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USATSI

INDIANAPOLIS -- Gonzaga does not need to beat Baylor to secure a highly perched place in college basketball history.

Championship games understandably carry considerable weight; they are the arbiters of a season. Yet: a single result should not overrun nor overshadow, in Gonzaga's case, an accumulation of 31 wins by an average of 22.4 points. These undefeated Bulldogs are storybook as is. The Jesuit school tucked away in Spokane, Washington, out of the West Coast Conference, a once-plucky outfit with the quirky-sounding name that always showed up in the bracket. 

Enough of that. 

Such a portrait was painted over long ago. Plucky? Now try powerhouse. Mark Few has built a Goliath of the game. This 2020-21 Zags team, no matter what transpires Monday at Lucas Oil Stadium, is already one of the best teams in men's college hoops of the past four decades. (Minimally.) With a 31-0 record, fresh off a buzzer-beating win that ranks near (if not at) the top of the list of the greatest games in tournament history, Gonzaga has proved its classification among the masters.

One more win doesn't signify greatness; it will secure Gonzaga's immortality. 

If the Bulldogs beat Baylor, they'll be a deathless, legendary team in American sports history. In this case, finishing without a loss carries more long-term staying power than winning a championship. We get a championship team every year (pandemics not withstanding). It's been 45 seasons since a men's basketball team ran the table. Should Gonzaga lose -- at the hands of the sport's second-best squad -- then they still should be considered among the greatest teams ever. Put them alongside the likes of 1991 UNLV, 1999 Duke and 2015 Kentucky as the best to not win a championship. Those were amazing teams and are still referred to as such. 

We should do the same with Gonzaga, should Baylor become the first team in 36 games to knock off the Zags.

The stakes are as big as they could be for a title fight. It's the fifth national title game in men's history featuring the top two teams in the preseason poll (the most recent being 2001). It's also the first title game since 2005 that features the selection committee's top two seeds. Gonzaga and Baylor combine for two losses, which ties for the fewest (1957 and 1966) ever by two teams entering a title game. 

Their combined .967 winning percentage is the highest in a title game. This is a blockbuster.

There is no shame in losing, should Gonzaga fall. Where exactly Gonzaga will rank can be saved for if they win one more game. From a data standpoint, they are going to have a claim as one of the five best teams ever. They are their sport's highest-scoring (91.6 points per game) and most efficient (127.2 offensive rating, according to KenPom) team. 

They also enter Monday night's championship game as the most accurate 2-point shooting team in college hoops history (63.9%), and that will probably hold true even if Gonzaga has an off night. 

If anything, the fact Gonzaga isn't reliant on 3-point shooting -- it makes a respectable 37% of is attempts beyond the arc, ranking a good-not-elite 42nd -- is even more impressive. This is not a team stuck in philosophies of yesteryear. The Bulldogs aren't allergic to shooting 3s. Instead, they have a knack for distribution, and how to swerve into transition. They beat you with layups after other teams' makes, and use their size, shooting smarts and surgical execution to carve away at your soul. 

The split between Gonzaga (38.13) and Baylor (32.38) in KenPom's unbiased adjusted efficiency margin is 5.75 points. In statistical terms, this is enormous. The previous largest gap came in 2015, when Kentucky (36.91) was 3.18 points better than Wisconsin (33.72). Even still, Baylor is now comfortably 2.73 points ahead at KenPom on No. 3 Michigan

Best Adjusted Efficiency Margin in KenPom era

SeasonTeam RecordAdjEM
2020-21Gonzaga31-038.1
2014-15Kentucky38-136.9
2007-08Kansas37-335.2
2018-19Virginia35-334.2
2001-02Duke31-434.1
2017-18Villanova36-433.8

Best Offensive Rating in KenPom era

SeasonTeam RecordOffensive
Rating 
2014-15Wisconsin36-4129.0
2017-18Villanova36-4127.8
2020-21Gonzaga31-0127.2
2016-17Oklahoma State20-13126.0
2011-12Missouri30-5125.1

-- Note: Statistics since KenPom.com began tracking stats in 1997

This is a coronation Gonzaga has steadfastly been cresting toward for more than a half-decade. The program has won more than 30 games five years running. It's the only school to make at least the Sweet 16 in six consecutive tournaments, and its 20 wins in those tournaments is the most in the sport. Gonzaga's riding a 35-game winning streak, with 27 consecutive wins this season coming by double-digits -- the longest streak of its kind in six decades. 

The notion that Gonzaga would flail in a bigger league is straight-up false. They seldom get home games against major-conference opponents and are still winning the majority of their games vs. the big boys. In the past two seasons GU is 14-1 against power-conference opponents. When Gonzaga is going, they are an orchestra of offense. Each transition possession with the ball in Jalen Suggs' hands is an opera. Drew Timme is footwork maestro around the rim, and Corey Kispert scares every opposing coach each time he rises to release. 

Within the context of this tournament we also have individual performances that are rarified. Timme is the third player in the past 25 years to go four straight games with 20 or more points on 50% shooting or better. (He joins Zion Williamson in 2019 and Blake Griffin in 2009.) Suggs is fifth freshmen ever to have at least 65 points, 25 rebounds and 25 assists in an NCAA Tournament

Joel Ayayi, who oh-by-the-way had a season-high 22 against UCLA Saturday, also notched the first triple-double in program history earlier this season. He's Gonzaga's fourth-best player. Its fifth-best player is a potential future NBA Draft pick, Andrew Nembhard, who wasn't even expecting to be eligible this season but was given a waiver like most others due to COVID-19. Who are we forgetting? Oh, that's right: Corey Kispert was a First Team All-American and the WCC Player of the Year. 

We'll look up in five years and might see Gonzaga started five NBA players in a national title game. Few teams ever can boast that.

From a practical viewpoint, Gonzaga's path to Monday night also needs to be considered within the conditions of this season. There's never been an NCAA Tournament champion that's lived through and competed under the cloud of a pandemic. Changes to everyday life around the globe had micro and macro impacts on how college basketball's season was held. Gonzaga not playing as-usual schedule inventory (champions in the past 15 years normally log between 38 and 40 games) is offset by the rigors and restrictions of the pandemic. If you want to put an asterisk on this year's champion, that asterisk can only signify a bonus, as it would be a reflection on the most challenging season in history. 

Win or lose Monday night, Gonzaga deserves to be remembered as an all-time great team, at least in modern history. It's hard to compare them to the veteran-laden legends from the 1950s, '60s, '70s and even '80s. Of course: who from those teams is locking up Suggs? Who is shooting as well from 3 as Kispert? Gonzaga's starting-five size can match up with many of the best teams from 30 and 40 years ago. They're 40 minutes away from becoming the eighth undefeated team to win an NCAA Tournament. 

One win, and it's forever. A first loss, and it's infamy. Either way this goes down, 2020-21 Gonzaga is still one of the all-time greats in college basketball history.