INDIANAPOLIS — Two devout men. Two astonishingly successful coaches. Two friends. Somehow, they both knew they would end up here all along.
Mark Few and Scott Drew have played pickleball as partners during these extraordinary weeks in the Indianapolis bubble. They are as unbeaten as Gonzaga.
They have texted each other pre-game prayers each time one or the other took the court. “I guess he won’t get that prayer text before this one,” Drew said Sunday.
They understand the magnitude of what each other has done. Few, the assistant who took over at Gonzaga and turned a budding Cinderella story into a national juggernaut. Drew, who enlisted with a Baylor program that had crumbled into scandal-battered dust, and gave it more than rebirth but national relevance.
They have watched one another’s team, appreciated one another’s team, and understood that to get where each wanted to go, they would probably one night have to try to beat one another’s team.
And now they do, these two steamrollers who are a combined 58-2 this season. Even more than that, 115-8 the past two years. They might have been doing this last April had not the pandemic shoved them aside.
“I think you have elite on elite,” Drew said, adding it reminds him a little of the old Los Angeles Lakers of Magic Johnson and Boston Celtics of Larry Bird. “We’ve followed what they’ve done, they’ve followed what we’ve done, and I know it’s motivated us to continue to get better, continue to try and improve to keep up and keep pace. You need teams like this to bring out the best in you.”
Few said Drew’s Bears have been in the back of his mind for a good long time, as Gonzaga’s stampede through the season gained momentum. “We’ve always had Baylor in the rearview mirror. Look, if we’re going to win this thing, we’re probably at some point going to have to play them because I always thought we were the two best teams.”
They were supposed to play last December in this very city but COVID took care of that 90 minutes before tip-off. They attempted to reschedule, looking at every venue, every date, but couldn’t find an opening. “It didn’t happen,” Few said, “but it wasn’t from lack of effort on everybody’s part.”
But the inevitable flow of the NCAA tournament has taken care of that. December would have been for the top spot in the rankings and on the regular season marquee, but would have quickly been put aside as the schedule rolled on. But Monday night is for everything. Monday night is for keeps.
“We had our little futile human plans but God always has a plan and as is usually the case His plan is better than ours,” Few said. “I think the way it turned out is probably the best scenario you could imagine.”
Well, almost, Drew noted. If Baylor were 29-0 instead of 27-2, then how momentous would this be? “If I was God I think I’d have done that script,” Drew said.
But this script, it’s pretty good.
Few is 58 and never won a national championship.
Drew is 50, and never played for one.
Few is the son of a minister. When he married, his father officiated the ceremony.
Drew is the son of a coach. When he left Valparaiso for Baylor, his father Homer agreed to come out of retirement and take his place.
Few didn’t play basketball in college.
Neither did Drew.
On the July day in 1999 that Few was named coach at Gonzaga, he talked about the program’s growing expectations. The Zags had just become national darlings in March, a no-name team upsetting its way into the Elite Eight. Then Dan Monson suddenly left for Minnesota, and they gave Few the job. He had started at Gonzaga as a graduate assistant with a salary $1,500 and worked his way up the staff.
“Ít’s something we’ve earned,” he said then of Gonzaga’s new national recognition. “Now we need to treat it as an opportunity and maybe not a burden.”
Athletic director Mike Roth added that day: “We didn’t need to do a search because weren’t going to find a better coach than what we had right here with Mark.”
At that moment, Gonzaga had won three NCAA tournament games in all its history. Now the Zags have won 39.
On the August day in 2003 that Drew was named head coach at Baylor, he talked about underdog stories. Baylor was mired in scandal, one player was charged with murdering another, the depleted roster was small enough to fit into a SUV, and sanctions were sure to come. “America always likes a little guy,” Drew said then. “And this is definitely the David and Goliath story.
“We’re going to build something here, and I can’t wait for the ride.”
At that moment Baylor had not been in the NCAA tournament in 16 years, nor won a game in the bracket in 53 seasons. The Bears have been in nine tournaments and three Elite Eights since. “I looked a lot younger and had a lot more hair back then,” he said Sunday. “I definitely thought we could get here. Probably at that age I thought we’d get here quicker.”
The two men have built their empires 2,000 miles apart, but Monday night is a mutual admiration match.
Drew looked forward, with plans on visiting Few’s lake house this summer. “He loves fishing, I love fishing,” Drew said. “He’s the king of the fly fishing, I think I’m the king of the bass fishing.”
Few looked backward, on what Drew has done at Baylor, from when he took command of a train wreck. “It’s absolutely, unequivocally off the charts,” he said of Drew’s reclamation project. “I just don’t think it’s ever been seen and I’m glad it’s now coming to light. We’ve talked about where we were to where we are but ours was a lot smoother and it just didn’t come from a dark place. Where they were, it’s unbelievable what he’s been able to do.
“They’re a legit powerhouse now in college basketball.”
This is Few’s 22nd season, and every attempt to lure him out of Spokane has been rejected. He has stayed put and just kept winning. This is Drew’s 18th season and after a 21-53 start amid the wreckage of the scandal, he has put his roots deep too.
Gonzaga has owned the West Coast Conference under Few. He just coached his 20th regular season champions in 22 years.
Drew has led Baylor into Big 12 prominence, though it has taken a while with Kansas always in the way. The Bears just won their first season conference title in 71 years.
Their paths this season have been headed for one another from the start. Gonzaga was No. 1 in the Associated Press preseason poll, and Baylor was No. 2 — by one point. This will be only the fourth time in history the top two teams in the preseason poll in November are the same last two standing in April. Neither fell out of the top three all season and there is only one other year where the two finalists could say that; Cincinnati and Ohio State way back in 1961.
They are both No. 1 seeds, of course. Here’s a surprising number: Only nine times in the 41 years of seeding have two No. 1s played for the championship. You’d think it would be more.
But this might be one of the most expected championship game matchups in recent history, which is rather ironic since it’s only the second time in the past 31 years that the title game involves two teams with no titles.
Few is the one with the Bulldogs who are 31-0, with an offense so powerful and precise that they can produce 50 points a game without even taking a shot outside the paint. Not many teams could give up 90 points and win, but Gonzaga just did. But winning is what the Zags are all about. They are the first unbeaten team in the national title game in 42 years, back to Bird’s Indiana State in 1979. Corey Kispert will play his 137th game for Gonzaga Monday night. He has lost 10 of them.
Drew is the one with the Bears who have committed only 28 turnovers their last four games, and only 12 were live ball turnovers. They have clawed their way to the national championship game with four different players leading in scoring the past four games.
Baylor is unbeaten against top-10 opponents this season. Gonzaga is unbeaten against everybody.
Few and Drew have met four times. Few is 4-0.
Baylor comes off thrashing of Houston in a game that was all but over at halftime. Gonzaga comes off having to fight for its life against UCLA, saved in the end by Jalen Suggs’ 3-pointer for the ages. The Bears went to bed Saturday night looking ahead, the Zags went to bed having to process what had just happened.
It’s time they met. Two men — competing coaches and good friends — have been dreaming of this night for a long, long time. Only lately did they understand that each would be in the other’s way.