Gonzaga, UCLA aiming to run back Final Four classic should help continue a welcome scheduling trend

The 2021 Final Four overtime thriller was immediately recognized as a classic — the rare occurrence in this world that can be appreciated by all in real time. It was a back-and-forth affair between two West Coast powers. Great coaches on both sides. Future NBA players on both sides. A trip to the national title game on the line.

It ended with a 37-foot buzzer-beater.

Final: Gonzaga 93, UCLA 90.

That was 32 days ago.

Would you like to see it again in November?

“[Gonzaga coach] Mark [Few] and I are trying to figure out a way to have a rematch,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin told Andy Katz this week on the “March Madness 365” podcast. “Obviously, we think it could be the most watched regular-season game if we [have it] right away.”

Few confirmed to CBS Sports late Tuesday that, yes, he and Cronin are trying to make it happen. There are challenges, of course. Some things will need to be moved around and nothing is guaranteed. But the good news is that they’re trying. And it would be great for the sport if more coaches who already know they’re going to have terrific teams similarly got together and created other marquee non-league matchups.

What’s the downside?

The fact that the two most-watched non-football sportscasts are the Baylor-Gonzaga national championship game to cap off the 2021 NCAA Tournament (16.92 million viewers) and the Gonzaga-UCLA national semifinal (14.94 million viewers) suggests college basketball isn’t as dead as some insist. Give the people compelling matchups, and they’ll watch. But, unfortunately, coaches too often shy away from quality opponents in the non-league portion of their schedule and instead stack wins via total mismatches.

I get it, I guess.

But the number of irrelevant games played each November and December is a real drag on the sport, which is why what Gonzaga and UCLA are trying to do is refreshing and, hopefully, the continuation of a trend. Remember, Gonzaga and Baylor did this last offseason when it appeared likely that the Zags and Bears would be preseason No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. They scheduled a non-league game against each other. The showdown, as you likely know, was ultimately canceled just hours before tip-off because of COVID issues. But that doesn’t change the fact that the game was made with a purpose for CBS.

Now Gonzaga is trying to do it again.

The Bruins and Zags are No. 1 and No. 2 in the 2021-22 CBS Sports Preseason Top 25 And 1, meaning this could very well be a made-for-TV  No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup. Assuming Johnny Juzang is back at UCLA, casual fans would recognize him. Assuming Drew Timme is back at Gonzaga, casual fans would recognize him. The build-up would be fun. The atmosphere could be outstanding. Like Cronin said: it really might be the most-watched regular-season game, something that registers even in the middle of football season.

And, again, there’s no real downside.

If you win the game, it’s a massive victory. If you lose it, so what? This isn’t college football where an early loss can prevent you from having a chance to win a national championship. In this sport, any early loss is merely a small bump in the road on the way to the destination, and often not even that. 

So given the fact we learned this past season that games can be scheduled literally in a matter of days, totally on the fly, it would be awesome if, going forward, more coaches with reason to believe they’re going to have excellent teams in the upcoming season held a spot or two open on their schedules. They could pair with other perceived excellent teams and create games worth watching in November and December.

We have some right now, but we could certainly use some more.

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