated season has been too hard for other teams to bear going back to 1976, and this isn't an accident. To make matters more difficult, the team will be living in a bubble for the tournament's duration with constant attention and questions from the media regarding the pursuit of immortality and bringing home the long-sought national title to Gonzaga. If the players can maintain their focus and perform to their average level for six games, then they will cut down the nets. However, it is entirely fair to speculate whether the pressure will become an issue, particularly as they go deeper into the tournament and their opponents become increasingly more difficult.
The case for beating Baylor or Illinois is much more straightforward. Each team has key weaknesses that can be exploited, and they both find themselves in more difficult regions than the Gonzaga Bulldogs. For the Bears, if they don't recover from the issues that have plagued them since their COVID hiatus -- particularly on defense (their defensive efficiency was fifth in the nation through the end of January and has been 156th in February and March) -- they could be ousted as soon as Round 2 facing the likes of UNC or Wisconsin. Illinois also looks particularly vulnerable to an upset based on its relatively-poor ability to create turnovers (they are currently No. 316 in the NCAA at turnover rate) and the Fighting Illini are good, but not great at 3-point shooting and defense (currently 25th in 3-point percentage on offense, 115th on defense). Any team in their stacked bracket with a hot shooting performance can knock off the Illini and claim a Final Four spot out of the Midwest.
Ultimately, it is fair that these three teams sit at the top of the odds board, but as always, the one-and-done nature of the tournament creates an environment where you should expect the unexpected.
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First things first with Gonzaga, the Bulldogs have the path of a lifetime to reach the Final Four. Gonzaga has beaten Iowa, Kansas and Virginia already, three of the biggest threats in its region, and are every bit as good as their 26-0 record suggests.
The last time we had an undefeated team win it all, plus Kentucky and Duke miss the NCAA tournament, was 1975-76. The Indiana Hoosiers won it all, going 32-0. If Gonzaga sweeps the competition, they will be 32-0. They say history repeats itself, and I like it to in 2021.
Baylor and Illinois are both more vulnerable than Gonzaga. Baylor has lost twice in the last six games to end their season, including Big 12 tournament play, while Illinois has won 14 of its previous 15 games, but that does include winning the Big Ten title. The main issue I have with both teams is they may have peaked too early. Baylor opened the season 18-0, while Illinois has caught its stride, playing arguably the best ball in school history since the middle of January.
Illinois' weakness is the inability to force turnovers (319th in the nation) and a lack of experience (1.64 years). Meanwhile. Baylor struggles to defensive rebound, allowing opponents to grab 31% of offensive boards (280th in the nation) and the Bears only make their free-throws at a 69.7% clip (287th in the nation). I think these issues will catch up to both teams at some point in this tournament. Down the line, both Illinois and Baylor could, and should, fall way before Gonzaga does.
Can anyone defeat Gonzaga, Baylor or Illinois? Yes. We’re talking about a one-game scenario, and anything can happen on any given day. In fact, all a team needs is a stretch within a game in which everything goes right, much less playing a “perfect” game for a full 40 minutes. And this year’s tournament is unlike any other, in that 18-23 year-olds (an already unpredictable age group) are playing in the midst of a pandemic. We’ve already seen multiple teams lose key players due to positive COVID-19 tests, and there’s no guarantee that any of the three favorites won’t have their rosters impacted at some point. That’s just one reason why I believe that a team can take out the three favorites listed above.
Saying all that, of the three, I favor Gonzaga the most. The Bulldogs have been elite on both ends of the floor and they’ve got an answer for whatever an opposing team could potentially throw at them. The concern with Gonzaga may be “game pressure,” because there haven’t been many occasions this season in which they’ve been challenged right down to the wire. I think they’d be fine, but again, you never know.
Baylor has two high-level defensive guards in Davion Mitchell and Jared Butler, but defensive rebounding has been an issue for the Bears. As for Illinois, while the Illini enter the tournament on a roll, I’m concerned about what could happen if they run into a team capable of drawing Kofi Cockburn away from the basket and forcing him to deal with pick-and-roll situations frequently.
While I believe that the national champion will come from this trio, I can’t go as far as to say that no one in the field can beat them.
In their own way, each team has earned the right to be the favorite in this year's tournament. The undefeated Bulldogs have been a powerhouse all season. They have four wins over top-25 ranked opponents and even have victories over the other top seeds in their own region. Against the spread, Gonzaga is 12-12-2 on the season, but the Bulldogs have been asked to lay double-digit points 22 times, which is unheard of. If Gonzaga was to lose before the Final Four, it would be a monumental upset.
The Baylor Bears also have realistic Final Four aspirations after starting the season on an 18-game win streak before losing at Kansas. Baylor, which is the nation's third-leading scoring team, is a handful on both sides of the court, but unlike Gonzaga, the Bears will be tested in their region. An Elite Eight showdown with Ohio State could be the best game of the tournament.
Both Baylor and Gonzaga were expected to be in this position when the season began, but Illinois was not. The Big Ten champs got hot going into February and have only lost once their last 15 games. Led by Ayo Dosunmu, who may be the best playmaker in the tournament, Illinois should out of its half of the Midwest region with no issues. The trouble lies in the bottom half of the region where teams like Houston, West Virginia and San Diego State could pull off an upset against the Illini.
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