The NCAA Final Four is set, and the teams—Gonzaga, UCLA, Houston, and Baylor—will battle Saturday and Monday for the 2021 national championship.
It has been a unique tournament, and not just because it took place amid a pandemic, with few fans in the stands, and entirely within the state of Indiana. The sport’s big eastern powers have all been knocked out—Duke and Kentucky didn’t even make the bracket—leaving four teams from west of the Mississippi to fight it out for the title.
The Zags are the favorites despite having never won a national championship before, while this year’s underdog is arguably the most decorated program in the history of college basketball: UCLA, which entered the tournament as a No. 11 seed and faces long odds to advance any further.
Houston plays Baylor at 5:14 p.m. (EDT) on Saturday in one national semifinal, followed by Gonzaga against UCLA at 8:34 p.m. (EDT). Both games will be televised on CBS. Want a preview of the NCAA Final Four action? Here’s how each team could win the whole thing.
The Bulldogs are the heavy favorite. With a perfect 30-0 record, they’re threatening to become the first team to go undefeated and win the title since Indiana in 1976. Coach Mark Few has had many great teams over his two decades leading the program, but this one is his best.
The outlook for the Zags is simple: If they keep doing exactly what they’ve been doing, they’ll get to hang a banner at the end of all this. Their offense needs to continue to shoot well, like it has all season. (The team’s effective field goal percentage, a measure that properly weighs three-pointers as more valuable than two-pointers, is a national-best 61 percent.)
For Gonzaga, the most important player is probably true freshman point guard Jalen Suggs. If Suggs controls the game, distributes the ball, and doesn’t commit many turnovers, his team will be in good shape.
The Bruins are 14-point underdogs against Gonzaga, and it’s unlikely they’ll be able to conquer the best team in men’s college basketball. But if Mick Cronin’s team is going to pull off an upset, it will center around two things. First and most obviously, Gonzaga needs to have an uncharacteristically poor shooting night. But the Bruins will need more than that.
To have a real chance at shocking the Zags, the Bruins need to control the pace of the game. Gonzaga is one of the fastest-paced teams in the country, averaging just 14 seconds per possession, according to the revered statistician Ken Pomeroy. UCLA, on the other hand, is one of the slower teams in the country, taking 19 seconds per possession.
If the game becomes a track meet with lots of scoring in transition, it will probably get away from the Bruins quickly. They need to limit the number of total possessions to keep the score from getting lopsided, and they need to generate open three-pointers from their half-court offense. If they can make enough of them behind guard Johnny Juzang and forward Jamie Jaquez Jr., they could challenge Gonzaga and have a chance to win at the end. But it won’t be easy.
Kelvin Sampson has the Cougars playing their best ball at the right time. Houston hasn’t lost since Feb. 18 against Wichita State, and UH’s elite defense is the key. The team hasn’t allowed more than 61 points in any of its four tournament games—a continuation of an excellent defensive effort throughout the year. They’re the best team in the country at defending shots from the field (their opponents’ effective field goal rate is a national low: 43.1 percent), and the Cougars have both the guards and the big men to make scoring difficult from any spot on the floor.
To beat Baylor and eventually win the title, the Cougars need to continue that level of performance against a higher level of competition than they’ve seen so far. They haven’t faced anything higher than a No. 10 seed in their four tournament games, and all of their opponents were offensively limited.
That’s not the case with Baylor, which has both the shooting prowess and the physicality to score from anywhere. Bottom line: Houston needs to be as stout against the Bears as it has been against weaker opponents. If UH can do that, it could win it all.
The Bears are good at a lot of things, but they have one defining strength: shooting. As a team, they make 41.1 percent of their three-pointers, the best mark in the country. Accurate long-range shooting has kept Baylor out of trouble in many otherwise lackluster games, and coach Scott Drew will need his team to keep drilling shots at a fast clip.
Baylor isn’t built to win when it’s not shooting well, in part because its defense is good but not great. The Bears give up a lot of offensive rebounds, which can create second-chance points galore for their opponents. The Baylor defense generates a lot of takeaways, and it would help if they could put pressure on Houston guards Quentin Grimes and Marcus Sasser. But the overall equation for Baylor is simple: Make a ton of long-range shots and defend the glass.