What other tournament in the world is better than March Madness? Maybe the World Cup. But the World Cup is a once every four years kind of anomaly and not yet beloved American phenomena because, in juxtaposition, the annual NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Tournament is a month of mayhem and excellence American athletes dominate. Americans have not yet caught up to the superlative talent the rest of the world exhibits in the Beautiful Game’s most prestigious competition. Stateside, domestically, however, and in this year, too many sportswriters, analysts, and fan bases’ collective surprise, there’s now unprecedented and voluminous reason on the West Coast to rejoice, celebrate and go mad. History made with every game, Gonzaga is amidst an astounding, once every half-century undefeated winning streak, as the top overall seed in this year’s field. And UCLA has gone from First Four to Final Four, the first team since Shaka Smart’s VCU squad in 2011; in doing so, UCLA has resoundingly proved the Pac 12 legitimately suffers incalculable, unjust obstacles every year from a now transparently nonsensical East Coast bias. How many teams from the ACC, SEC, and Big 10 are in the Final Four? None. Sticking with the idea of none, incomparable, unique, different, and strangely quixotic and charming, the Pac 12’s unofficial verbose spokesman/ megaphonic psychedelic mascot, Bill Walton, cannot and should not stop grinning for at least all of summer. I don’t know how many times I heard the man holler, “The PAC 12! The Conference of Champions! C’mon!” All in an effort to supply credit where credit was due. (The first brave man through the wall is never not bloodied, so the saying goes.) And for a good reason – the Pac 12 sent three excellent teams to this year’s Elite Eight, Oregon State, USC, and now UCLA standing strong in the Final Four.
So here we are, watching history unfold. And the Final Four looms. In the spirit of future-gazing and to honor all busted brackets and all dashed hopes, lost cash, and the stirring, enthralling spirit of controlled college basketball chaos, let’s now preview and make final predictions and attempt the impossible challenge of championship clairvoyance—the Final Four. The road ends here. Who’ll dance on top of it all?
Houston vs. Baylor
Offense: The Baylor Bears are in the Final Four for the first time since 1950 because the roster, the talent, the length, and the hot hands go two, three, four strings deep. Baylor finished the regular season ranked third in both the AP and Coaches poll. They shoot the lights out and explode for twenty-point runs, then play superlative defense on the other end. In the Baylor locker room and team meetings and film sessions, there is an allegedly all-new player contribution model that detects and accounts for what used to be abstruse, invisible, and non-referenced player decisions, actions, moves that don’t and won’t show up in the team’s stat sheet after the game. Apparently, the extra pass, the box out that allows a rebounder to snag the ball from the other side of the key, the dive for a loose ball that may or may not go the other way, the man who hustled back on defense to provide help for a guard overmatched by someone taller streaking towards the rack – all of this goes into the model and becomes fuel for a team that scores 83 PPG. And the majority of these offensive explosions came against a Big 12 conference schedule where the vast majority of their opponents spent weeks upon weeks in the Top 25, and all of this after what seemed like endless halts, stops, blips, and the inconstant interruption of Covid-19 positive tests and the vast and varied related game postponements and practice cancellations. Houston is savvy in scoring the ball when they need baskets, but Baylor features scorers across the roster. Jared Butler, 16.5 PPG. MaCio Teague, 15.9 PPG. Davion Mitchell, 14 PPG. Adam Flagler, 9 PPG. Matthew Mayer, 8.2 PPG. And combined, Baylor shoots 49.3% from the floor and a blistering 41.8% from behind the arc.
Defense: The Houston Cougars are a problem. They finished at 6, where they sat for what felt like the entire season, in the AP and Coaches Poll. Houston is so good on defense when combatting incoming offensive traffic from the opposition I feel like I’m watching a Seattle rush-hour bottleneck trying to get onto I-5 North at 5:58 on a Tuesday right before the pandemic. (I’ve spent hours in my car here so that I can empathize entirely.) It’s miserable. It’s congested. There is no room. It’s abysmally slow going, sluggish, stymying – and there’s nothing anyone can do about it besides fight through the slog, usually completely depleted once things free up. Houston’s defense is the only reason they eluded falling out of the field early in a rock fight against Rutgers. And if this year’s tournament’s most automatic triple-double producing machine, DeJon Jarreau and Foward Brison Gresham protect the rack, while Baylor forgets how to hit threes in transition – it could happen – Houston might rob a game everyone in the country foresees going Baylor’s way.
Head Coach: Both Baylor and Houston are elite programs that first had to undergo excruciatingly challenging basketball program rebuilding efforts before they marched into this year’s Final Four. But when Scott Drew started the demolition and rubble clean-up and designed what amounts to a basketball megachurch of hustling all-out full team gospel in Waco, Texas, the awful memories of the horror shows from 2003 and during the brutal years after started to fade. Scott Drew has led Baylor to an Elite Eight appearance twice before the third run this season. Each time before, Drew’s team lost to the eventual national champion. Houston has undergone a similar awesome rebuilding effort, but the better team and the better coach wear green and gold.
Prediction: Before we declare a winner, context is required. And maybe this is a journalism/ethical violation to quote so heavily, but I think it’s worth your time to read this next information almost shot for shot and blow for blow how I read it without my paraphrasing; maybe you’ll feel the same sort of chills I did. Three paragraphs from ESPN Staff Writer Jeff Borzello’s Baylor/Scott Drew piece published earlier this week:
“Drew took over a program mired in scandal when he was hired from Valparaiso in 2003. Baylor forward Patrick Dennehy had been murdered by teammate Carlton Dotson during an argument, and ensuing investigations revealed that then-head coach Dave Bliss attempted to avoid NCAA violations by claiming that Dennehy was dealing drugs in order to pay his tuition. Further NCAA investigations uncovered a number of major violations committed by Bliss, who resigned and received a 10-year show-cause penalty from the NCAA.
“Baylor was hit with probation, huge scholarship reductions and a ban on nonconference games during the 2005-06 season.
“Just two years after the nonconference ban, Drew had Baylor in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 20 years — and the Bears have missed it just four times since.”
Baylor is a team, a program that has pulled off what I’ll now go ahead and call, The Impossible. How can you not pull for the Bears? And Coach Drew. What I see happening? Fireworks. Almost all scoring. Baylor gets red hot from deep, wins this game against Houston: 88-79.
UCLA vs. Gonzaga
Offense: Full disclosure: I picked against UCLA in every tournament game, including their slugfest blue chip/blue blood showdown against Michigan State. And the Bruins found a clever, crafty, gutsy victory somehow, somehow in every instance. With all that said, this Gonzaga team is unreal. Gonzaga is the only team that has lead their opponent by at least twenty points at some moment during every single one of their games. The Zags are 30-0 going into their game against UCLA. And ESPN is already broadcasting and posting clips where college basketball analysts try to answer the ludicrous question, “Is Gonzaga the greatest college basketball team of all time?” Maybe. The tournament is not over. And UCLA was the first team in 40 years to defeat both the 1 and 2 seeds in their region of the brackets en route to a Final Four appearance. And yet Gonzaga scores at least 40 points in the first half of every single tournament game they play. They’re relentless. And they don’t know the phrases “Second half team” nor “Slow Start.” It’s all gas and no breaks from the jump, from the tip, and so far, their first-half tournament game point totals have been 43, 46, 43, and 49. It’s as if they’re getting better as the tournament goes on. UCLA must find a way to prevent Gonzaga from scoring more than 30 in the first half if they stand a chance to win this game. Otherwise, it’s all Zags.
Defense: Throughout the year, UCLA allowed 67.6 PPG on defense. That’s not half bad. But in the tournament? Michigan State averaged 67.9 PPG all year and then had 80 with overtime points added against the Bruins. Then something downright maddening, stifling, shocking and true to Bruin form started to flourish once more when UCLA played BYU. The Cougars averaged 78.1 PPG all year; against UCLA, they had 62. Abilene Christian averaged 75.7 PPG this year; against UCLA, they had 47. Alabama averaged 79.7 PPG this year; against UCLA, they required overtime to score 78 and had only 65 at the end of regulation. Reasonable to assume one can spot UCLA’s magnificent trend here; because against Michigan, the Bruins never looked better on defense – Michigan averaged 75.8 PGG all year, but against UCLA, they scored 49.
Head Coach: Mark Few. No question. Mark Few has to be considered one of the current and maybe one of the best college basketball head coaches of all time. Gonzaga’s games are too easy when Few steers the offensive assault. The Zags seem almost always on cruise control and way too comfortable with twenty-plus point leads for serious minutes.
Prediction: Gonzaga has been 55.1% on FG all year. Their top scorers are Drew Timme, 19 PPG. Corey Kispert, 18.9 PPG. Jalen Suggs 14 PPG. Joel Ayayi, 11.8 PPG. Andrew Nembhard, 9.1 PPG. The Zags are the nation’s second-best offensive team with 91.6 PPG. They might be the best college basketball team of all time. They’re out of the world wildly talented. They have to win this game against UCLA. Well…Much like Bruins, I love to play the iconoclast. UCLA wins 67-66.
Premature Championship Game Prediction: Baylor figures out UCLA’s defense. And on a buzzer-beater, Baylor triumphs over UCLA, 83-80.