What’s the biggest upheaval of the 2021 NCAA tournament?
Was it Oral Roberts on the state of Ohio? North Texas on Purdue? Did UCLA go from # 1 to # 4?
Or was it, perhaps, the ability of the NCAA host team to build an environment for the 68 competing teams that has allowed 63 of the 64 games to date to go as planned. Only VCU, of the 64 teams eliminated to date, has returned home undefeated. There was so much doubt expressed about the ability of the NCAA to achieve this, and there was so little appreciation for going this far with the bare minimum of meaningful COVID outages.
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The NCAA hasn’t been perfect in this area. The debacle with five officials having to leave the event due to contact tracing which developed in large part because there was not enough hotel space available when the referees arrived – it was not a great time. But this seems more of an isolated case than a trend.
People may be waiting to recognize the amazing work of the NCAA in planning and executing this tournament to the end, so as not to increase the football before hitting the goal line.
It is a reasonable approach. Hopefully the three Final Four games won’t be hampered by the pandemic like the Elite Eight and Sweet 16. But there should be some hosannas if these games go as planned.
These Final Four teams deserve the chance to decide the championship on the field, and it looks like the NCAA will provide it.
And here’s how these teams rank in relation to the ability to win this title:
Who will win the NCAA tournament?
Why they will win it: When was the last time we saw such a connected offensive basketball team, this together and this talented at the same time? The Zags only rank 94th in the country in terms of attendance rates, but let’s face it: that’s because they could. They were able to destroy most of the West Coast Conference with individual capabilities. They didn’t have to be at their best symphony to run through the COE. In their matches against top opponents, however, those who established the Zags as the nation’s first team and as a Final Four participant, they had assists on 68.6% of the baskets made. If it were spread over an entire season, it would lead Division I by a significant margin, according to KenPom.com. They play two great guards at the same time, All-American Jalen Suggs and Canadian hero Andrew Nembhard, and the two have developed an electrical chemistry that allows each to be both a distributor and a scorer. Big man Drew Timme continues to undermine top college defenders like USC’s Evan Mobley with his pristine footwork. Unlike the 1991 UNLV squad, which came to Indianapolis so reliant on the starting five-man squad, the Zags receive exceptional contributions from bench players such as forward Anton Watson and guard Aaron Cook. Did we mention the Joel Ayayi wing? Of course, we didn’t. This is how it works. You forget he’s chasing all the other All-Americans, and he slices your defense with penetration, chases a loose rebound, or sticks an open 3-point.
Why they might not: It’s hard to say whether it’s positive or negative that Gonzaga has been successful so far and has won his NCAA tournament games averaging 24 points with All-American shooter Corey Kispert having a modest impact. Creighton limited his impact by paying extraordinary defensive attention; he found plenty of open shots against the USC area but was 3 of 10 of three. It would be inappropriate for this to turn into a total collapse. But it’s hard to say he’s even close when he’s 9 of 21 in the last three games. The simplest entry in this category should probably just say “Baylor”. But that underestimates the challenge Gonzaga will face against UCLA, who will do everything in their power to make the semi-final a lousy game. What Gonzaga is to solidarity, the Bruins are to tenacity. If there’s one thing Gonzaga doesn’t do that’s typical of champions, it’s rim defense. Defend? Zags are so much better than many think; they rank No. 5 in defensive efficiency. But they are also 262nd in block percentage. Timme, the team manager, has 21 in 30 games. It may be, however, that the analytic revolution has reduced the importance of this factor, as teams have become increasingly dependent on deep shooting. The last five champions ranked, on average, 163rd in block rate; the five before that ranked 44th.
GONZAGA vs USC: odds, picks, predictions
Why they might earn it: They’ve built their reputation on defense, but if you haven’t yet learned that an effective offense is the most important ingredient in an NCAA Championship, you’re not paying enough attention. The vast majority of the last 15 champions ranked higher in offensive efficiency than in defense, with UConn’s unlikely winners in 2014 being one of the few true outliers. Baylor has turned out to be a great offensive basketball team, although a lot of it depends on accurate 3-point shooting. The Bears own the No. 3 offense in Division I, behind only Gonzaga and Iowa. They earned it by being the top long-range shooting team, with their top five scorers all hitting at least 40% of their three (provided we rounded up Macio Teague’s 39.6%). More than half of their points come from 3 points. They will therefore have to shoot well to survive. They are at 37.2 percent in their three NCAA tournament wins against major opponents. That includes an 8 of 15 stint at Lucas Oil Stadium in Elite Eight’s win over Arkansas.
Why they don’t: Yes, offense matters more. But defense still matters. Are Baylor still capable of being a great defensive team? We know the Bears are still capable of playing great defense. They destroyed Villanova in the final 13 minutes of their Sweet 16 game last weekend, allowing the Wildcats just 12 points during that time. But that was after Scott Drew watched reserve Nova Brandon Slater throw a one-handed dunk against the Bears’ troubled man-to-man scheme called timeout and lined them up in a game zone. It was once the base of Drew’s defense, until that same group became one of the top man-to-man teams in the country during the 2019-20 season. They just haven’t been the same in the second half of this season, even before a three-week COVID hiatus at least disrupts their pace. If Baylor has the chance to try to stop Gonzaga, how will they do it?
Why they might earn it: The Cougars have shown that they can have problems with such long and dynamic teams. Like Memphis. Good for the Cougars, as they were solely responsible for ensuring the Tigers did not advance to the NCAAs, beating them twice in the final week of the regular season. There are no teams like that in the Final Four, although there are definitely better teams. But the matches make the difference in the tournament. So it’s conceivable that the Cougars’ defensive commitment and ability to execute their switch patterns and dominate boards could lead to two wins at this point. That would require a better shooting performance from All-American Quentin Grimes, who was 10 of 30 in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight wins. They have the ability to get Baylor shooters off the line and punish the Bears on the offensive boards. Senior Fabian White was a March revelation on the boards, especially on the offensive side. The Cougars are the No. 2 team in offensive rebound percentage and No. 6 in rebound margin.
Why they don’t: Cougars’ semi-final opponent Baylor is making big numbers, even against exceptional opposition. In their last eight games against major opponents, the Bears have scored less than 74 points just once, in Sweet 16’s victory over Villanova. They average 79 points in this streak. The question is not whether Houston can keep them below that number; on a beautiful day, Cougars probably can. But even by slowing down the Bears, can Houston produce at a sufficient pace offensively? Four of the Cougars ‘last seven winning scores against major opponents were in the’ 60s, and you won’t find Cincinnati or Tulane in the Final Four. Even if the Cougars were to set up their man-to-man attack on Baylor, a stint in the game zone could put them back as Oregon State’s 1-3-1 did in the Elite Eight.
BAYLOR vs HOUSTON: odds, picks, predictions
Why they might earn it: One thing that was impressive about the Bruins in Eastern Region games was their determination to impose their preferred pace on the opposition. They’ve never been an end-to-end fastbreak team, but injuries and starts robbed the Bruins of the depth and drive to function that way at a high level. So they became entirely a grinding team – and a very good team. In regulation, Michigan’s No.1 seed and Alabama’s No.2 seed, generally good for around 78 points per game, averaged 57 against the Bruins. UCLA relies on point guard Tyger Campbell’s ability to manage the tempo and on players such as Jaime Jaquez, Jules Bernard and especially Johnny Juzang to hit open jumps, even though they’re not of the 3-point variety. The Bruins have become an elite in executing their staff’s defensive game plans, which they have shown by pulling Alabama away from the 3-point line and forcing the Tide to a poor shot selection, and in forcing Michigan’s Franz Wagner to step away from the controls on the right.
Why they don’t: It’s really hard to win in this company without being amazing on offense. The Bruins get some easy baskets with the way they play, and they’re a good 3-point team. It just doesn’t seem like they can generate enough points to hang on to Gonzaga and then, presumably, Baylor. In so many Final Fours historically, there is a team that may have reached the peak of their achievement by advancing to the Final Four. Think Loyola in 2018, Syracuse in 2016, VCU in 2011. They’ll give their all to win again, maybe even become an unlikely champion, at UConn 2014. But they know and you know and we know all that getting here was amazing, and it will be a lifetime achievement to say, “I played in the Final Four” or “I was on a Final Four team”. This UCLA team is the definition of that quality. They lost their best rookie, who chose to go pro thanks to the G League. They lost their most talented player, Chris Smith, who tore his ACL apart. They have lost their last four regular season games. And they are still there.