Gonzaga is No. 1 in the CBS Sports Top 25 And 1. And Baylor is No. 2. It’s an uncommon couple atop the polls heading into an uncommon — well, unprecedented — season.
But do you realize what these programs are doing? To this point, here’s what the nonconference schedules are looking like for the two Final Four contenders.
- vs. No. 11 Michigan State (potentially) in Orlando in late November
- vs. No. 12 Tennessee in Orlando on Dec. 2
- vs. No. 2 Baylor in Indianapolis on Dec. 5
- vs. No. 5 Iowa in South Dakota on Dec. 19
Keep in mind there will be more games against NCAA Tournament-level teams for both schools when they squeeze in additional tilts in Orlando, where ESPN is going to house dozens of teams and numerous multi-team events. Mark Few and Scott Drew, two coaches who’ve never won a national title and only one of whom has made a Final Four, are scheduling like degree of difficulty will get them to the promised land.
I love it. Can you imagine if college basketball always had this? By that I mean: regularly had two of its top three or four teams not only explicitly seeking each other out to play in the nonconference, but also were borderline obsessed with playing the hardest out-of-league slate possible? It’s what the 2020-21 season has delivered with the Bulldogs and Bears.
These two aren’t the only top 10-caliber teams seeking difficult schedules, I know. Expect Kansas to be very rugged again, for instance. No. 4 Virginia is targeting to play Florida, and should also have No. 3 Villanova on the schedule. No. 5 Iowa told Gonzaga it’s totally up for a throwdown in South Dakota. It’s a fabulous thing for college basketball. If all teams in the top five or 10 were as aspirational as Gonzaga and Baylor are this year, college basketball would never again have to worry about its November and December relevance.
If we can start the season on Nov. 25 and be fortunate enough to have minimal postponements or cancellations, thanks to hundreds of games being played in controlled environments, the first two weeks will be adorned with top-25 matchups practically daily. On top of that, we’ll have Gonzaga and Baylor, battling for the top of the polls, loading up and leaning into it all. It would be easy, if not understandable, to see Few and Drew seek to lay out a bit, merely schedule acceptably, and then head into league play and look to dominate and use that as an avenue to a top seed. Instead, each coach is scheduling ranked teams like this will be the last season they’ll ever get to face them.
Let’s peel back another layer. It’s also a smart strategy because of the anticipated fragile nature of college basketball’s season. Schools that play in a multi-team event can have a maximum of 27 games. I’ve yet to speak to one coach who thinks any team