#1 Baylor Bears vs. #2 Houston Cougars
The last time Houston was in the Final Four, Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, and Ralph Sampson were leading the way. Their current big three may not be the same caliber, but their three guards can play. Quentin Grimes is a sharpshooter who transformed his game since transferring from Kansas two seasons ago. Marcus Sasser is a two-way star who can attack at all three levels. And DeJon Jarreau is a fierce competitor who does it all for this Houston program. He suffered a hip injury within a minute of their first round matchup against Cleveland State. After battling through this injury and leading a comeback against #10 Rutgers, Jarreau looked like himself during the second weekend and nearly put together a pair of triple doubles. Every player Kelvin Sampson puts on the floor can play aggressive, suffocating defense and this defense has them two wins away from their first national championship in program history.
The Baylor Bears also boast an aggressive defense, but they can also win every game without it. Houston has the second best trio of guards in the nation, but there is no doubt that the best is from Waco. Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell, and MaCio Teague are 52-6 in the last two seasons, and they were robbed of this kind of NCAA Tournament run a season ago. All three of these guards can drop 30 in a night and they are anchored by some of the best frontcourt defenders in the nation. Mark Vital, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchathcoua, and Flo Thamba can all control the paint and affect the game on the defensive end. They leave the scoring to the best three-point shooting team in the nation with six players shooting 38% or above from beyond the arc.
Keys to the game:
This game will most likely be decided from a set of lines: the free-throw line and the three-point line. Houston’s aggressive defense leads to a lot of fouls and they are going up against a team in Baylor who can match this physicality and also get to the rim to draw these fouls. The Cougars also boast one of the best three-point defenses in the nation, but have yet to face a challenge like the top-ranked Bears perimeter attack. If the Bears can knock down some contested threes, there will be nothing Kelvin Sampson and his squad will be able to do to stop them.
On the other end of the floor, Houston features several dynamic scorers and playmakers in both the backcourt and the frontcourt. The trio of starting guards can score at all three levels, but, again, have yet to face a challenge quite like the Baylor Bears. Davion Mitchell and Mark Vital are both worthy of National Defensive Player of the Year honors with Vital capable of guarding 1 through 5. Butler and Tchamwa Tchatchoua can take care of the rest of the scorers and cause fits for the Cougars offense. Also, do not be surprised to see Baylor switch to a 1-3-1 zone that allowed Oregon State to get back into the game in the second half against the Cougars. The difference in this matchup is the ability for Baylor to dominate on BOTH ends of the floor. Houston plays some stellar defense, but I cannot see their offense doing enough to get them past the Bears. Scott Drew and the Bears move on to the National Championship.
Score Prediction: #1 Baylor Bears 63, #2 Houston Cougars 58
#1 Gonzaga Bulldogs vs. #11 UCLA Bruins
30-0. Average margin of victory of 24 in the NCAA Tournament. Three players on the Wooden Award semifinalist list, which only lists 15 players. These are some of the various achievements from this year’s Gonzaga Bulldogs and why they are being considered one of the most dominant teams in college basketball history. Now they have to face off against one of the most storied programs in the history of the sport. This matchup is the epitome of “new blood” versus “blue blood” with the storied UCLA Bruins opening as 14 point underdogs in the national semifinal.
The Bulldogs are led by Drew Timme, Corey Kispert, and Jalen Suggs with the starting five being rounded out by experienced stars in Andrew Nembhard (pictured) and Joel Ayayi. Four of the five, excluding Nembhard, are projected to be selected at some point during the upcoming NBA Draft with Suggs and Kispert near-locks to be lottery selections. Mark Few has the most talent he has ever had and is two wins away from the elusive national championship he has always coveted.
The Bruins are the story of this tournament so far as they have gone from First Four to Final Four for the first time since VCU in 2011. Mick Cronin’s squad is led by Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang who is the leading scorer in this year’s tournament thus far. Tyger Campbell, Jaime Jaquez Jr., Cody Riley, and Jules Bernard accompany him in the starting lineup and have all made names for themselves in the Big Dance. These guys are playing with nothing to lose and are playing their best basketball of the season despite entering the NCAA Tournament on a four-game losing streak.
Keys to the game:
Just in case anyone forgot, Mick Cronin led teams know how to play defense. The Bruins frustrated top-seed Michigan by holding them to just 49 points and held the prolific Crimson Tide offense to only 65 points in regulation. Those offenses are no joke, but they are not Gonzaga. These guys are averaging 92 points per game and shoot a ridiculous 55% from the field. Timme proved just how tough it is to leave him on an island in the post as he scored 23 points in a matchup with perhaps the best post defender in the nation in Evan Mobley. If you decide to double him, any of the other four starters can make you pay from distance. Unless the Bulldogs have their worst shooting performance of the season, I cannot see UCLA having a chance to pull off another upset. Mark Few’s team is far too talented to and it looks like the only way this team loses is if they beat themselves. If that is going to happen, it will happen on Monday, not Saturday.
Score Prediction: #1 Gonzaga Bulldogs 78, #11 UCLA Bruins 64
Potential National Championship Matchup:
#1 Gonzaga Bulldogs vs. #1 Baylor Bears
I will admit this is the matchup I have selfishly been waiting for since it’s cancellation early in the season. These teams have remained the consistent top two teams in the country for the entire season and belong in the National Championship. There is star-power, top prospects, experience, and great coaches who are deserving of their first national title. Both teams were also deserving of a chance at a National Championship last year, as projected #1 seeds, but, like the rest of us, were robbed of an incredible NCAA Tournament. This is the matchup we all deserve and is the perfect way to cap off a chaotic two seasons of college basketball.
Keys to the Game:
This game will be filled with fascinating matchups and a plethora of draft prospects who have improved their stock in the NCAA Tournament. Davion Mitchell and Jalen Suggs are potential lottery picks in the backcourt and are arguably the two best guards at getting to the rim off the dribble. I trust Mitchell and his experience more in this matchup especially as the better defender. Expect to see a lot of five-out offense, with a mix of Timme post ups for Gonzaga and dribble drives from Baylor’s explosive trio of guards. Timme could easily dominate on the interior as he did so against the most talented post defender in the nation in the Elite Eight, and if he does so, the Bears will have to make a boatload of three-pointers.
As I said above, the Bears will need to have their best three-point shooting outing of the season if Timme controls the interior like he has done all season long. Scott Drew and the Bears are the best in the nation at shooting from distance, but if there is one elite aspect of Gonzaga’s defense, it is limiting threes and contesting them. They are well above average in three-point attempts against them per game and only concede 32% of these looks. The four Gonzaga guards, with Kispert included, are athletic enough to hang with off-ball screens and force Baylor inside the arc. This game will come down to the wire with Jalen Suggs finding an open Joel Ayayi on the perimeter to knock down a dagger three-pointer and clinch the first national championship in school history. Corey Kispert finishes his incredible Gonzaga career with a pair of free throws at the line to put the game out of reach for good. The Zags win a long overdue championship under Hall of Fame coach Mark Few.
Score Prediction: #1 Gonzaga Bulldogs 85, #1 Baylor Bears 75