Half the men’s Final Four was set on Monday night, as the Houston Cougars and Baylor Bears kept their national championship hopes intact. Now it’s on to Tuesday’s NCAA tournament matchups, with the top overall seed Gonzaga Bulldogs and an increasingly impressive USC Trojans squad starting things off, and the resilient Michigan Wolverines and upstart No. 11 seed UCLA Bruins following. ESPN.com’s college basketball team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi discussed what they expect of Tuesday’s matchups, including their players to watch from a contest rich in projected future NBA talent, while also taking a peek ahead at this weekend’s national semifinals.
Can Houston — which has taken down a No. 10, a No. 11, a No. 12 and a No. 15 seed on the way to its first Final Four since 1984 — answer the remaining doubts about its viability in competing for a national championship? Can Baylor make the most of its first Final Four opportunity since 1950? Our team answered those March Madness questions and more as a field now standing at six teams is set to be reduced to four on Tuesday night. Follow this link for Tuesday’s NCAA tournament tip times, and visit here to check your March Madness bracket or second-chance March Madness bracket.
Not a single one of ESPN’s 38 college basketball experts picked Houston to reach the Final Four before this tournament started. What was it that gave you pause about the Cougars when you filled out your bracket, and have they resolved your questions over this four-game run?
Medcalf: I just didn’t know if they could keep up offensively with the teams I figured Kelvin Sampson’s squad would have to beat to advance to the Final Four. And the struggles against Memphis and Wichita State didn’t increase my confidence in the Cougars, a team that also has two sub-100 KenPom losses on its résumé (Tulsa, East Carolina). But they can really shut teams down on defense — Ethan Thompson finished 3-for-12 in the Elite Eight — when they play their aggressive style. That’s enough to keep them in any game against any opponent. And Sampson’s coaching prowess is widely recognized.
But this is still a team that missed 42 shots and made 20 against Oregon State on Monday night. That’s probably not sufficient to win a national championship. Yet, the Cougars’ physical dominance (19 offensive rebounds) allows them to control games. This is a really good team. Bottom line: Houston should have been on my Final Four list.
Borzello: Given Houston’s struggles against Memphis twice in a week and some other surprising hiccups over the final five or six weeks of the season, I had concerns the Cougars wouldn’t be able to beat the best teams their region had to offer. Well, through no fault of their own, they didn’t have to play the best teams their region had to offer. But all they could do is beat the teams in front of them, and they cruised through a couple wins over Cleveland State and Syracuse, had a tough time with Rutgers, and needed some late shots to hang on against Oregon State.
The fact that they had trouble against Rutgers and Oregon State doesn’t totally ease my worries about them, but Quentin Grimes has been terrific offensively, DeJon Jarreau is an elite defender and they rebound better than pretty much anyone in the country. And they have one of the best coaches in the sport in Sampson. So they have a chance.
Houston holds off Oregon State’s late comeback as Quentin Grimes drills the 3-pointer, and the Cougars never look back en route to their first Final Four since 1984.
Gasaway: The experts were wrong! This expert didn’t expect a team that had played two nail-biters within the space of a few days against Memphis to be able to handle what the field of 68 would throw its way. No, Houston didn’t face an opponent higher than a No. 10 seed, but the Cougars have played well enough to reach the Final Four even if the region had been all chalk. The paeans sung to Jarreau’s defense are richly deserved, and I would only add that few teams in recent memory have better demonstrated the tournament benefits of amazing rebounding at both ends of the floor.
Lunardi: The presence of Illinois at the top of Houston’s bracket was the main deterrent to picking the Cougars. But Loyola Chicago took care of that problem, then Oregon State took care of Loyola, and finally the Cougars themselves erased Oregon State. In the bigger picture, I share the concern that Houston will eventually have to outscore a more explosive team to continue its run. That hasn’t happened yet, so the Cougars have been able to impose their will through four rounds. The likes of Baylor, Michigan or Gonzaga may have other ideas.
Baylor (off to its first Final Four since 1950) had a bad first half against Villanova, let Arkansas back into the game for a few minutes on Monday but has otherwise been extremely impressive in this tournament. You’re going to have to answer this question eventually so might as well go through the exercise now — from what you’ve seen, is there a chance this team is actually better than Gonzaga?
Gasaway: I’m proud to say I was in on the ground floor of the “actually better” club. That possibility was floated on social media by yours truly when just three AP voters gave Baylor a vote as the No. 1 team. That seemed a bit unjust for a group that was playing outstanding defense while also shooting 3s as well as any program in the nation. But then the COVID-19 pause happened, and the Bears’ numbers at the end of the Big 12 season looked merely “very good” and not “sensational” for defense. Teams have been able to score against BU when they take care of the ball — which, granted, is very hard to do when you’re facing Davion Mitchell. Still, I’m no longer ready to sign the “actually better” petition. But it’s close, and I would love to see this question settled on the court.
Lunardi: Arkansas made a credible run at the Bears, but the Hogs’ early hole was ultimately too much to overcome. So the possibility of a dream matchup with Gonzaga lives for at least another day. And as someone who picked Baylor over the Zags at the start of the season, then flipped that pick at the start of the tournament, it’s clear I’m torn between the two. Let’s say this: if the teams played best-of-seven on a neutral court, it would be a l-o-n-g series. I would still take Gonzaga, which may have an extra offensive weapon or two, but in a single 40-minute test? The percentiles are no more than 51-49 (which, come to think of it, could be the halftime score!).
Medcalf: I don’t think they’re better. But I also think that’s a different question than this one: Can Baylor beat Gonzaga? The answer is yes. I think the Bears have proven that they’re a unique group with three elite guards (Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell) who are just difficult to track. They can create shots anywhere with that trio on the floor. On defense, their quickness just doesn’t allow an abundance of space. And they’ll feed you to their shot-blockers. Gonzaga is great everywhere.
But I do think Baylor has a chance to pull off the upset. They’ve reminded us that three months ago, we all viewed the Baylor-Gonzaga matchup that was canceled as the fight for the “best team in America” crown. I don’t think that’s changed. Gonzaga is on top, but it does not appear that Baylor is too far behind — if the Bears are at all.
Borzello: I don’t want to be on the ground floor of saying Baylor is actually better than Gonzaga because I think Gonzaga has been better since day one of the season … but Baylor was the only team truly built to potentially beat Gonzaga this season. Pre-COVID pause, there was very little debate regarding whether Baylor was a top-two team in the country. And given the way the Bears are playing in the NCAA tournament, I think it’s pretty clear again.
That said, I still don’t think Baylor is better than Gonzaga nor will beat them next Monday night. Even during Baylor’s impressive run through the South region, there were still long stretches where the Bears allowed teams to either get back in the game or hang around longer than expected. Those 9-2 runs by Arkansas and Villanova will be 15-2 runs by Gonzaga. It will take a massive effort down low from Baylor’s bigs to slow down Timme — and I think that’s the big difference between the two teams.
Gonzaga/USC will feature three probable lottery picks in Corey Kispert and Jalen Suggs of Gonzaga and Evan Mobley of USC, along with another All-American and standout of this tourney in Drew Timme. Which of those four players will be the most important to Tuesday’s matchup … or will it be someone else entirely?
Gasaway: The most important player of the foursome is going to be Mobley because USC’s hopes ride so heavily on him and particularly on his defense. The Pac-12 converted just 43% of its 2s against an interior defense anchored by Mobley, and, amazingly for a freshman, he picked up four fouls just twice all season. Now he and his teammates are about to face the best offense in the country, one that has converted 64% of its tries inside the arc this season. I believe the sportswriting phrase that applies here is that something will indeed have to give. Gonzaga will force Mobley to come out and guard away from the rim — and he’s perfectly capable of doing so. If the freshman can make Timme work on both offense and defense, we could have a game here.
Medcalf: The later rounds of the NCAA tournament are a point guard’s paradise. Jalen Suggs has to go to work — and avoid turnovers — to lead Gonzaga to a win. Not by himself. But the way he can shift speeds and dictate the tempo of a game will be the most critical factor in this matchup. One of his gifts is his explosiveness. Suggs, at 6-foot-4, is not going to just operate on the perimeter. He’s going to attack the rim. Per hoop-math.com, 51 percent of his shots have been at the rim this season.
I think that’s the element that’s difficult to address for any team. You’re worried about Corey Kispert’s inside-outside talent. You know you have to stop Drew Timme in the paint. And then, Suggs can either find his shooters with his passing ability or make a play on his own. (He has 14 turnovers, however, in three NCAA tournament games). This could be the first time in the NCAA tournament that Gonzaga will enter a game as a single-digit favorite. That’s how much Vegas respects USC. Still, Suggs is the guy that USC might not be able to neutralize.
Evan Mobley posterizes the Oregon defender with a two-handed jam as USC advances to the Elite Eight.
Borzello: I think Gonzaga’s perimeter players are going to be the key on Tuesday, so give me Kispert. USC has more size and length up front than Gonzaga, and the Trojans have the best 2-point defense in the country. So the Bulldogs might have more trouble than usual finishing in the paint. So that means Mark Few’s team will have to take advantage of their quickness advantage on the perimeter by pushing the ball in transition and beating USC downcourt. When Kispert plays the 4, he is going to be able to drag one of the Mobley brothers away from the basket or spot up on the perimeter in transition before they get back on the defense. When USC goes to its zone, Kispert’s shooting ability should force the Trojans to extend it and open up the paint for Timme and the penetrating guards.
Lunardi: This is the night Jalen Suggs makes the difference for Gonzaga. It’s been said since the start of the season that his explosiveness and raw talent at the point guard position put these Zags at a higher level than any Mark Few team. The Bulldogs haven’t needed Superman Suggs for a while and the freshman has been happy to defer to the team’s older stars. He may not have that luxury against USC, whose frontcourt could force a stalemate in this matchup. But the Trojans don’t have anything close to Suggs, and that will be the difference in sending Gonzaga to the Final Four.
UCLA has plenty of history to its name already and can make more by reaching the Final Four as an 11-seed (which would be tied for the lowest ever) who started things off in the First Four (would be only the second time that happened). Mick Cronin’s team was impressive against Alabama — how surprised would you be to see the Bruins get by Michigan?
Lunardi: This is the end of the road for the Bruins, much as Monday night was the inevitable end for 12-seed Oregon State. The Beavers were in over their heads against Houston’s relentless defense and rebounding, and UCLA is almost certain to be flummoxed by Michigan’s great balance. The Wolverines are equally proficient offensively and defensively, on the perimeter and inside, and have an experienced resolve that has allowed them to overcome the loss of leading scorer Isaiah Livers. In the biggest mismatch of the Elite Eight round, Michigan rolls.
Borzello: I’d be very surprised. But I was surprised to see them beat Michigan State and BYU and Alabama, too. (Not so much Abilene Christian, but I was surprised to see the ease in which they beat them.) Teams have really been struggling to make shots from the perimeter against UCLA in the tournament, with zero of its four opponents making more than 33.3% of their 3-point shots. Part of that is UCLA’s perimeter defense, part of that is variance, but it needs to continue against Michigan. The Wolverines haven’t missed a beat since losing Livers, and their adjustments against Florida State’s length and size were impressive. A lot will need to go right for Cronin’s team to beat Michigan, but a lot has gone right for them already this month. I’m picking the Wolverines, though.
Jaime Jaquez hits a difficult step-back 3-pointer to give UCLA a 77-70 lead over Alabama in overtime.
Medcalf: I’d be really surprised. I just think Michigan, Baylor and Gonzaga are in a different class. Some of the things we believed about the teams outside those three entering the NCAA tournament were wrong. But I don’t think the top tier of this event has changed at all. After his team’s loss to Michigan on Sunday, Leonard Hamilton admitted he just couldn’t find the right antidote for Juwan Howard’s squad. That’s Leonard Hamilton with a good Florida State team saying that.
I do think UCLA’s run is one of the postseason’s most impressive feats. And the Bruins deserve credit for how they’ve played so far. Johnny Juzang and Tyger Campbell have been the catalysts for incredible offensive feats. But Michigan has had five different players either lead the team in scoring or share the lead in scoring in three NCAA tournament games. Franz Wagner isn’t one of them. Plus, Isaiah Livers is hurt. That hasn’t stopped the Wolverines, who are a complete team thriving on their depth and the game-changing exploits of Hunter Dickinson. If UCLA beats Michigan, I’ll be shocked.
Gasaway: UCLA’s been fortunate in at least one sense (read on), but the Bruins have also made a good deal of their own luck. They’ll need both trends to continue if they’re going to beat the Wolverines. On the one hand, Mick Cronin’s team has done what it’s needed to do to score a very healthy 1.15 points per possession in the tournament. UCLA’s turnover rate is so low, it’s verging on single digits. When you give the ball away on just 10.2% of your offensive trips, you’re going to score some points. At the same time, the Bruins have also been helped by the fact that their tournament opponents have hit just 24% of their 3s. I’d be surprised if Tyger Campbell, Johnny Juzang and their teammates didn’t have yet another low-turnover outing. If Michigan’s additionally missing 3s, who knows, we could have another Alabama-level shocker.