Breaking down the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament after 64 games thus far: The path to this years Final Four was unlike any other year. After a canceled tournament the previous year and COVID-19 restrictions throughout this season, players are just grateful to reach this point. Gonzaga, UCLA, Houston, and Baylor know it only takes one poor performance for a season to end.
The Cinderella Bruins
The UCLA Bruins engaged in one of the most improbable Final Four runs of all time. As a matter of fact, these Bruins are only the fifth 11-seed in tournament history to reach the Final Four. UCLA wasn’t promised a spot in the tournament, having to beat Michigan State in the First Four rounds. Under those circumstances, it’s doubtful that they could make such a run to the semi-finals.
Beginning on February 27th, the Bruins had a streak of four straight losses. In fact, one of those losses was a first-round exit out of the PAC-12 Tournament against Oregon State. Although they endured tough stretches, the culture put in place by coach Mick Cronin kept the team ready for the tourney. Alongside coach Cronin is the three-headed monster of guards that lead UCLA in all major stat categories.
Beginning with Tyger Campbell, who leads the team with 5.6 assists per game and logs the second-most minutes per contest. Campbell is the best facilitator on the team and helps get open looks for others like Jaime Jaquez Jr. Juaquez Jr., however, does much more than score and leads the team in rebounds, steals, and blocks.
The most important piece on this UCLA team is transfer student Johnny Juzang. He is the team leader in scoring and free throw percentage, averaging 15.5 points per game. It must be remembered that Juzang recorded 28 points in the Elite Eight victory over Michigan. Juzang tallied more than half of his team’s points during a defensive struggle within a game that ended 51-49. The sophomore guard is a California native and has finally found his niche after seeing limited time at the University of Kentucky as a spot-up shooter.
Although their story is entertaining, UCLA finds itself as a massive underdog in their toughest challenge of the year. They face undefeated Gonzaga, who opened as a 14-point favorite against the Bruins (meaning they are projected to win by at least 14 points.) Even though it is an uphill battle, it does not mean they are guaranteed to lose.
UCLA needs to slow down the pace of the game. Johnny Juzang and Jaquez Jr. must be efficient in the half-court game and make baskets late in the shot clock. Jaquez Jr.’s defense is another crucial part of this equation: limiting Gonzaga’s star guard Jalen Suggs.
The Bruins lead the PAC-12 in total rebounds, a trend that must continue in their Final Four matchup. Another game scoring 50 points will surely result in a loss. They must be efficient and get to the free-throw line if they have any chance to win. Stranger things have happened, and UCLA certainly does not lack any self-confidence.
Gonzaga University is home to a juggernaut of a basketball team. The Bulldogs are runaway favorites to win the championship-and rightfully so. They boast the highest field goal percentage in the entire country and scored at least 70 points in every game since November of 2019.
Gonzaga’s success is a direct result of the success of their ‘big three.’ Four different players on their roster average at least 10 points and five rebounds per game. Cody Kispert is the most experienced of all the rotation players. The senior sharp-shooter puts up 18.9 points per game while shooting a scorching 45 percent from behind the three-point line. Five-star prospect Jalen Suggs is the second part of the Zags’ dominating offensive attack.
Suggs, up until a week ago, was the highest recruit in Gonzaga history. Jalen contributes 14 points each game and is the assists leader for the Bulldogs, at 4.5 per contest. He impacts the game on defense as well, with 1.9 steals per game, becoming arguably the best freshman in the country this year. Nevertheless, the engine that keeps Gonzaga going is Drew Timme.
Timme averages 27.7 minutes per game, the least of every starter. At the same time, Drew leads his squad with 19 points and 7.2 rebounds a night. His post-game and soft touch around the rim make him one of the most dangerous threats in college on both ends of the floor.
The collection of offensive efficiency and veteran players are a recipe for why they are still undefeated. Their four tournament wins so far have all resulted in double-digit victories. Chances are, they will stay that way and dominate their way to their first title.
The Dark Horse Cougars
The Houston Cougars are the least-talked-about team in the Final Four. Perhaps it’s because they’re the first Final Four team to get this far, only beating double-digit seeds. Regardless of that fact, Houston is highly underrated and has a real chance to make the final round.
Houston is exceptionally well balanced, and each major stat category is lead by a different player. Their defensive tenacity is evident, with five separate players averaging at least one steal per game. Forward Justin Gorham is the anchor down low for the Cougars, leading the team with 8.7 rebounds each game. Gorham perfectly complements the exciting guard trio of Quentin Grimes, Marcus Sasser, and DeJon Jarreau.
All three average double-digit scoring and have high usage rates. Jarreau is the third leading rebounder and leading assist man with 4.4 per game. In the last two tournament games, he leads the Cougars with eight assists in each matchup. At the same time, the heart and soul of the Houston Cougars is Quentin Grimes.
Grimes puts up 18 points a game and shoots the three-ball at 41.2 percent. He leads the Cougars in scoring three out of the four tournament games they’ve played so far. The Kansas transfer had flashes of greatness his first year and finally got his opportunity to shine on a national stage.
The Cougars have strung together four straight victories despite not shooting particularly well. Although they’re the underdogs, they can get a win by taking advantage of Baylor’s poor defensive rebounding. They are no stranger to being down and coming back in games, showing their toughness. If Houston’s trio of guards can score efficiently and get second-chance opportunities, they can come out victorious.
Historic Baylor Bears
The Baylor Bears are in the Final Four for the first time since 1950. Their recipe for success is a combination of highly efficient scoring and excellent perimeter defense. The Bears have only two losses; meanwhile, they’ve scored 100 or more points four times in the 2020-2021 season.
Much like Houston, Baylor relies on three potent scorers for the majority of their offense. MaCio Teague is the least talked about but still puts up 15.9 points and 4.1 rebounds on average. Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell are the most impressive backcourt in the country. Both average 2.0 steals a game and shoot over 40 percent from three. Butler leads the Bears in scoring with 16.5 per game and carries a lot of the responsibility.
At the two-guard, Davion Mitchell is one of the best defenders in the NCAA. He ferociously takes on assignments while leading the team in assists and shooting over 50 percent from the field. Baylor is loaded at the guard position and has more than enough grit to take down Houston.
Meanwhile, an unsung hero for this Bears squad is the positionless Mark Vital. Vital is listed as a guard and stands at 6’5 inches tall. Regardless, Mark leads his team with 6.5 rebounds and almost one block each game. His offensive game leaves much to be desired but makes up for it while perfecting his Draymond Green-like role.
This Baylor team is very capable of winning the National Championship. Mitchell and Butler have what it takes to put up huge numbers on offense and lockdown Houston’s Quentin Grimes. The Final Four has two great matchups and soon will determine who the best team in the nation is.