Baylor's title and what might've been for Alabama and Auburn
They could've been rivals, elite point guards battling for supremacy on opposite sides of the Iron Bowl of Basketball, going head-to-head at least twice a year, perhaps lifting Auburn to its first national title game or Alabama to its first Final Four. Or both.
Davion Mitchell and Jared Butler chose a different path to the same destiny - as Baylor teammates and national champions.
Baylor 86, Gonzaga 70 doesn't happen without Mitchell, who played one season at Auburn before transferring to Waco, or Butler, who never played a game at Alabama before leaving Tuscaloosa and heading west himself. They were the two best players on the floor as their Bears put an emphatic end to Gonzaga's quest for a perfect season.
Butler, voted the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, dropped in a game-high 22 points and handed out seven assists, the first 20-and-7 line in a national title game since Carmelo Anthony did it to lead Syracuse to the 2003 championship. And yet the Baylor junior's most memorable moment may have been his wicked closeout that forced a fellow All-American, Gonzaga's Corey Kispert, to pull the plug on a 3-point try by helplessly dropping the ball.
Mitchell, also named to the All-Tournament Team, stuffed the stat sheet with 15 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, a block and a steal. The numbers don't even begin to capture his intimidating impact on Gonzaga freshman hero Jalen Suggs from the jump. By the time Suggs recovered and righted himself, it was too late. The national defensive player of the year, the redshirt junior Mitchell, had set the energetic, ravenous tone.
If you love basketball, you had to marvel at the complete performance by the Bears and their thorough soul-snatching of the Zags. This was no unthinkable upset. This was a great team losing to a greater team reaching its peak at the perfect time. Gonzaga had enough time and more than enough incentive to rebound from its exhausting semifinal overtime classic against UCLA. It didn't have enough of anything to recover from Baylor's instant, repetitive, concussive punches on both ends of the floor.
If you love basketball in this state, you had to watch that championship clinic and wonder what might've been.
Mitchell played 17 minutes a game as the freshman backup to the amazing Jared Harper on Auburn's 2017-2018 SEC regular-season championship team. Mitchell was just scratching his surface when he decided, after Auburn's second-round NCAA Tournament exit that year, to transfer to Baylor.
Without Mitchell, Auburn came back the next year to win the SEC Tournament and spill three gallons of blue blood in Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky on the way to the program's inaugural Final Four. With Mitchell, who knows? Maybe it wouldn't have mattered that Virginia double-dribbled in the national semifinals. Maybe Auburn would've done to UVa and then Texas Tech what Baylor just did to Houston and Gonzaga.
Butler arrived at Alabama in the spring of 2018, but reportedly a medical issue prevented him from working out with the team. That summer, as the phenom Kira Lewis Jr. was reclassifying and arriving in Tuscaloosa a year early, Butler left for Baylor. He would play as a freshman there and grow his game considerably the last two seasons.
Without Butler, Alabama changed coaches, styles and a culture a year later. This season, in Year Two of the Nate Oats Experience, the operative word was "Wow." The Crimson Tide earned the SEC regular-season and tournament titles in decisive fashion and ran to the Sweet 16, where the thrilling ride was derailed in overtime by UCLA. With Butler, who knows, but his ability to attack, shoot, defend, blend into a three-guard lineup and transcend at an All-American level would've fit perfectly in Oats' system.
In truth, Alabama and Auburn have done quite nicely, thank you, without the stars who got away, a measure of the strength of both programs. Adapting to unexpected roster changes is a prerequisite for success in the age of the transfer portal with the revolving doors that never seem to close.
The way the Tide and Tigers are going - Alabama adding a 6-foot-11 four-star Tuesday in IMG's Charles Bediako and moving up to No. 3 in the national recruiting rankings - it won't be long before one or both of them get to the final weekend of the season. Consider the evidence. They've won the last two SEC Tournaments and two of the last four SEC regular-season titles while producing one-and-done stars in Alabama's Collin Sexton and Auburn's Isaac Okoro and Sharife Cooper.
We'll never know what might have been, but we do know this. What is ain't bad at all.