At the beginning of the NCAA Tournament, this was supposed to be a fairly standard Final Four preview. The best teams had clear paths on paper, and that was even after first- and second-round upsets. Except for Ohio State, of course. We may still get Gonzaga against Baylor in the final, but UCLA had to go and stir the pot.
NCAA Men’s Tournament Final Four Preview
As noted in the Sweet 16 recap, the key to a successful bracket is longevity. Picking the Final Four, title game, and a national champion will almost guarantee you winnings. Upsets are nice; they cause excitement, stress, and probably some unusual tears from fans not affiliated with the heartbroken program.
UCLA reached the Final Four as an 11-seed. Being such a storied program, it’s hard to process they were seeded so low to begin with when it comes to brand recognition. That may just be how our minds have been conditioned over the decades. Yet, the Bruins are tied with four other teams for the lowest seed to make a Final Four. LSU (1986), George Mason (2006), VCU (2011) and Loyola Chicago (2018) all lost their semifinal games. Other low seeds to make the Final Four were Villanova (1985), North Carolina (2000), Wisconsin (2000), Butler (2011), and Kentucky (2014) as eight-seeds, Wichita State (2013) as a nine-seed, and Syracuse (2016) was a 10-seed. Villanova is the only team to win a championship of that group. We will see what happens with UCLA.
As for now, our Final Four preview starts on the more normal side of the bracket.
(2) Houston vs. (1) Baylor: Saturday, April 3- 5:14 p.m. ET
Texas likes to go big. Strangely enough, this is the first time two programs from the Lone Star State reached the same Final Four. Something has to give in this matchup.
Houston is second in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 57.6 points per game. Baylor is sixth in the nation in scoring offense, scoring 83 points a contest. However, the NCAA Tournament has actually brought down the Bears’ average. During their path through the South region, Baylor scored 74.5 a game and shot 37.5% from long range. The Bears, during the regular season, led the nation in 3-point shooting at 41.1%.
The Cougars can shut down 3-point shooting teams, most apparent in their win against Syracuse. Going into the contest, the Orange had made 29 threes while shooting an extraordinary 50.4%. Buddy Boeheim was a big part of that efficiency, accounting for 13 of their made 3-pointers. Houston held Syracuse to 21.7% shooting from long range and Boeheim had just one made three.
The Bears are bigger and more efficient. Guards Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell are All-Americans and can beat a team in a variety of ways. So can Houston’s All-American Quentin Grimes. The key to this game won’t be Baylor’s offense or Houston’s defense. It will be Houston’s offense. The Bears like to push the pace, but if the Cougars make their shots, they will be able to set up their defense. One major stat in this game to consider is rebounding. Houston averaged 15.5 offensive rebounds during the regional wins, which ranks first for teams who played more than one game in the tournament. The Bears rank 42nd in defensive rebounds.
Houston, if they force Baylor into playing half-court basketball, will win. Unfortunately, they’re only shooting 38.8% during their Final Four run.
(11) UCLA vs. (1) Gonzaga: Saturday, April 3- 8:34 p.m. ET
Here we go again with these west coast teams keeping east-coasters up late. The second game of our Final Four preview features the tournament’s “Cinderella.” It’s also another matchup of defense versus offense.
The Bruins are a fantastic team, especially defensively, but two of their major upsets could have been avoided. Both Alabama and Michigan have potent offensives the Bruins were able to contain, but they also beat themselves. The Crimson Tide shot 44% from the free-throw line and Michigan missed four opportunities to win the game in the final 12 seconds.
Gonzaga’s Elite Eight win against USC came with missed layups. It was almost as if they were playing lackadaisical at times. The Bruins have obviously taken advantage of their opponent’s mistakes. Tyger Campbell has proven to be a fantastic game manager, and Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr. can put daggers in the opposition’s hopes. This isn’t just some opposition though.
Gonzaga led the nation in scoring offense at 91.6 points per game, and rank first in the NCAA Tournament at 88.3. Their average point differential this tournament is 24—which is just about in line with their season average of 23. The Bulldogs have only one game that was single-digits this year. The 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers, the last program to go undefeated and win a national title, posted a 13.2 margin of victory during their run through the tournament.
In regard to defense, UCLA has been great, holding opponents to just 63.2 points per game. Just to let you know, Gonzaga held their opponents to 64.25, and UCLA only manages 73 a game this tournament. Gonzaga can beat a team in many ways.
Though Drew Timme can be cocky at times, expect him, Corey Kispert, and Jalen Suggs to focus in on winning. Two more steps for a great team to reach ultimate glory and enter the history books. The only one beating Gonzaga this year is themselves, so the Bulldogs should take note of what UCLA did to Alabama and Michigan.
Final Four Preview Summary
Houston will beat Baylor if they control the pace of the game. That starts with making shots and offensive rebounds to help earn second chances and quality opportunities.
Gonzaga will beat UCLA if they just be Gonzaga and take the game semi-seriously.
National Championship Prediction: (2) Houston versus (1) Gonzaga.
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