What is the biggest upset of the 2021 NCAA Tournament?
Was it Oral Roberts over Ohio State? North Texas over Purdue? Was it UCLA surging from a First Four position to the Final Four?
Or was it, perhaps, the ability of the NCAA organizing team to construct an environment for the 68 competing teams that has allowed 63 of 64 games to date to go on as planned. Only VCU, of the 64 teams that have been eliminated to date, went home without a loss. There were so many doubts expressed about whether the NCAA could pull this off, and there has been so little appreciation apparent for getting this far with the bare minimum of significant COVID interruptions.
The NCAA has not been perfect in this. The debacle with five officials having to leave the event because of contact tracing that developed in large part because there was not sufficient hotel space available when the refs arrived — that was not a great moment. But it seems more of an isolated instance than a trend.
It may be that people are waiting to acknowledge the NCAA’s extraordinary work in planning and executing this tournament until the end, so as not to spike the football before crossing the goal line.
That’s a reasonable approach. We can hope that the three Final Four games will be unimpeded by the pandemic, as the Elite Eight and Sweet 16 were. But there ought to be some hosannas if those games go off as planned.
These Final Four teams deserve the chance to decide the championship on the court, and it appears the NCAA will deliver that.
And this is how those teams rank relative to the ability to win that title:
Who will win the NCAA Tournament?
Why they’ll win it: When is the last time we’ve seen an offensive basketball team this connected, this together and this talented all at once? The Zags rank only 94th in the nation in assist rate, but let’s face it: That’s because they could. They were able to destroy most of the West Coast Conference with individual ability. They did not need to be at their symphonic best to run rampant through the WCC. In their games against high-major opponents, though, the ones that established the Zags as the nation’s premier team and as a Final Four entrant, they have earned assists on 68.6 percent of made baskets. If spread over an entire season, that would lead Division I by a significant margin, according to KenPom.com. They play two big point guards at once, All-American Jalen Suggs and Canadian hero Andrew Nembhard, and the two have developed an electric chemistry that allows each to be both distributor and scorer. Big man Drew Timme continues to undermine top college defenders, such as USC’s Evan Mobley, with his pristine footwork. Unlike UNLV’s 1991 team, which came to Indianapolis so reliant on the five-player starting group, the Zags are getting exceptional contributions from bench players such as forward Anton Watson and guard Aaron Cook. Did we mention wing Joel Ayayi? Of course we didn’t. That’s how it works. You forget about him chasing all the other All-Americans, and he slices your defense with penetration, chases down a loose rebound or sticks an open 3-pointer.
Why they might not: It’s difficult to say whether it’s a positive or negative that Gonzaga has made it this far and won its 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 plenty of open shots against the USC zone but was 3-of-10 on threes. It would be unwelcome for this to turn into an all-out slump. But it’s hard to say that he’s even close when he’s 9-of-21 from deep in the past three games. The simplest entry in this category probably should just say “Baylor.” But that does underrate the challenge Gonzaga will face against UCLA, which will do everything it can to make the semifinal an ugly game. What Gonzaga is to togetherness, the Bruins are to toughness. If there is one thing Gonzaga does not do that is typical of champions, it is defending the rim. Defending? The Zags are so much better than so many perceive; they rank No. 5 in defensive efficiency. But they also are 262nd in block percentage. Timme, the team leader, has 21 in 30 games. It might be that the analytics revolution has lessened the importance of this factor, though, as teams have become more reliant on deep shooting. The past five champions ranked, on average, 163rd in block rate; the five before that ranked 44th.
GONZAGA vs. USC: Odds, picks, predictions
Why they might win it: They built their reputation on defense, but if you haven’t learned by now that proficient offense is the most important ingredient in an NCAA championship, you’ve not been paying close enough attention. The vast majority of the past 15 champs ranked higher in offensive efficiency than defense, with UConn’s unlikely 2014 winners being one of the few genuine outliers. Baylor has become a great offensive basketball team, albeit one largely dependent on accurate 3-point shooting. The Bears own the No. 3 offense in Division I, behind only Gonzaga and Iowa. They earned this by being the best long-distance shooting team, with their top five scorers all hitting at least 40 percent of their threes (so long as we round up Macio Teague’s 39.6 percent). More than half of their points come on 3-pointers. So they’ll 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-through at Lucas Oil Stadium in the Elite Eight win over Arkansas.
Why they won’t: Yes, offense matters more. But defense still matters. Is Baylor still capable of being a great defensive team? We know the Bears still are capable of playing great defense. They destroyed Villanova in the final 13 minutes of their Sweet 16 game last weekend, allowing the Wildcats only 12 points in that timeframe. But that was after Scott Drew watched Nova reserve Brandon Slater throw down a one-handed dunk against the Bears’ struggling man-to-man scheme, called timeout and aligned them in a matchup zone. That used to be the staple of Drew’s defense, until this same group emerged as one of the nation’s best man-to-man teams 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 pause disrupted their rhythm, at the least. If Baylor gets the chance to try stopping Gonzaga, how will they do it?
Why they might win it: The Cougars have shown that they can have trouble with teams that are similarly long and dynamic. Like Memphis. Good for the Cougars, then, because they were singlehandedly responsible for assuring the Tigers didn’t make the NCAAs, beating them twice in the final week of the regular season. There are no teams quite like that in the Final Four, although certainly there are better teams. But matchups make the difference in the tournament. So it is conceivable that the Cougars’ defensive commitment and ability to execute their switching schemes and dominate the boards could lead to two victories at this stage. It would require a 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 squeeze the Baylor shooters off the line and to punish the Bears on the offensive boards. Senior Fabian White has been a March revelation on the boards, particularly on the offensive end. The Cougars are the No. 2 team in offensive rebound percentage and No. 6 in rebounding margin.
Why they won’t: Cougars semifinal opponent Baylor puts up big numbers, even against exceptional opposition. In their past eight games against major opponents, the Bears have scored fewer than 74 points just once, in that Sweet 16 victory over Villanova. They have averaged 79 points in that stretch. The question isn’t whether Houston can keep them below that number; on a great day, the Cougars probably can. But even in slowing the Bears, can Houston produce at a sufficient rate offensively? Four of the Cougars’ past seven winning scores against major opponents were in the 60s, and you won’t find Cincinnati or Tulane in the Final Four. Even if the Cougars were to get their offense up and running against the Baylor man-to-man, a shift to matchup zone might knock them back the way Oregon State’s 1-3-1 did in the Elite Eight.
BAYLOR vs. HOUSTON: Odds, picks, predictions
Why they might win it: One thing that was impressive about the Bruins through the East Region games was how determined they could be about enforcing their preferred pace upon the opposition. They never were an end-to-end fastbreak team, but injuries and departures have robbed the Bruins of the depth and dynamism necessary to function that way at a high level. So they have become entirely a grinding team — and a really good one. In regulation, No. 1 seed Michigan and No. 2 seed Alabama, typically good for about 78 points per game, generated an average of 57 against the Bruins. UCLA relies on the ability of point guard Tyger Campbell to manage tempo and on players such as Jaime Jaquez, Jules Bernard and especially Johnny Juzang to hit open jumpshots, even if they aren’t of the 3-point variety. The Bruins have become elite at executing their staff’s defensive gameplans, which they showed by running Alabama away from the 3-point line and coercing the Tide into poor shot selection, and by forcing Michigan’s Franz Wagner away from righthand drives.
Why they won’t: It’s really hard to win in this company without being extraordinary on offense. The Bruins get few easy baskets with the way they play, and they are a good-not-great 3-point team. It just doesn’t seem they can generate enough points to hang with Gonzaga and then, presumably, Baylor. In so many Final Fours historically, there is one team that has reached perhaps beyond the pinnacle 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 winning again, maybe even becoming an unlikely, UConn 2014-style champion. But they know and you know and we all know that getting here was amazing, 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 top 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 still they’re here.