The 2021 men’s NCAA tournament has been anything but predictable. The opening weekend featured the most upsets in tournament history, with four double-digit seeds busting through to help form the highest seed total the Sweet 16 has ever seen.
It looked like things would go mostly chalk from there with three No. 1 seeds still standing, but UCLA had other ideas. The Bruins upset top-seed Michigan in an Elite Eight thriller to set up a Final Four that should offer a fitting and exciting conclusion to the tournament.
UCLA now faces a powerhouse Gonzaga program looking to finish off its historic undefeated season. Baylor and Houston sit on the other side of the bracket. In a way, this tournament has played out in perfect fashion: we got upsets early, but still have a chance to watch the two best teams in the country all year long square off for the national championship. The Cougars and Bruins likely have other ideas.
Let’s re-rank the field in the men’s bracket before the Final Four starts on Saturday.
4. UCLA Bruins (No. 11 seed)
UCLA was at rock bottom two years ago when they hired Mick Cronin away from Cincinnati. Cronin wasn’t their first choice, and he wasn’t their second or third choice either. A defensive coach with a grind-it-out style seemed like an odd fit for a job as glamorous as UCLA, but Cronin was still building positive momentum after a solid 19-12 debut season. Then everything seemed like it started to fall apart.
Months after last season ended, UCLA’s top incoming recruit, Daishen Nix, opted to instead play in the G League. Eight games into the season, star forward Chris Smith tore his ACL. Jalen Hill left the team for personal reasons shortly after that. The Bruins still looked solidly in the NCAA tournament for most of the season despite all that, but losing their last three regular season games plus their first Pac-12 tournament game made for a sweaty Selection Sunday.
UCLA did earn an at-large bid with a play-in game against Michigan State, and the rest is history. The Bruins made their way to the Elite Eight with two overtime victories against the Spartans and No. 2 seed Alabama before certifying their case as a legit contender with a win over top-seed Michigan. UCLA slowed down the game to a halt, forced Michigan to hunt mismatches in the post, and drained the exact shots (long two-pointers) that Juwan Howard’s defense is built to give up. Along the way, former Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang has become an unlikely tournament hero with his tough shot-making, while Tyger Campbell has given the Bruins the steady hand they needed at point guard.
UCLA will be a massive underdog to a Gonzaga team that looks like one of the best in the modern history of the sport. In that sense, there isn’t much pressure on the Bruins heading into the Final Four. They’ve already proven the world wrong by getting this far. What’s one more victory?
3. Houston Cougars (No. 2 seed)
The Midwest was supposed to be the region of death in this year’s NCAA tournament, but that didn’t apply to the Houston Cougars. Kelvin Sampson’s team busts into the Final Four after beating only double-digit seeds on their way to winning the region. Things are about to get a lot tougher against a Baylor squad that has been one of the country’s best teams from the jump, but at this point Houston’s profile suggests it is far closer to elite than it is lucky.
The Cougars enter the Final Four with the No. 7 offense and No. 8 defense in the country. They play at a snail’s pace, shoot tons of threes, and dominant the offensive glass. The Cougars have won 11 straight games heading into the showdown with the Bears, and they’re one of the few teams in the country who have the guards to keep up with Baylor.
Quentin Grimes was a McDonald’s All-American out of high school who was supposed to be a one-and-done at Kansas. He transferred to Houston after a subpar freshman year, and has now fully blossomed into a star for the Cougars as a junior. DeJon Jarreau, a former UMass transfer, has become Grimes’ co-star, while 6’1 sophomore Marcus Sasser gives Sampson another guard who can get after it on both ends. This Final Four run happens after Caleb Mills, the AAC Preseason Player of the Year, left the program in Dec.
Houston will try to get Baylor into a rock fight. If they can control the tempo and hit their threes, an upset is absolutely possible. Yes, the Cougars have had an ‘easy’ path through the bracket, but they still very much deserve to be here.
2. Baylor Bears (No. 1 seed)
It’s easy to forget that the Baylor Bears would have been a No. 1 seed in last year’s NCAA tournament if it wasn’t canceled because of the pandemic. The Bears brought back four starters from that team and added a few impact transfers, led by big man Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and guard Adam Flagler. The result has been a team that’s even more dominant on the way to the program’s first Final Four appearance of the modern era.
The Bears started this season 18-0 before dropping an away game to Kansas and a Big 12 tournament semifinal matchup to Oklahoma State. Those are the only games they’ve lost all year as they break into the Final Four at 26-2. If there was concern that Baylor looked a little shaky heading into March Madness, it didn’t really show itself on their run through the South region. Only Arkansas came within single-digits in the Elite Eight, and there was no doubt who the more talented team was during that game.
Baylor’s trio of guards — Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler, and MaCio Teague — have powered the program to elite status for two seasons now. Mitchell has become the leading man in March, showcasing his incredible offensive burst and lockdown individual defense throughout this run. Teague’s shooting and Butler’s steady hand in running the offense have also shined, while Matthew Mayer and his mullet have provided some essential floor spacing.
We were supposed to get Baylor vs. Gonzaga back in early Dec. before the game was canceled just before tip-off because of Covid protocol. Let’s do it again for the national championship.
1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (No. 1 seed)
Gonzaga enters the Final Four staring down history. No college basketball team has finished the season as an undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976. At 30-0, the Zags are just two wins away from doing it.
Gonzaga was not challenged during their march through the West region. It beat No. 16 Norfolk State by 43 points, No. 8 seed Oklahoma by 16 points, No. 5 seed Creighton by 18 points, and No. 6 seed USC by 19 points. None of those games felt as close as the final score indicated, and the final score still indicated a blow out.
The Gonzaga machine was hitting on all cylinders against the Trojans in the Elite Eight. Freshman superstar Jalen Suggs scored 18 points and finished two assists short of a triple-double. Sophomore center Drew Timme dominated his matchup USC’s freshman star Evan Mobley, finishing with 23 points, four assists, and three steals. Corey Kispert added 18 points, too. All three looked like the All-Americans that they are, and the rest of Gonzaga’s overqualified role players finished the rest of the job.
Gonzaga’s offense — the second most efficient of the KenPom era, starting in 2002 — gets most of the credit for good reason. More underrated is how effective the Zags’ defense has been. The Zags are currently No. 4 in the country in defensive efficiency, and are posting the second lowest points per 100 possessions of Few’s tenure. The Zags had six steals against USC, but it felt like twice as many. Their ability to turn misses and turnovers into quick-strike buckets is typically what blows games open.
Gonzaga has been the best team all season. They certainly look like the best team as we reach the final weekend of the season. It probably won’t be easy, but at this point we haven’t seen any team’s best shot actually be good enough to beat the Zags.