Which Final Four national championship story will come true?
There are four compelling stories to tell heading into the national semifinals at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday.
No. 1 Baylor (26-2) meets No. 2 Houston (28-3) in the first national semifinal at 5:14 p.m. The Bears are making their third Final Four appearance and are looking to make the championship game for the first time since 1948. The Cougars are back in the Final Four for the first time since the 1980s Phi Slama Jama heyday. This matchup of former Southwest Conference rivals should be heated.
That is the table-setter for second matchup between No. 1 Gonzaga (30-0) and No. 11 UCLA (22-9) in the second semifinal at 8:34 p.m. The Bulldogs are trying to finish off the first undefeated season since Indiana in 1975-76. The Bruins made their run from the First Four and are trying to add a 12th national championship to their collection.
Which two teams will complete those stories? Sporting News gives its predictions for the national semifinals:
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Final Four odds 2021
Below are the opening March Madness odds for the Final Four, including point spreads, money lines and over-under totals for every game, according to the FanDuel sportsbook.
|Baylor vs. Houston||BAY -5||BAY -215||134|
|Gonzaga vs. UCLA||GON -14||GON -1100||145.5|
Final Four picks, predictions
No. 1 Baylor (-5) vs. No. 2 Houston
Saturday, 5:14 p.m., CBS
Baylor is considered the best bet to knock off Gonzaga because of a top-10 scoring offense that averages 83.0 points per game, but they will have to get through a defensive-minded Houston team first. That is a reflection of coaches Scott Drew and Kelvin Sampson.
The Bears’ strength is a backcourt that features Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell. Baylor is hitting 35.7 percent of its three-point attempts in the tournament, but a hidden key to that success has been role players such as Adam Flagler, Matthew Mayer, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, Mark Vital and Flo Thamba.
That eight-man rotation has been effective, and the Bears are good enough to win with their offense or defense.
Houston’s offense revolved around Quentin Grimes, who has hit 43.6 percent of his 3-point attempts in the tournament. Marcus Sasser is an excellent wing man who averages 13.3 points per game, and Dejon Jarreau and Justin Gorham are key role players. The Cougars are winning with their defense. They have allowed just 55.8 ppg. in the tournament, and that approach will not change against Baylor.
The key matchup will be Grimes against Mitchell, who is one of the best defensive players in college basketball. Houston must shoot the ball from 3-point range, and Baylor has limited opponents to 26.4 shooting from that range.
Expect a tight game in the first half, with tough defense on both sides. Baylor, however, is the more consistent offensive team, and they should generate enough transition and second-chance points in the second half to pull away. The Bears will have to knock down free throws late to seal it, and that’s not a guarantee considering they are at 70.2% for the season.
Baylor, however, pulls through and advances to the national championship game.
Final score: Baylor 73, Houston 67
No. 1 Gonzaga (-14) vs. No. 11 UCLA
Saturday, 8:34 p.m., CBS
The Bulldogs have defeated their first four tournament opponents by an average of 24 points per game, a dominant run part of a season in which they average 91.6 ppg. Mark Few is on the cusp of getting that elusive national championship, and the offense is impressive.
Gonzaga will present UCLA’s offense problems, and that starts with center Drew Timme (18.9 ppg.). The Bruins are already at a size advantage, and Timme’s ability to pass through double-teams will make that job that much more difficult. UCLA forward Cody Riley, who fouled out against Michigan, will be on the spot.
Corey Kispert (19.0 ppg.) and Jalen Suggs (14.0 ppg.) are high-scoring options in the backcourt, and Joel Ayayi and Andrew Nembhard can score double digits on any given night.
UCLA would have to be perfect on both sides, but coach Mick Cronin deserves credit for instilling belief that led to upsets against No. 2 Alabama and No. 1 Michigan in the East Region.
The Bruins’ offense continues to roll with Johnny Juzang, a Kentucky transfer who averages 22.4 ppg. in the tournament. Jaime Jaquez, Jules Bernard and Tyger Campbell – a point guard who has stepped up in the tournament – form a talented backcourt.
The problem is UCLA is subject to scoring droughts, and it cannot afford to have one against Gonzaga’s up-tempo offense. The Bruins are 9-1 when they force 13 turnovers or more, but they might need Gonzaga to commit at least 20 turnovers and have an off-shooting night.
That is too much to ask. Emotions should be high because of the Pac-12 pride dynamic, but Gonzaga earns that shot at a perfect season in style.
Final score: Gonzaga 84, UCLA 70