NCAA Tournament 2021: Ultimate Guide to the Men's Elite Eight

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterMarch 29, 2021

UCLA players Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Johnny Juzang celebrate making the Elite Eight
UCLA players Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Johnny Juzang celebrate making the Elite EightMichael Conroy/Associated Press

It's only fitting that the most upset-minded NCAA men's tournament of all time is presided over by the original Cinderella of the sport's modern era.

When Gonzaga reached the Elite Eight in 1999, bluebloods and power conferences were still the only game in town for big-time college basketball, even as more blue-chip players left college early or skipped it altogether. Over the years, Gonzaga transcended underdog status to become a perennial bracket fixture even as other mid-majors like George Mason, VCU, Butler and Loyola-Chicago made their own deep runs in Gonzaga's glass footsteps. 

There's a veritable mountain of readily available evidence and analysis to explain why the Bulldogs are the favorites to win it all this year. As the Elite Eight kicks off Monday, those reasons remain intact. It's their title to lose. 

And that's perfect for 2021, the year that has broken multiple tournament records for upsets, up to and including this Elite Eight field. (Could Gonzaga be at risk for one itself?)

But this isn't all about Gonzaga. This is about the eight best teams in college basketball playing for a place on the final stage. Storylines and some terrific matchups abound. This is your complete guide to the Elite Eight.


Is This Your Real Title Game?

Teams: No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs (29-0) vs. No. 6 USC (25-7)

Region: West

Date and time of game: 7:15 p.m. ET (TBS)

Betting line (DraftKings): Gonzaga -8.5

Gonzaga spent much of Sunday's 83-65 win over Creighton in eco mode, converting high-percentage opportunities and conserving its energy for just the right moments.

For the first 23 minutes in historic Hinkle Fieldhouse, Gonzaga's lead hovered reliably between seven and 12. Then suddenly you look again and it's up 23, and the bench-warmers are playing.

Drew Timme
Drew TimmeAJ Mast/Associated Press

As a team, Gonzaga shot 59.6 percent on 34-of-57 from the floor. The Zags come at you in quiet waves.

Let me put this another way: This game was easy for Gonzaga. The Bulldogs still haven't engaged their highest gear in this tournament. That's scary as they sit three games away from becoming the first undefeated NCAA men's champ since Indiana did it in 1976. 

In their way is a USC team rife with its own NBA-level talent (lottery pick center Evan Mobley) and its own momentum.

Representing everyone's new favorite conference, the Pac-12, the Trojans let the world know they were peaking at the right time with a historic 85-51 defeat of Kansas in the round of 32. Facing an undersized and fellow Pac-12 darling Oregon team Sunday, the Trojans cruised to an easy 82-68 win behind a resounding 31-of-54 (57.4 percent) shooting. 

Evan Mobley (right)
Evan Mobley (right)Paul Sancya/Associated Press

Mobley and his brother, Isaiah, patrol the paint on both ends. On Sunday, they combined for 23 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists. Clashes with Gonzaga's Drew Timme and Corey Kispert are inevitable. The Trojan backcourt is in excellent shape at the moment, led Sunday by Isaiah White (team-high 22 points on 4-of-5 from deep).

USC actually edges out Gonzaga in team field-goal percentage for the tournament, 53.5 percent to 52.5 percent. It's also a rebounding machine.

Baylor is a great team. So is Michigan. But USC looks like it may have the size, the balance and the momentum to pull off the upset and keep the Bulldogs out of the Final Four. We'll see if Gonzaga can resist a taste of its own historic medicine and advance to the last weekend of the season.


Nation's Best Guards Head-to-Head

Teams: No. 1 Baylor Bears (25-2) vs. No. 3 Arkansas Razorbacks (25-6)

Region: South

Date and Time: Monday at 9:57 p.m. ET (CBS)

Betting line (DraftKings): Baylor -7.5


It feels like Moses Moody is due.

Moses Moody
Moses MoodyJeff Roberson/Associated Press

Arkansas' leading scorer, first-team all-SEC guard, SEC Freshman of the Year and likely lottery pick has been steady all season but hasn't been able to find a spark in the tourney. He's averaged 13.7 points in three tournament games, over three points lower than his season average. He needed 20 shots to get to 14 points Saturday in that narrow win against Oral Roberts, missing all three of his threes along the way.

Speaking of threes, Baylor lived by the three this season. On Saturday, the Bears almost died by it—until the team's dynamic duo went to work.

On the season, Baylor shot 41.5 percent from beyond the arc, tops in the nation. In Saturday's game, thanks to a strong defensive effort from the Villanova Wildcats, the Bears shot just 3-of-19. The only reason it didn't sink them was because the Wildcats were just barely better at 3-of-17.

With the threes not falling, Baylor guards Davion Mitchell and Jared Butler used transition and penetration for easier looks. Defensively, they helped force 16 turnovers, including 10 in the second half, to earn the 62-51 win.

It's what you'd expect from these backcourt running mates, both of whom were named to the All-Big 12 first team, with Mitchell named the conference's Defensive Player of the Year. Butler was named a first-team All-American, with Mitchell making third team. Both are also projected to go in the first round of the draft, though not quite as high as Moody.

NCAA March Madness @marchmadness

Davion Mitchell too smooth 🔥 @BaylorMBB #MarchMadness #Sweet16 https://t.co/0xCpqYeT7T

The 6'6" Moody is a tough cover when he gets rolling, but Mitchell, Butler and Co. are a pack of wolves on defense. Still, if the Razorbacks can get Moody some decent looks and he can see the ball go through the hoop a few times early, that may be the edge the Razorbacks need to pull the upset in what looks like a pretty close contest, with arguably the three best guards in the nation on one court.


Oregon State Shoots for History

Teams: No. 12 Oregon State Beavers (20-12) vs. No. 2 Houston Cougars

Region: Midwest

Date and Time: Monday at 7:15 p.m. ET (CBS)

Betting line (DraftKings): Houston -7.5


The story of the Midwest region and arguably the tournament is Oregon State, which became a true all-time Cinderella on Saturday by turning the tables on Loyola Chicago and riding a stellar defensive effort to a 65-58 victory. With the win, it became just the second men's No. 12 seed ever to make the Elite Eight.

The Beavers led the Ramblers 24-16 at the half. That's a combined 40 at halftime. For newer fans: that's very low. It's actually the lowest halftime point total of the tournament. With no crowd, you could really hear the ball clanging off the rim and bouncing off the side of the backboard and off the deserted popcorn machine in the 17th row.

Ethan Thompson
Ethan ThompsonJeff Roberson/Associated Press

OSU's outstanding defense may have come as a surprise, but it was appropriate when the Beavers clogged the lane—lol, just a bit of wildlife humor for you—to force Loyola Chicago to shoot over them, which the Ramblers were unable to do. They only managed 18-of-54 shooting from the field and 5-of-23 from deep.

Eventually, Oregon State's top performers got going. Guard Ethan Thompson played like the All-Pac 12 first-teamer that he is, leading all scorers with 22 points on 6-of-13 shooting.

On the other side, the Cougars have made the Big Dance every season since 2017-18 but never past the Sweet 16. They've slowly built their reputation as top-notch defensive stoppers (11th in KenPom defensive rankings this year) and the class of the American Athletic Conference.

AJ Mast/Associated Press

Houston had offensive problems and struggled against the Syracuse zone. The shot selection was off, and shot-making was streaky. This may have been more a function of the Orange's downright bad shooting night, but Houston still held them to 28 percent shooting. Most notably, given that they entered the game leading the tourney field in three-pointers, it was amazing that the Cougars held the Orange to only five threes on 23 attempts.

Win this next game, and Houston is on the cusp of national powerhouse status. It will have to knock off the tournament darlings, on a mission to become the first men's No. 12 seed to make the Final Four. Only four No. 11 seeds have done it, just to further illustrate how rare this would be.

If Oregon State can once again find that extra defensive gear and push Houston's offense into the deep freeze, its magical pumpkin coach will roll into uncharted territory.


The Big Ten Favorite vs. the Pac-12 Upstart

Teams: No. 1 Michigan Wolverines (23-4) vs. No. 11 UCLA (21-9)

Region: East

Date and time of game: Tuesday at 9:57 p.m. ET (TBS)

Betting line (DraftKings): Michigan -7.5

The dual narratives of this tournament are well-documented. After the volume of upsets, the key storyline is the overachievement of the Pac-12, especially compared with the underachievement of regular-season belt holder the Big Ten

All are encapsulated in this matchup.

In one corner you have Michigan, the Big Ten regular-season conference champ and last Big Ten team standing, and in the other corner you have UCLA, the only team other than VCU in 2011 to reach the Elite Eight after starting in the First Four.   

The Wolverines are coming off their most complete game of the tournament, though in fairness, Florida State was not the worthiest of foes. Michigan's future NBA players, Hunter Dickinson and Franz Wagner, shredded FSU inside en route to 14- and 13-point efforts, respectively. The 'Noles responded by bouncing threes off the fan cut-outs, missing all seven of their first-half tries. At times, they were so out of sync they seemed to struggle just to keep their composure.

Billy Heyen @BillyHeyen

Franz Wagner with the fake and finger roll 👀 #MarchMadness https://t.co/BkaJtO36Wl

The Wolverines needed a win like that to help remind them they can do it without standout forward Isaiah Livers, who will not return for the tournament. And this was it, dominating the paint and making themselves the only team to hold Florida State below 60 points this season.

UCLA's 88-78 win over Alabama was a back-and-forth snowball fight that needed overtime to resolve. A buzzer-beater from Alabama's Alex Reese sent the game to extra time, but Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Alabama's own atrocious free-throw shooting—11-of-25 (44 percent) from the line—sealed the Tide's fate.

In winning, the Bruins became the 19th-ever double-digit seed to reach the Elite Eight. The 18th was Oregon State the day before. Both, of course, are in the Pac-12.

UCLA isn't known for the tall trees in its frontcourt, and Dickinson, Wagner and the Wolverines will test it inside. UCLA may well be tempted to take the "house money" mentality and be glad to have achieved what it already has (which would be fine, by the way). But even if Michigan is favored, it's clear no one should be overlooking anything with the "Pac-12" label on it any time soon.