The finale to one of the most exhilarating men’s NCAA Tournaments in recent memory will showcase four teams vying for a national championship.
Two of those teams we surely expected to be here in April – Gonzaga and Baylor. One of them, Houston, we shouldn’t be surprised is here. The last one, well, no one thought No. 11 seed UCLA would still be playing.
That’s why it’s March Madness, and that’s why the Final Four can give us more mayhem to cap it all off.
A look at five bold expectations for the three remaining games in the 2020-21 men’s college basketball season:
UCLA nearly shocks the world – again
The Bruins (22-9) play with a signature brand of toughness that coach Mick Cronin fosters and it’s paid off in March, as the resilient group has gone from 17 points down against Michigan State in the First Four to stunning the top two seeds of the East Region. The viewpoint by many experts is that Gonzaga will handily rout a happy-to-be-here UCLA. But that’s the exact type of motivation a group that already plays with a chip on their shoulder needs. If UCLA’s guards (Johnny Juzang, Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyler Campbell and Jules Bernard) are all scoring and the Bruins can slow the tempo of the game with solid defense – as they did against No. 1 Michigan – there’s a fighting chance. Considering how big of a favorite Gonzaga is, it’d be a shocker if this game is close. Don’t be so shocked, though, when it is.
A key player for Houston will go off
The Cougars (28-3) are here because of their defense, ranking second nationally in points allowed and completely stifling teams in this tournament – limiting Syracuse to 46 points in the Sweet 16 and Oregon State to 61. But if Houston has a chance at upending top-seeded Baylor on Saturday, it’ll take a huge performance from one of Houston’s stars. Quentin Grimes, a Kansas transfer who averages 18 points per game, might be the best bet. The 6-5 junior guard had 33 points off eight three-pointers in a Feb. 25 win over Western Kentucky. He’ll need a similar offensive explosion vs. the Bears.
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Gonzaga doesn’t win it all
The ‘Zags are the clear-cut favorite, entering the Final Four at a perfect 30-0. The problem is not about this team not having all the offensive weaponry (averaging a nation-leading 92 points per game) or defensive prowess (ranking No. 5 in KenPom defensive efficiency) to cut down the nets. It’s history working against coach Mark Few’s talented group. The last team to go undefeated was Indiana in 1976. But so many teams in the last four decades have come close, only to crumble. Kentucky in 2015 was heavily favored to win it all and hadn’t lost a game until Wisconsin stunned the Wildcats in the Final Four.
It’s not to say Gonzaga will lose, but this group has as much composure as any top-ranked team in recent memory. But a single elimination tournament means one determined effort from an opponent and it all comes crashing down. As good as the Bulldogs have been, have they really been tested? That’s the other side of being a dominant team. If a team like Baylor is playing its best basketball, can Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs and Drew Timme and Co. counter?
Baylor wins it all
The Bears (26-2), much like Gonzaga, were heavily favored in last year’s NCAA Tournament before it was cancelled due to COVID-19. There’s a hidden motivation for both teams, essentially playing for two seasons. Baylor’s roster is virtually the same in 2020-21 as compared to 2019-20 – except every player is more seasoned and hungry to win. When we look at a Virginia team in 2019 that won it all, so much could be said about the Cavs’ defense or three future NBA players. But the key ingredient to that team was the motivational force of a first-round upset to Maryland Baltimore County the year before. Now that Baylor is on the biggest stage, expect that motivational force of making up for last year to fully kick in. If the Bears draw Gonzaga in the final, obviously, coach Scott Drew’s team will have its hands full. But the backcourt trio of guards Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell gives this team an edge that could be the difference in a No. 1 seed vs. No. 1 seed championship game.
An unsung hero wins MOP
Gauging the history of the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award winners, it’s often an unexpected X-Factor player — not a future NBA star or the team’s best player — who excels on college hoops’ grandest stage. Louisville’s Luke Hancock in 2013 and Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo in 2018 are prime examples.
An unexpected MOP from each team this year:
- Houston: DeJon Jarreau
- Baylor: Adam Flagler
- Gonzaga: Joel Ayayi
- UCLA: Jaime Jaquez Jr.
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.