Final Four: Gonzaga’s the favorite, but all the teams have great basketball stories to tell

Final Four: Gonzaga’s The Favorite, But All The Teams Have Great Basketball Stories To Tell

Here’s two reasons to marvel at the men’s Final Four on Saturday night:

Somehow, the Covid-19 pandemic didn’t derail the season, despite lots of postponed or canceled games over five months.

Second, for all the strange circumstances — limited attendance, no bands, teams playing in just one state and sequestered in four hotels — this tourney has great basketball stories to tell.

Despite crazy upsets, much of the cream rose. The NCAA men’s basketball national semifinals will include arguably the game’s top two teams in Gonzaga and Baylor, and a third top contender in Houston.

Gonzaga (30-0), ranked No. 1 all year, will try to become the first undefeated Division I men’s champion since Indiana in 1976.

And we have the obligatory upstart story in UCLA, a strange thing to utter about a title-rich program. But this 11-seed is only the second team to reach the Final Four after starting in the First Four play-in round, which expanded the men’s field from 64 teams to 68 in 2011.

Now, a night after the women’s Final Four gave us a nail-biting win for Stanford and Arizona’s stunning upset of UConn, here’s what to look for during the men’s Final Four at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday.

1-seed Baylor vs. 2-seed Houston, 5:14 p.m. ET

THE TOP LINES

Two Texas schools. Two stingy defenses. Two programs that might think they had a shot at making noise in last year’s canceled tournament.

This is the first Final Four for Baylor (26-2) since 1950. For Houston (28-3), it’s the first since the Phi Slama Jama teams of 1982-1984. Neither has won the tournament. And here’s a family twist: Houston assistant Alvin Brooks will coach against his son, Baylor assistant Alvin Brooks III.

BAYLOR’S STORY

Baylor rode its turnover-forcing defense to a No. 2 ranking in the AP and coaches polls for much of the year. And this Final Four is coach Scott Drew’s crowning achievement so far in 18 years in Waco.

But Covid-19 sure made things difficult.

Drew missed the season’s first two games after testing positive, though the Bears still rolled to a 17-0 start. Then Baylor missed six games in three weeks in February for unspecified Covid-19 issues in the program.

The Bears came back rusty, eventually losing to Kansas on the road and getting knocked out of the Big 12 tournament by Oklahoma State.

That loss “was a blessing,” Drew told reporters this week, because Baylor lost its defensive touch and had time to recapture it in practice. So far during the NCAA tournament, the Bears have forced 67 turnovers while committing just 27.

Junior guard Jared Butler, one of five finalists for the Wooden Award for the nation’s outstanding player, leads Baylor in scoring. Junior guard Davion Mitchell, a 3-point threat himself, is a Naismith Defensive Player of the Year finalist — a “nightmare to bring the ball up against,” Drew said.

After Baylor’s Elite Eight win Monday, a reporter asked senior guard MaCio Teague about how some tournament teams tried to slow the Bears down, while others tried to speed them up, and both efforts failed.

“I feel that shows we have real hoopers on our team,” Teague said. “We can play any style of basketball, and…we can overcome it all.”

HOUSTON’S STORY

Houston is an American Athletic Conference tournament champion on an 11-game win streak. And one of its stars doesn’t want to hear anything about defeating lesser teams to reach the Final Four.

Yes, Houston is the first team to get to the national semifinals by beating four double-digit seeds in the same tournament.

But the Cougars have been scary all year, boasting the nation’s top field goal percentage defense and allowing the second fewest points per game.

And those “double seeds also had to beat a single seed in order to get to this point,” fifth-year senior guard DeJon Jarreau told reporters after nearly getting a triple-double against Oregon State in the Elite Eight.

Jarreau said he thought Houston could reach the Final Four two years ago, before Kentucky’s Tyler Herro crushed that dream with a late 3-pointer in the Sweet 16. “I thought last year’s (23-8) team could make a run,” too, before the coronavirus canceled the 2020 tournament, he said.

“Never really was doubt” they could make it now, Jarreau said.

Houston coach Kelvin Sampson is in his second Final Four, having taken Oklahoma there in 2002. Junior guard Quentin Grimes, his conference’s co-player of the year, leads the Cougars in scoring with 18 points a game.

One more thing about Houston: Almost no team grabs more offensive rebounds. The Cougars regularly read where the ball will come off the rim, beating defenders to it even when they try to box them out, CBS analyst Wally Szczerbiak said during his network’s coverage Monday.

1-seed Gonzaga vs. 11-seed UCLA, 8:34 p.m. ET

THE TOP LINES

The tournament’s clear favorite, Gonzaga, faces one of the bluest of blue-chip programs that’s back on the upswing and turning heads.

Gonzaga has one previous Final Four, losing to North Carolina in the final in 2017. UCLA (22-9) has a record 11 championships, but this is its first Final Four since 2008.

UCLA’S STORY

The Bruins are here by the skin of their teeth. Fourth in the Pac-12, they were barely selected to the tournament, losing their last four games before Selection Sunday, albeit to conference foes that also made the tourney.

Once in, they became something special, fending off two teams in overtime and dispatching No 1. seed Michigan by two in the Elite Eight.

Funny thing is, coach Mick Cronin thought his team would be powerful ahead of the year — for good reason. They were stacked and just picked up sharpshooting Kentucky transfer guard Johnny Juzang.

But a five-star recruit defected to the G-League; last year’s top scorer tore his ACL on New Year’s Eve; and one of their top big men left in February for personal reasons.

“When we had those three guys, quietly I told my dad, ‘I’ve got a chance to have my best team ever,’ after Johnny committed to us,” Cronin told reporters Tuesday night. “But without those three guys, (I would have thought) hell, no.”

Let’s see what he thinks if he wins two more games.

Cronin emphasizes defense, and the height-challenged Bruins lean on sophomore top scorer Juzang, sophomore guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. and junior guard Jules Bernard for buckets. Last game, no UCLA bench player scored, and Juzang — creating his own shots and cutting off-ball to get open for more — had 28 of his team’s 51 points.

GONZAGA’S STORY

Gonzaga has not just beaten every team it faced — it has dominated.

The Bulldogs have taken 29 of its 30 victories by at least 10 points. The only time it didn’t: an 87-82 win against then No. 11 West Virginia in December.

They have three of the 10 Wooden All-American Team members. That includes one of the five finalists for the 2021 Wooden Award for outstanding player, senior forward Corey Kispert, averaging 18.9 points a game.

The other two are freshman guard Jalen Suggs — Gonzaga’s highest-rated recruit ever, who likely is a future NBA lottery pick — and the mustachioed sophomore forward Drew Timme, currently edging Kispert as leading scorer with 19 points a game.

Timme can be a nuisance in the paint, as he showed while scoring 23 against the University of Southern California in the Elite Eight. He’ll pivot, duck and squirm his way to the basket against one man. Against a double-team, he’ll put his fine passing skills to use.

“He’s faced many, many, many big lineups and shot blockers and such. He always figures out a way to get his shot,” coach Mark Few, seeking his first title in his second Final Four since taking over in 1999, said after Tuesday’s game.

Gonzaga has the best field goal percentage and puts up the most points per game in the nation. But its defense isn’t shabby, either. It frustrated USC, ripping or knocking the ball away from Trojans’ hands several times in the first half. Offense and defense have combined for something unbeatable so far.

“They never play down to the level of their competition,” Charles Barkley said during TBS tournament coverage Tuesday night. “They drive the same speed all the time.”

“And the thing about it — they don’t drive like 100 mph,” Barkley said. “They just say, ‘We’re going to play at 65 mph, and y’all going to have to reach our level.'”