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NCAA Tournament: Final Four preview

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Is a Baylor-Gonzaga final inevitable?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Arkansas at Baylor Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

With just three games left to play in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, the biggest upset so far would seem to be the fact that only one contest was scratched due to Covid-19. Here’s hoping the virus doesn’t rear its head again before the weekend’s action.

Let’s preview what an odd assortment of Final Four qualifiers have in store for us.

Semifinal 1: Houston vs. Baylor

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Arkansas at Baylor Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

If the difficulty of a team’s path to the Final Four matters, Baylor should win this game handily. UH had the good fortunate of beating teams seeded 15, 10, 11 and 12 en route to its first appearance in the national semifinals since Hakeem Olajuwon went by Akeem. The Bears didn’t get the same breaks, and they answered many of the questions lingering over the team since a Covid-induced pause seemed to break its momentum.

Fortunately for the Cougars, when it comes to what does matter, this matchup seems really close.

These teams look alike in so far as neither has anything resembling a true center in its playing rotation. Baylor’s tallest contributor, 6-9 reserve Matthew Mayer, plays more like an instant-offense swingman than a classic post player. UH uses a crew of lanky combo guards, none of which is taller than 6-7. That means the two teams won’t have to dedicate much of their energy coming up with creative ways to avoid mismatches on the blocks on defense.

Interestingly, the lack of size doesn’t prevent from the Bears and Cougars from storming the offensive glass. Just the opposite: UH ranks second nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, per kenpom.com, while Baylor checks in at No. 7. That sounds like a wash, except the Bears’ no-middle defensive approach tends to leave them exposed against opponents who hit the back boards. They rank in the bottom fourth of the country in allowing offensive rebounds, which plays into the hands of UH.

Also, keep an eye on how Baylor takes advantage of UH’s physicality. The Cougars foul with reckless abandon, ranking near the bottom of the country in defensive free throw rate, a kenpom.com measure of the ratio of FTs attempted to field goals attempted. Nearly 25% of the points scored against the Cougs this year came from the charity stripe. For their part, the Bears get to the line infrequently with an offensive FT rate that ranks 295th nationally. They generate just 14% of their offense from FTs.

This points to arguably the biggest area of concern for Baylor and coach Scott Drew. Given Houston’s defensive prowess, it seems more likely that the Cougs can force the Bears to play against type than the other way around. UH’s length can make it tough for the Baylor marksmen to squeeze off outside shots, enabling the Cougars to push out on the wings and dare the Bears to bet them off the dribble. Meanwhile, UH protects the ball well enough to stymie Baylor’s defensive scheme, which is predicated on forcing turnovers.

All in all, this feels like one of those instances where “styles make fights.” Houston is built to counterpunch versus Baylor in a way that few teams can. The Cougs are poised to disrupt that Baylor-Gonzaga showdown everyone wants to see.

Prediction: Houston 64, Baylor 61

Semifinal 2: Gonzaga vs. UCLA

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-USC vs Gonzaga Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately, the nightcap at this year’s Final Four doesn’t look nearly as interesting as the early game.

UCLA has plenty of nice pieces on its roster, including the best one-on-one scorer left in the tournament in forward Johnny Juzang. That doesn’t give the Bruins nearly enough to win this game. When Gonzaga stomped out USC in the West Region finals, the Bulldogs offered a peak at what they look like on 10; they were already beating teams handily on six or seven.

You can pick nits on the Zags – they could use a little more athleticism in the front court, for instance. It doesn’t matter because Gonzaga’s whole is better than the sum of its parts. It also helps that the Bulldogs have the most impactful player in the sport in point guard Jalen Suggs.

The Bruins may find themselves able to control the pace of the game for a half. They could keep the score respectable through intermission. Eventually, though, Gonzaga’s relentless attacking will break UCLA.

Prediction: Gonzaga 82, UCLA 66