Final Four graphic

Gonzaga, UCLA, Baylor and Houston all fought their way through their respective regions to make it to the final weekend of the 2021 NCAA March Madness tournament. 

And then there were four.

The Gonzaga Bulldogs advanced to the second Final Four in school history after stomping the USC Trojans 85-66 in Indianapolis.

Despite the high levels of anxiety and anticipation for the vaunted USC defense ranked No. 4 in the nation, the Zags toyed with the Trojans from the tip as Drew Timme stripped a USC guard at mid-court before drawing a foul on a future top-five projected NBA pick in Evan Mobley within the first minute of action.

“An awesome feeling to fight our way back to another Final Four, the guys came out and played with tremendous energy and toughness on both ends of the floor,” GU head coach Mark Few said. “I thought we got after them defensively and I haven’t seen the stats yet, but fought an even battle on the boards despite that great size [from USC].”

The matchup between Mobley and Timme was fixated upon in the leadup to the contest, but Timme thoroughly outplayed Mobley in every facet of the game. When he wasn’t shooting jump hooks over the seven-footer, Timme was putting Mobley in a blender with a flurry of post moves and celebrations after.

Awaiting the Zags is an unlikely opponent in the No. 11 seed UCLA Bruins. The Bruins have the most national championships in the history of men’s college basketball with 11, but are returning to their first Final Four since 2008 as the program has seen less success since the days of John Wooden and Ben Howland.

How did they get here? The Bruins are the first team since VCU in 2011 to play in the First Four games of the NCAA tournament and advance to a Final Four. UCLA knocked off the Michigan State Spartans before rattling off wins against No. 6 seed BYU, No. 14 seed Abilene Christian, No. 2 seed Alabama, and finally beating No. 1 seed Michigan to advance to the Final Four.

UCLA was not supposed to be here. Although the Bruins were ranked No. 22 in the preseason men’s basketball poll, they lost three starters within the first weeks of the season and were a write-off in the nationally ignored PAC-12 conference.

Among the lost starters were 6’9 forward Chris Smith to an ACL tear. Smith averaged 13.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game in 2019-2020. Cronin also lost highly touted recruit Daishen Nix to the NBA G-League as well as Jalen Hill to injury.

Injuries aside, UCLA entered the NCAA tournament on a four-game losing streak before embarking on a winning streak without comparison outside of Shaka Smart’s VCU squad in 2011.

“Nobody would have said, ‘You’re going to the Final Four,’ let’s be honest,” said Cronin.

The Bruins are unequivocally led by sophomore transfer Johnny Juzang from Kentucky. Juzang can score from all three levels and is the primary scoring option for Mick Cronin’s UCLA team. Perhaps Juzang’s most impressive trait in his bag is his free throw shooting as he hits 90.2% of his attempts from the charity stripe.

Complementing Juzang is pure point guard Tyger Campbell. Campbell averages 10.2 points and 5.3 assists per game for the Bruins. Against Michigan, Campbell set the table for his teammates from the top of the key, facilitating long possessions that drained the shot clock.

Outside of UCLA’s two workhorses in Juzang and Campbell, the Bruins are not a deep team. Against Michigan, the Bruins did not have a bench player score any points. The Bruins have not shot a better field goal percentage than any of their opponents in their five wins in the tournament, the first team to ever do so.

Michigan, a team that averaged 81.3 points per game during the NCAA Tournament mustered only 49 against UCLA.

Speculation ran rampant in the lead up to the USC game as Zag fans talked themselves into the length of Evan Mobley and the defensive prowess of the Trojans. No matter, another 19-point win was added to the Zags overflowing resume. Two wins away from the program’s first national championship, the Zags have proven their mettle time and time again and opened as a 14-point betting favorite against the Bruins, the largest margin since the tournament expanded in 1985.  

If popular opinion says UCLA can’t beat Gonzaga, who can?

Lying in wait on the other side of the bracket are two formidable foes in the No. 1 seed Baylor Bears and the No. 2 seed Houston Cougars. The two Texas programs round out the first Final Four in the history of the sport made up entirely of teams located west of the Mississippi river.  

Although the Cougars are an elite defensive team under Kelvin Sampson, the college basketball world has had their eye on a Baylor vs. Gonzaga matchup since their original tilt in Indianapolis was cancelled on Dec. 5 due to two positive COVID-19 tests within the Gonzaga program.

At that time, Gonzaga and Baylor were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation, respectively, and were considered to be a cut above the rest of college basketball.

Baylor continued to prove themselves dominant under Scott Drew until being forced to shut down their program mid-season due to COVID concerns within the team. Since then, Baylor has looked more mortal than demi-god in losses to Kansas and the Oklahoma State.

Nonetheless, the Bears seem to be on a crash course with the Bulldogs in the most anticipated matchup of the college basketball season. Led by Davion Mitchell, MaCio Teague, and All-American Jared Butler, the Bears not only have the firepower to hang with the Zags, but also the defensive prowess to slow them down.

Standing in Baylor’s way are the Houston Cougars. Kelvin Sampson became one of five active head coaches to lead two different programs to a Final Four with their victory over cinderella Oregon State. The Cougars are elite defensively, but haven’t showed the same aptitude on the offensive side of the ball on their way to the program’s first Final Four appearance since Phi Slama Jama in 1984.

The Zags will tip off against UCLA on Saturday, April 3rd on CBS at 5:34  p.m. PST.

Tommy Conmy is a staff writer

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