Posted on April 3, 2021
The 2021 NCAA Tournament will be remembered for Oral Roberts playing better than a 15 seed has ever played, and for Oregon State surviving as long as a 12-seed ever has.
But ultimately, the lens through which we look back at this year’s Tournament will be determined in the next couple days.
Here are my four points of reference for the Final Four.
The Road to the Final Four
Gonzaga entered the Tournament as the consensus favorite and has done nothing to make one question the assumption. After an opening cakewalk against Norfolk State, Gonzaga beat Oklahoma by 16, Creighton by 18, and USC by 19. The last team to win its four tournament games by 15+?
That would be the 1996 version of Kentucky, which had nine future NBA players on its roster. That ‘96 Wildcat team is the first team I think of when I’m naming the greatest college basketball teams I’ve ever seen, so the fact that Gonzaga is being mentioned in the same breath with them speaks to how dominant they’ve been over the last two weeks.
Is there a tournament run more bizarre than the one UCLA has put together this season?
The Bruins closed the season with a close loss at Colorado, a close loss at Oregon, a one point loss at home to USC, and an overtime loss in the Pac-12 Tournament to Oregon State. As they entered their play-in game against Michigan State, it was clear that the Bruins were the fifth-best team from a mediocre conference.
Fast forward to today, and UCLA is somehow the last Pac-12 school still standing after every school contributed to a remarkable 12-3 record against teams from other conferences.
(Am I still bitter that the Tournament Selection Committee seeded Oregon and USC in the same region which forced them to play each other in the Sweet Sixteen? Yes, I am).
The Bruins were expected to lose that play-in game to the Spartans, but they managed to overcome a 14-point deficit and grind out a win in overtime. Then they were expected to lose to No. 6 BYU, but they only committed three turnovers against the Cougars and rolled to a fairly easy win.
They lucked out by drawing 14-seed Abilene Christian in the next round, and took care of them in the way that No. 3 Texas was unable to. That landed UCLA in the Sweet Sixteen, and I fully expected their run to stop there. Yet, after an overtime win over No. 2 Alabama and an ugly 51-49 win over top-seed Michigan, the Bruins join VCU as just the second team to advance all the way from a play-in game to the Final Four.
So much attention has been paid to Gonzaga and the Pac-12 that Baylor’s run to the Final Four has been overshadowed. After cruising past No. 16 Hartford, Baylor breezed past Wisconsin, overcame a rough first half to beat Villanova going away, then jumped out to an early double digit lead over Arkansas and never really let the Razorbacks back in the game.
Baylor has played a tougher slate of opponents than the Zags over the past two weeks and hasn’t yet been challenged in the final minutes.
While Houston should be given credit for making the Final Four, it has to be noted that, according to seeding, they have had the easiest road in Tournament history. The Cougars beat No. 15 Cleveland State, overcame a late 10-point deficit to steal a win from No. 10 Rutgers, solved No. 11 Syracuse’s zone defense, then almost blew a 17-point lead to No. 12 Oregon State.
No team in history has managed to make the Final Four without playing a single-digit seed until Houston did it this week.
Houston’s only wins over tournament teams during the regular season were a conference win over Wichita State (they split a pair with the No. 11-seed Shockers) and an early season win over Texas Tech (a No. 6 seed).
Despite a couple puzzling losses to Tulsa (which wasn’t very good) and East Carolina (which was worse than Tulsa), Houston brings a 28-3 record into the Final Four, which suggests they are a really good team.
We just haven’t seen them play any really good teams yet, which is an odd thing to say about a team at this point in the season.
Gonzaga’s leading scorer in the Tournament thus far has been center Drew Timme, who combines the post moves of Kevin McHale, the facial hair of Goose Gossage, and the showmanship of P.T. Barnum. He’s the classic “love him when he’s on your team, hate him when he’s on the opposing team” type of player.
He’s also probably the third best player on the Zags.
Corey Kispert was a first-team All-American. Jalen Suggs joined Timme on the second team and will probably be a Top five pick in the NBA Draft. Gonzaga is the first team in history to have three players as first- or second-team All-Americans in the same season, and we’ve yet to have a tournament game where all three are operating at peak efficiency.
Johnny Juzang could barely get on the floor as a freshman at Kentucky, so the Los Angeles native transferred to UCLA and has turned into the best Bruin since Bill Walton. I’m joking, kind of.
In that 51-49 brickfest-win against Michigan, Juzang scored 28 points, and played like an Oscar nominee in a soap opera. He’s the biggest reason UCLA is still alive, having scored 108 points in five tournament games, matching the total Walton scored in his first five tournament games, and trailing only Lew Alcindor in the UCLA record books.
Baylor has a trio of stars that seem most most capable of keeping up with the Gonzaga machine. Jared Butler is a first-team All-American, Davion Mitchell was just named National Defensive Player of the Year, and MaCio Teague was their leading scorer in their Elite Eight win over Arkansas.
More importantly, they are the most fun trio of guards since Deron Williams, Dee Brown, and Luther Head took Illinois to the 2005 national title game.
In my Tournament preview, I suggested that Quentin Grimes was capable of carrying Houston on a surprise run to the Final Four. So am I surprised by how well Grimes has played? Of course not.
This was the most predictable surprise of the Tournament. If Houston beats Baylor, then I’ll be surprised. If Houston beats Baylor, it will be because Grimes gets some major help from Dejon Jarreau and Marcus Sasser, who have both been playing really well, but have yet to play a team on Baylor’s level.
Mark Few currently has the dreaded title of “best coach never to win a title,” so winning a national championship would dramatically change his legacy. Yet, even if Few is able to win this year’s title, it seems that he may still be underrated historically.
Few has been at Gonzaga for 22 years. He’s never failed to reach the Tournament, has led the Zags to a No. 1 seed in four of the last eight tournaments, and doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. The only other mid-major to reach this level of success was UNLV under Jerry Tarkanian, but unlike the Rebels under Tark, it’s hard to imagine the Zags being placed on NCAA probation.
What Few has done at Gonzaga is already on the short list of the greatest coaching jobs in college sports, and cutting down the nets in a couple days would only cement that.
When UCLA showed Steve Alford the door a couple years ago, it set about on an ambitious coaching search trying to land a big name like Bill Self or Thad Matta, only to settle on Mick Cronin. Cronin’s Cincinnati teams seemed to be more comfortable engaging in a street fight than a basketball game, so there wasn’t a lot of excitement about the hire.
I’m guessing Bruins fans have warmed up to their coach by now. Cronin stands 5-foot-7, so his players tower over him, but he carries himself with a fiery intensity that has clearly worn off on the Bruins. Say what you want about their style of play, but this team plays with a degree of toughness that has been lacking in Westwood for quite some time.
Scott Drew of Baylor might be the most overshadowed coach in America. Unfortunately, when people think of the Baylor men’s basketball program, they’re still far more likely to think of the horrific scandal that preceded Drew’s tenure then they are to think of anything that has happened since.
When Drew was hired in 2003, he was tasked with helping the basketball program heal from an incident in which one Baylor player murdered another Baylor player, and the Baylor coach at the time (Dave Bliss) then attempted to frame the deceased player as a drug dealer in order to cover up the fact that he’d been funneling cash payments to his players.
Taking over a program with just one tournament appearance in 50 years is one thing. Doing so in the aftermath of such an overwhelming tragedy is something else entirely.
Drew led Baylor to just 21 wins in his first three seasons combined, and when he finally led the Bears to a tournament appearance in his fifth year, one might have expected him to catch the first train out of Waco. That was in 2008, yet Drew is still there more than a dozen years later.
Drew’s family is considered NCAA Tournament royalty thanks to his brother Bryce Drew’s buzzer beater for Valparaiso in 1998, while playing for their father Homer. Scott Drew was an assistant on that Valpo team, but it was Bryce and Homer who did all the joint interviews during their Sweet Sixteen run that year.
Despite quietly transforming Baylor into one of the best basketball programs in the country for the last decade or so, the most memorable Tournament moment for the Baylor men’s team is ironically another father/son moment. When Baylor was upset in the first round in 2015 by Georgia State, it was because RJ Hunter, while playing for his father Ron, hit one of the great shots in recent Tournament history.
This immediately led commentators to compare the father/son combo of RJ and Ron Hunter to the father/son combo or Homer Drew and Bryce Drew.
When Drew hasn’t been overshadowed by father/son exploits, he’s been overshadowed by the Baylor women’s program, which has three national titles under Kim Mulkey, including a 40-0 season in 2012. When people think of Baylor basketball, they’re still more likely to think of Britney Griner than any player from the Baylor men’s program.
I’m not even sure that changes if Drew can lead Baylor to a couple more victories.
What did the state of Indiana do to offend the basketball gods? The state of Indiana is hosting the entire men’s tournament for the first time in history, which means Indiana University was hosting many games in its own arena, yet the Hoosiers failed to qualify for the Big Dance for the fifth year in a row. This failure led to the firing of Hoosiers coach Archie Miller.
All of this would be hard enough to process for Indiana fans if not for the fact that former Hoosiers coach Kelvin Sampson led Houston to the Final Four.
Sampson was fired after two seasons at Indiana when it was discovered he violated NCAA regulations. Making matters even worse for Indiana fans, the rules Sampson broke (which limited the number of phone calls that could be made to high school recruits) were later changed. So there’s definitely an alternate universe where Sampson is leading Indiana to the Final Four.
Unfortunately for Indiana, that is not the one we are in.
The Rooting Interest
UCLA is trying to be the lowest-seeded team to win a title, which is an odd position to be in for a program that won more national titles than any program in history. The last three No. 11 seeds to make the Final Four were George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth, and Loyola of Chicago.
Those were all true Cinderellas. The Bruins are not.
They are a blue blood, or least desperately trying to convince everyone they are still a blue blood, and winning their first national championship since 1995 would certainly make their case. I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed watching this UCLA team scratch and claw.
Houston has their best team since the Phi Slama Jama Era of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. Those teams went to the Final Four three years in a row, and lost one of the most iconic title games of all time, when Jim Valvano’s NC State team upset them in the ‘83 title game.
With all due respect to Quentin Grimes, I can’t root for this team to do something Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler failed to do. Does that mean I’ll never root for a Houston basketball team to win the title? I guess it does.
The Baylor reclamation project is truly astonishing and the Bears pass an important test that Houston failed. I really loved the Baylor duo of LaceDarius Dunn and Tweety Carter that lost in the 2010 Elite Eight to Duke, and I’ve been waiting for Baylor to produce a team as likeable as that one—even if it’s impossible to have a better named one.
This year’s team qualifies on the likeability scale. Baylor is also really, really good. With two more wins, they’d be 30-2 on the year, which would be the best record for a champ since 2012 Kentucky went 38-2. In a typical season, Baylor would be a perfectly fine champion.
But this is not a typical season.
Gonzaga is trying to be the first undefeated team in 45 years. The last two undefeated teams to make the Final Four were 1991 UNLV, which lost to Duke in the Final Four, and 2015 Kentucky, which lost to Wisconsin in the Final Four. To win two more games would be truly historic for any program.
Yet Gonzaga isn’t just any school. They’re a small Catholic school in Spokane, Washington, which plays in the West Coast Conference. When Gonzaga first truly arrived on the scene in 1999, they were the Cinderella of the Tournament.
When they beat Florida in that year’s Sweet Sixteen, Gus Johnson famously said “the slipper still fits!” That team eventually had their dream end in a hard fought loss to UConn, but for 20+ years, the Zags have kept returning to the dance each March, hoping that one of these years they’ll be the last one dancing.
Here’s hoping this is the year.
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