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Final Four Picks 2021

Davion Mitchell, Baylor

(1) Baylor Bears vs. (2) Houston Cougars

Old Southwest Conference foes square off in the earlier game of the Saturday slate, pitting one seed Baylor against two seed Houston. While it's not a surprise to see either team alive this late in the Tournament, that doesn't mean it isn't a great story. Baylor has gone from a program that was essentially dead in the water when Scott Drew took over to a consistent National Title contender, while Houston has put together their best team since the "Phi Slama Jama" teams of the early 1980s.

Although they finished just behind Gonzaga in terms of points per game, Baylor finished the regular season as one of the best shooting teams anywhere in the nation. They haven't slowed down much in this NCAA Tournament, with the lone exception being their 62-51 victory over Villanova. The star of the offense is undoubtedly Jared Butler, a junior who averages over 16 PPG and shoots over 40% from three. He's also a much better passer than most realize, averaging nearly five assists per game. In addition, Baylor has plenty of other pieces that can create their own shot, most notably Davion Mitchell, Matthew Mayer, and MaCio Teague. Mitchell is a potent weapon in isolation, while Mayer and Teague are smooth shooters who do a lot of little things well. Down low, there is Mark Vital and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, who the offense doesn't run through but are threats on the offensive glass. It's important to point out how well this team shoots overall, particularly from three-point. Four Bear regulars eclipse the 40% three-point mark, with two more (Teague and L.J. Cryer) just below that. Houston does a good job defensively getting you out of your comfort zone, but they don't shoot anywhere close to those numbers. While the Cougars will do whatever they can to run the Bears off the three-point line, I wonder if Baylor is just going to be too much to handle.

Houston plays an interesting brand of basketball, one that isn't always pretty to watch but is very effective. They relentlessly attack the rim with slashing guards, but they've been shooting a lot better this NCAA Tournament than in the regular season. The Cougars do an excellent job of earning multiple opportunities by either crashing the offensive glass, or forcing turnovers. The rebounding is actually huge; in the Elite Eight against Oregon State, Houston outrebounded the Beavers 41-29, including snatching a staggering 19 offensive boards. That allowed them to shoot just 32% and still overcome a flaming hot Beaver team. UH does know that they will need to shoot better to overcome Baylor, who won't give them the second chances they earned in the Elite Eight. That means guys like DeJon Jarreau and Quentin Grimes are going to have to play even better. Grimes in particular is the type of offensive weapon that could put pressure on the Bears, and he's had a good Tournament so far. UH also needs some of their big men to show up and play productive minutes. That means not only crashing the glass, but also finding ways to contribute in normal halfcourt sets.

If you just looked at Houston's shooting numbers throughout this March, you'd be amazed that this team found a way into the Final Four. Yet, they've managed to do so by working on the boards and playing strong defense. I worry that formula isn't going to work against a Baylor team that is quite a bit different than the others they've beaten. The Bears not only shoot the ball very well, they are deep, experienced and balanced. That doesn't mean they can't come in and have an off night, but I just don't see that happening. I like the Bears to advance to the National Championship for the first time since 1948.

The Pick: Baylor by seven

 (1) Gonzaga Bulldogs vs. (11) UCLA Bruins

In 2006, UCLA completed an insane 17-point comeback to take down lovable underdog Gonzaga in the Sweet 16, effectively ending Adam Morrison's career. A decade and a half later, the two programs once again collide, with their roles reversed. Gonzaga stands as the "Goliath" in this scenario, an undefeated team that has absolutely pummeled their competition all season. On the other hand, UCLA has gone from a "First Four" team to the Final Four, looking to add one more upset to their resume. The Bruins will have to step up their game to an entirely different level, but don't be surprised if they give 'Zaga a much tougher game than expected.

There isn't much you can say about Gonzaga that hasn't already been said. They have the nation's best offense, one that seems to find a new piece to step up every game. Forward Drew Timme has been their go-to guy throughout much of this 2021 NCAA Tournament, but he is far from the only option. Wing Corey Kispert and floor general Jalen Suggs were also named All-Americans and can take over games when needed. Then there's the excellent complementary pieces, which includes veterans like Joel Ayayi and Andrew Nembhard. This is incredibly fun team to watch because the play like a top-tier NBA team. They have excellent floor spacing, make excellent cuts, and play with an extraordinary amount of chemistry. It's a team that can get out in transition and outrun you, or slow things down and decimate you in the halfcourt. No team has effectively been able to contain this Bulldog offense all season, but if there's one that could give it a run for its money, it may just be UCLA. The Bruins have embodied Mick Cronin and his defensive philosophy. They make you work incredibly hard just to get a single shot off, and they rarely allow second chance opportunities off offensive rebounds. They also get on the floor for every lose ball or "50-50" chance, which has allowed them to gain more possessions throughout this Tournament. They'll work incredibly hard to disrupt Gonzaga's flow and slow the game down as much as possible, which they've done throughout March. I still wonder if they have the defense to contain Timme in the post, but they should be able to neutralize Kispert and Suggs as much as possible. 

The greater question for UCLA is whether the offense has any chance to keep up with the Bulldogs. This is not a flashy group by any means, but they find ways to score points. Former Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang has emerged as a signature star, and he was the best player on the court in their Elite Eight win over Michigan. Juzang has dealt with ankle problems for the last few weeks and still has been terrific, but I'll be interested to see how he looks in this one. You would imagine he would match up primarily with either Suggs or Kispert, which should be a fantastic duel to watch. Beyond Juzang, point guard Tyger Campbell and forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. have really stepped up. Campbell isn't going to drop 30 a night, but he's shooting the ball really well and fits what Cronin wants to do. Jaquez is a gritty, hard-working vet who is exceptional with the pump fake. I think UCLA has a clear plan of what they want to do here: attack Gonzaga at the rim and force them into foul trouble. If they can get Timme or Kispert to get into foul trouble early, Gonzaga will be forced to extend into their bench, which they really haven't had to do all season. Even if they do that successfully, they'll still have to make shots, which is where Juzang and Campbell will really have to show their worth.

UCLA is going to do all they can to slow this game down and force it into a physical, fairly sloppy game. They've managed to do so against high-powered offenses numerous times this March, most notably Alabama and Michigan. Gonzaga may be a different animal altogether, but what do the Bruins have to lose? I expect them to come out with confidence and energy, ready to attack the Bulldogs for the entire forty minutes. In the end, I'd still be foolish to pick anybody but Gonzaga here. But, I think the Bruins can possibly give them their toughest test of this NCAA Tournament, although that really isn't saying too much.

The Pick: Gonzaga by ten

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