What’s the biggest surprise of the 2021 NCAA Tournament?
Was it Oral Roberts about the state of Ohio? North Texas over Purdue? Was it UCLA going from a First Four position to the Final Four?
Or was it, perhaps, the NCAA organizing team’s ability to build an environment for all 68 competing teams that has allowed 63 of the 64 games to date to go as planned? Only VCU, of the 64 teams that have been eliminated to date, went home without losing. So many doubts were expressed about whether the NCAA could achieve this, and there has been so little apparent appreciation for going this far with the least significant disruptions from COVID.
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The NCAA has not been perfect at this. The debacle with five officials who had to leave the event due to contact tracing that played out in large part because there was not enough space available in the hotel when the referees arrived, that was not a great moment. But it seems more like an isolated case than a trend.
It may be that people are waiting to acknowledge the extraordinary work of the NCAA in planning and executing this tournament to the end, so as not to shoot the ball before crossing the goal line.
That is a reasonable approach. We can hope that the three Final Four games will not be hampered by the pandemic, as Elite Eight and Sweet 16. But there should be some hosannas if those games go as planned.
These Final Four teams deserve a chance to decide the championship on the court, and it looks like the NCAA will deliver it.
And here’s how those teams rank in relation to the ability to win that title:
Who will win the NCAA Tournament?
Why they will win it: When was the last time we saw an offensive basketball team so connected, so united, and so talented at the same time? The Zags rank 94th in the nation in attendance rate, but let’s face it: that’s because they could. They were able to destroy most of the West Coast Conference with individual skill. They didn’t need to be in their symphonic prime to run wild for the WCC. Yet in their games against high-level opponents, the ones that established the Zags as the nation’s premier team and as a participant in the Final Four, they have earned assists in 68.6 percent of the baskets made. If spread across a full season, it would lead Division I by a significant margin, according to KenPom.com. They play two great point guards at once, All-American Jalen Suggs and Canadian hero Andrew Nembhard, and the two have developed an electrical chemistry that allows them to be distributors and scorers. The great man Drew Timme continues to undermine the best college defenders, like USC’s Evan Mobley, with his impeccable footwork. Unlike the 1991 UNLV team, which came to Indianapolis so reliant on the starting group of five, the Zags are receiving exceptional contributions from bench players like forward Anton Watson and point guard Aaron Cook. Did we mention the Joel Ayayi wing? Of course we didn’t. Is that how it works. You forget about him chasing all the other All-Americans, and cut your defense with penetration, chase a loose rebound or hit an open triple.
Why could they not: It’s hard to say whether it’s positive or negative that Gonzaga has gone this far and won his NCAA Tournament games by an average of 24 points with All-American shooter Corey Kispert having a modest impact. Creighton limited his impact by paying extraordinary defensive attention; He found many open shots against the USC zone, but was 3 of 10 on 3s. It would be unwelcome for this to turn into a total depression. But it’s hard to say he’s even close when he’s 9-for-21 from deep in the last three games. The simplest entry in this category should probably say “Baylor”. But that understates the challenge Gonzaga will face against UCLA, which will do everything it can to make the semifinal an ugly match. What Gonzaga is to union, the Bruins are to toughness. If there’s one thing Gonzaga doesn’t do that is typical of champions, it’s defend the rim. Defending? The Zags are much better than many perceive; They are ranked No. 5 in defensive efficiency. But they are also 262 in block percentage. Timme, the team leader, has 21 in 30 games. However, it could be that the analytics revolution has downplayed this factor as teams have become more reliant on deep shooting. The last five champions ranked, on average, 163rd in block rate; the previous five ranked 44th.
GONZAGA vs. USC: Odds, Picks, Predictions
Why they could win it: They built their reputation on defense, but if you haven’t learned by now that competent offense is the most important ingredient in an NCAA championship, you haven’t been paying enough attention. The vast majority of the past 15 champions were ranked higher in offensive efficiency than defense, and UConn’s 2014 unlikely winners were one of the few genuine outliers. Baylor has become a great offensive basketball team, although it relies heavily on the accuracy of three-point shots. The Bears own the No. 3 offense in Division I, behind only Gonzaga and Iowa. They earned this for being the best long-range shooting team, with their top five scorers hitting at least 40 percent of their 3s. (provided we round 39.6 percent of Macio Teague). More than half of his points come in triples. Then they will 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 run at Lucas Oil Stadium in Elite Eight’s win over Arkansas.
Why won’t they: Yes, the offense matters more. But defense still matters. Is Baylor still capable of being a great defensive team? We know the Bears are still capable of great defense. They destroyed Villanova in the final 13 minutes of their Sweet 16 game last weekend, allowing the Wildcats just 12 points in that time frame. But that was after Scott Drew saw Nova backup Brandon Slater throw a one-handed dunk against the Bears’ complicated man-to-man scheme, called a timeout and lined them up in an end zone. That used to be the staple of Drew’s defense, until this same group emerged as one of the best man-to-man teams in the nation in 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 interrupted their rhythm, at least. If Baylor has a chance to try to stop Gonzaga, how will they do it?
Why they could win it: The Cougars have shown they can struggle with teams that are equally long and dynamic. Like Memphis. Good for the Cougars, then, because they alone were responsible for ensuring the Tigers didn’t make it to the NCAA, beating them twice in the final week of the regular season. There are no such teams in the Final Four, although there are certainly better teams. But the fighting makes the difference in the tournament. So it’s conceivable that the Cougars’ defensive commitment and ability to execute their trade schemes and dominate the boards could lead to two wins at this stage. It would require better shooting performance from All-American Quentin Grimes, who was 10 of 30 in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight victories. They have the ability to knock Baylor’s shooters off the line and punish the Bears on offensive boards. Senior Fabian White has been a March revelation on the boards, particularly on the offensive side. The Cougars are the No. 2 team in offensive rebounding percentage and No. 6 in rebounding margin.
Why won’t they: Cougars’ semi-final opponent Baylor has huge numbers, even against exceptional opposition. In their last eight games against major opponents, the Bears have scored fewer than 74 points just once, in that Sweet 16 win over Villanova. They have averaged 79 points in that stretch. The question is not whether Houston can keep them below that number; on a big day, the Cougars can probably do it. But even holding the Bears down, can Houston produce at a sufficient offensive pace? Four of the Cougars’ last seven winning scores against major opponents were in the 1960s, and you won’t find Cincinnati or Tulane in the Final Four. Even if the Cougars kicked off their offense against Baylor man-to-man, a switch to the fighting zone could knock them down like Oregon State’s 1-3-1 at Elite Eight.
BAYLOR vs HOUSTON: Odds, Picks, Predictions
Why they could win it: One thing that was impressive about the Bruins during the Eastern Region games was how determined they could be in imposing their preferred pace on the opposition. They were never an end-to-end counterattack team, but injuries and starts have robbed the Bruins of the depth and dynamism needed to function that way at a high level. So they have become a grinding team, and really good. In regulation, No. 1 seed Michigan and No. 2 seed Alabama, generally good at around 78 points per game, averaged 57 against the Bruins. UCLA relies on point guard Tyger Campbell’s ability to handle tempo and players like Jaime Jaquez, Jules Bernard and especially Johnny Juzang to do open jumps, even if they are not of the 3-point variety. The Bruins have become the elite in executing their staff’s defensive game plans, which they demonstrated by moving Alabama away from the 3-point line and forcing Tide into poor shot selection, and forcing Michigan’s Franz Wagner to walk away from the right hand pitches.
Why won’t they: It is very difficult to win in this company without being extraordinary on offense. The Bruins get few easy baskets with the way they play, and they’re a good 3-point team that isn’t great. It just doesn’t seem like they can generate enough points to hang out with Gonzaga and then presumably Baylor. In so many Final Fours historically, there is a team that has perhaps reached beyond the peak of its achievement by advancing to the Final Four. Think Loyola in 2018, Syracuse in 2016, VCU in 2011. They will give everything they have to win again, perhaps even becoming an unlikely 2014 UConn-style champion. But they know and you know and we all know that getting here was Unbelievable, and it will be a lifelong 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 recruit, who chose to turn pro through the G League. They lost their most talented player, Chris Smith, who tore his ACL. They lost their last four regular season games. And they are still here.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.