With some blowouts and plenty of busted brackets, we have arrived at the NCAA men’s Final Four. And the semi-final matchups promise some good story lines with a Texas intrastate clash and a top-seeded juggernaut facing one of the last teams selected to be in the field of 68.
The four that remain: Gonzaga facing UCLA and Baylor taking on Houston. Here’s a look at each team’s strengths and weaknesses ahead of their semi-final on Saturday.
Baylor is ready for a shootout
Highlights: After its 81-72 win against Arkansas, Baylor (28-3) made it to its first Final Four since 1950, and the Bears look as ready as ever. The Bears, the top seed in the South region, are a strong defensive team that is going to give Houston its most challenging matchup in the tournament. The Bears also have great three-point shooting – the best in the men’s game at 41 per cent. Baylor is led by three skilled guards – Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell – who combine to score 46.5 of the team’s 83 average points per game. The important thing for Baylor is to take advantage of its shooting strengths. Houston’s defence is a hard one to get past, but Baylor has the shooters to do it. They just have to make the shots.
Drawbacks: Baylor struggles with turnovers, averaging 11.7 per game. That carelessness with the ball sometimes hurts the Bears, as it did when they allowed Arkansas to make a comeback from 17 points down. Houston’s elite and quick defence could take advantage if that happens again.
If defence wins championships, Houston could take the crown
Highlights: Defence, defence, defence – No. 2-seeded Houston (28-3) out of the Midwest region is great at it. The Cougars are making their first Final Four appearance since 1984 and looking like a team ready and able to stop any offence in its path. Houston is able to close in quick and force turnovers, making it the second best defence in men’s Division I, holding opponents to 57.6 points per game. Houston is led by Quentin Grimes, a transfer from Kansas who has found much success with the Cougars. Grimes averages 18 points and 5.8 rebounds and is key to the team’s offensive strategy. The Cougars are also a great rebounding team, which will be particularly important against Baylor’s three-point shooting to take those second-chance points away from the Bears.
Drawbacks: Houston has to be able to either set the pace of the game or keep up with Baylor on the offensive end. It is clearly a strong team when it comes to preventing its opponents from making shots, but Houston still must make its own.
Gonzaga is the favourite’s favourite
Highlights: No. 1-seeded Gonzaga (30-0) is not the team to make mistakes around. The Bulldogs, who easily won the West region, are dominant because they take advantage of turnover opportunities to score. This team also shares the ball well, averaging 18.6 assists. The Bulldogs also score an average of 91.8 points per game – the most of any men’s team in Division I. They are extremely efficient, push the pace and can keep up with any kind of defence. Gonzaga is led by Corey Kispert, who averages 19 points. Close behind is Drew Timme, averaging 18.9 points and 7.2 rebounds. No one has shown itself able to really threaten the Zags in their attempt to be the first undefeated champion since Indiana in 1976. It will be a big challenge for UCLA to get in the way.
Drawbacks: Gonzaga is good, if not great, at most things. It made USC look completely outclassed Tuesday night and showed some well-earned swagger in the process. But UCLA has toppled plenty of other teams in this tournament, including top-seeded Michigan.
UCLA is the underdog no one expected
Highlights: UCLA, a No. 11 seed who had to play a First Four game just to enter the round of 64, is easily the surprise of this semi-final quartet after winning the East region. Coach Mick Cronin has no players with previous NCAA Tournament experience on his roster. The Bruins are here for the first time since 2008 and are the second team to go from a play-in game to the Final Four. If the Bruins have proved anything in this tournament, it is resilience. UCLA is a talented three-point shooting team at 37.2 per cent. Johnny Juzang averages 15 points and 4.1 rebounds, and he has continued to contribute in big ways even while contending with an ankle injury during the postseason. He scored 28 points in the Round of 8 win.
Drawbacks: The UCLA bench had no points against Michigan. Its lack of depth could be a big problem against the versatile Bulldogs. If the Bruins don’t get contributions beyond their starters, they will have an even steeper climb keeping up with Gonzaga’s quick offence. The Bruins have also struggled from the free-throw line in their past few games. The Bruins are going to have to play the best game of their season to compete with Gonzaga, but they have been full of surprises this postseason.
New York Times News Service