NCAA Men's Final Four 2021: Full Breakdown, Predictions and Stars to Watch

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 31, 2021

NCAA Men's Final Four 2021: Full Breakdown, Predictions and Stars to Watch

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    Gonzaga's Drew Timme
    Gonzaga's Drew TimmeAJ Mast/Associated Press

    The 2021 NCAA men's tournament had one more trick up its sleeve for the final game of the Elite Eight. After favorites Houston, Baylor and Gonzaga punched their tickets to the Final Four, UCLA pulled off another shocking upset to become the fifth No. 11 seed to reach the national semifinals in tournament history.

    Will the Bruins now become the first No. 11 seed to actually win in the Final Four, or is mighty Gonzaga going to continue its quest for an undefeated season? (Imagine jumping in a time machine to 2008 and trying to explain that UCLA would be the plucky underdog to perennial title contender Gonzaga.)

    On the other half of the bracket, will it be Baylor or Houston getting a shot at its first national championship in program history?

    To help you best prepare for the final weekend of this season, we've put together a comprehensive breakdown of the four teams still standing.

    We'll take a look at how they got here, how they can keep winning, the biggest storylines for each team, the brightest stars, the underrated guys to watch out for and, of course, predictions.

Houston Cougars

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    Houston's Quentin Grimes
    Houston's Quentin GrimesMark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Record: 28-3, No. 2 seed in Midwest Region

    Path to Final Four: 87-56 over No. 15 Cleveland State; 63-60 over No. 10 Rutgers; 62-46 over No. 11 Syracuse; 67-61 over No. 12 Oregon State

    Biggest Strength: Ranked No. 1 in defensive effective field-goal percentage and No. 2 in offensive rebounding percentage

    Achilles' Heel: Ranked No. 136 in offensive effective field-goal percentage and No. 151 in defensive rebounding percentage.


    How They Got Here

    In terms of seeding, Houston faced the easiest four-game path to the Final Four in NCAA tournament history. But the Cougars haven't made it look very easy.

    In the second-round win over Rutgers, Houston trailed by nine with less than five minutes to go and looked dead in the water until Myles Johnson missed an alley-oop dunk for the Scarlet Knights that immediately turned into a DeJon Jarreau triple on the other end. That five-point swing opened the door for Houston to storm back for a dramatic victory.

    Speaking of storming back, the Cougars allowed Oregon State to rally all the way back from a 17-point halftime deficit with a 38-21 run to start the second half. Houston was flustered by OSU's amorphous defense but did eventually right the ship for a victory.

    But mainly, the Cougars got here with defense. Tournament opponents have averaged 55.8 points per game, which is only marginally stingier than the 57.9 mark with which they entered the dance.


    Biggest Regular-Season "What If?"

    What if Houston had been able to face Alabama?

    The Cougars were supposed to play a road game against the Crimson Tide on Dec. 19, but that was canceled because Houston was on a COVID-19 pause at the time. That game almost certainly would've had an impact on seeding for both teams, particularly considering Alabama replaced that game against Houston with a home loss to Western Kentucky.

    Had the Cougars been able to play and win that game, say goodbye to the "Yeah, well, who have they played?" narrative that has followed this team for months.

    Outside of the neutral-site game against Texas Tech, Houston's toughest opponent of the regular season was either the home game against Memphis or the road game against SMU, neither of which would have ranked top-10 in difficulty on Baylor's schedule. Beat Bama, though, and Houston makes a more legitimate case for a No. 1 seed with its sensational analytics.

    Conversely, had that game resulted in an Alabama winagain, replacing a bad loss to Western Kentucky—we very likely would have ended up with Alabama as the fourth No. 1 seed, while the loss probably would have bumped Houston down to a No. 3 seed.

    With so, so many postponements and cancellations this season, there are a ton of butterfly-effect games like that. This one's wings would have really flapped some wind, though.

Baylor Bears

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    Baylor's Davion Mitchell
    Baylor's Davion MitchellMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    Record: 26-2, No. 1 seed in South Region

    Path to Final Four: 79-55 over No. 16 Hartford; 76-63 over No. 9 Wisconsin; 62-51 over No. 5 Villanova; 81-72 over No. 3 Arkansas

    Biggest Strength: Ranked No. 1 in three-point percentage and No. 3 in defensive turnover percentage

    Achilles' Heel: Ranked No. 273 in defensive rebounding percentage


    How They Got Here

    Baylor faced some stiff tests in its three most recent games, but the Bears eventually put each of those contests out of reach. At no point in the final nine minutes of any of their first four outings did an opponent have the ball with the chance to tie or take the lead.

    For the most part, that has been a testament to Baylor's improved defense.

    This team was excellent on defense prior to its February COVID-19 pause, but aside from a healthy dose of steals on a nightly basis, the Bears had struggled a bit on that end of the floor since returning to action. However, led by Davion Mitchell at the point of attack, they simply made life miserable for Wisconsin, Villanova and Arkansas. Each of those opponents ended up well above its season average in turnover percentage, and they shot a combined 14-of-49 (28.6 percent) from three-point range.

    Baylor's bench trio of Adam Flagler, Matthew Mayer and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua has also been stupendous. In each of the four games, those three guys combined for at least 24 points. Baylor basically has eight starters, which is a big part of what has made it so lethal all season.


    Biggest Regular-Season "What If?"

    What if the Bears hadn't endured that COVID-19 pause?

    In early February, it was a neck-and-neck race between Baylor and Gonzaga for the title of "Best Team in the Country." Gonzaga jumped out to a big early lead because of its ridiculous nonconference schedule, but Baylor was 17-0 and rapidly gaining ground on the Zags with convincing recent wins over Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.

    It legitimately felt like we could be headed for a national championship showdown between two undefeated teams.

    But then Baylor had to go three weeks between games, came back rusty and suffered a pair of losses down the stretch.

    Even though it still felt like the Bears were (or soon would again be) the second-best team in the country, that dream national championship pairing lost some of its allure when they became mortal—and when we had to go a while without watching them. Had they been able to stay healthy and undefeated, the prospect of a Baylor-Gonzaga clash would have been a twice-nightly topic of conversation for the past several weeks.

Gonzaga Bulldogs

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    Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs
    Gonzaga's Jalen SuggsDarron Cummings/Associated Press

    Record: 30-0, No. 1 seed in West Region

    Path to Final Four: 98-55 over No. 16 Norfolk State; 87-71 over No. 8 Oklahoma; 83-65 over No. 5 Creighton; 85-66 over No. 6 USC

    Biggest Strength: Best two-point percentage in KenPom history

    Achilles' Heel: None


    How They Got Here

    Gonzaga has been effortlessly merciless. The Zags led by double digits before halftime in each of their four games, and it only took five minutes and five seconds to open up that much of a lead in the Elite Eight trouncing of USC.

    Many of us thought that Evan Mobley and USC's lengthy zone would finally cause some issues for Gonzaga's offense, but that couldn't have been further from the truth. The Bulldogs sliced and diced that defense for 49 points with just one turnover in the first half. They weren't quite as relentless after the intermission, but they didn't need to be. That game was over after about 10 minutes.

    Jalen Suggs struggled (by his elite standards) in the Sweet 16 win over Creighton, but he was back in a huge way against the Trojans with 18 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. That's wonderful news (for Gonzaga, at any rate) heading into the home stretch.

    If you're searching for signs of weakness prior to the Final Four, you'll find none here.


    Biggest Regular-Season "What If?"

    What if the game against Baylor hadn't been canceled?

    If you'll recall, Gonzaga and Baylor were supposed to face each other on Dec. 5, but that game got called off just a few hours before tipoff due to COVID-19 issues with Gonzaga.

    The Zags will be favored if that matchup transpires on Monday night, but would they have won that regular-season game?

    Keep in mind, Jalen Suggs suffered a scary-looking foot/ankle/Achilles injury in the previous game against West Virginia and likely would not have been playing at 100 percent health. It also would have been Gonzaga's fourth neutral-site game against a major-conference opponent in the span of nine days. Baylor's depth and athleticism presumably would have posed a major problem for Gonzaga at that point on the calendar.

    Truly, it's for the best that the game didn't happen. Instead, both teams ended up making it into at least late February with an undefeated record, resulting in a months-long debate about who was better. That plus the feeling that the game was taken away from us drove interest for a potential national championship matchup way more than the prospect of a rematch would have.

UCLA Bruins

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    UCLA's Johnny Juzang
    UCLA's Johnny JuzangDarron Cummings/Associated Press

    Record: 22-9, No. 11 seed in East Region

    Path to Final Four: 86-80 (OT) over No. 11 Michigan State; 73-62 over No. 6 BYU; 67-47 over No. 14 Abilene Christian; 88-78 (OT) over No. 2 Alabama; 51-49 over No. 1 Michigan

    Biggest Strength: Limited turnovers (15.8 percent of possessions) and solid three-point shooting (36.9 percent)

    Achilles' Heel: Ranked No. 166 in opponents' effective field-goal percentage.


    How They Got Here

    To put it lightly, it has been a winding and dramatic path for the Bruins.

    They've survived two overtime games and a third that came right down to a do-or-die shot in regulation.

    They beat enigmatic Michigan State in the First Four, an offensively efficient BYU in the first round, the best turnover-forcing defense in the country (Abilene Christian) in the second round and then posted back-to-back upsets of title contenders with excellent defenses and way-more-than-capable perimeter attacks in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight.

    It defies all reason that UCLA has been able to pull this off, since it only had one win during the regular season against an at-large teama three-point home victory over a Colorado team playing without its starting center.

    Oral Roberts reaching the Sweet 16 was more foreseeable than this, but that's why we love this beautifully chaotic tournament.


    Biggest Regular-Season "What If?"

    What if Chris Smith stays healthy and Jalen Hill doesn't leave the team?

    In December, UCLA had quite the formidable frontcourt. In the competitive road loss to Ohio State, Smith, Hill and Cody Riley combined for 31 points and 14 rebounds. Johnny Juzang was playing in just his third game with the Bruins at that point and hadn't yet evolved into the star he is now, but you didn't need to squint much to see this team winning the Pac-12 and making a legitimate NCAA tournament run.

    But Smith suffered a torn ACL in the final game of December, and Hill left the team for personal reasons one month later, leaving the Bruins with Riley and not much else in the paint.

    Had they been able to keep both those guys on the floor, perhaps they would not have entered the NCAA tournament with losses in seven of their final 12 games. Or maybe those growing pains with a more bare-bones roster were exactly what they needed to prepare for this unforeseeable run.

    Who knows? Team chemistry is weird. But we can't help but wonder how much better than a No. 11 seed full-strength UCLA might have been.

Biggest Storylines

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    Baylor's Scott Drew and MaCio Teague
    Baylor's Scott Drew and MaCio TeagueMark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Gonzaga's Biggest Storyline: Quest for Perfection

    The other teams' storylines are plenty interesting, but this is the be-all and end-all of this Final Four: Will Gonzaga finish the job?

    In the past four decades, only two teams have made it into the Final Four with an unblemished record. In 1991, UNLV lost to Duke in the Final Four. Then in 2015, Kentucky lost to Wisconsin in the Final Four. That leaves 1975-76 Indiana as the most recent team to run the table.

    And after all the recent years of teams hoping to go 40-0, it's almost too perfect that in this truncated season, Gonzaga's quest to finish 32-0 would match the final record those Hoosiers had 45 years ago.

    If the Zags are able to win two more, do us all a favor and shove all your asterisks right up your butt.

    Gonzaga won four neutral-site games against AP Top 16 opponents during the regular season, and finishing the tournament with Baylor (probably) is no joke. Compare the schedule Gonzaga faced to what UCLA faced during any of its undefeated seasons under John Wooden and you're likely in for a rude awakening.

    (Gonzaga's secondary storyline: Is this the end of an era or the beginning of a dynasty? Gonzaga has now been to four Elite Eights in the past six tournaments, but this might be the start of an incredible run of championships. Jalen Suggs broke the 5-star seal in Spokane. Mark Few has already signed one top-10 recruit in next year's class (Hunter Sallis) and is the heavy favorite to sign the No. 1 overall recruit (Chet Holmgren). We'll need to wait and see who all stays and goes this offseason, but get ready for Gonzaga to open next season at No. 1 in the polls, too.)


    Baylor's Biggest Storyline: Started from the bottom, now we're here.

    A bunch of respectable programs have never been to a Final Four, notably among them Alabama, BYU, Creighton, Missouri, Tennessee and Xavier. In that regard, for Baylor to reach this stage for the first time since 1950 isn't that huge of a deal.

    But when Scott Drew took this job, it was one of the most improbable rebuilding situations ever. One Baylor player had murdered a teammate in June 2003, and the ensuing investigation unveiled all sorts of improprieties allowed to fester under then head coach Dave Bliss. Multiple NCAA penalties were levied against Baylor, including recruiting restrictions, scholarship reductions and a unique sanction that it was not allowed to play any nonconference games in the 2005-06 season.

    Even Tommy Amaker taking the Michigan job right before the Fab Five scandal hit the fan doesn't compare to the dumpster fire that Drew inherited at Baylor. Yet he had the Bears in the NCAA tournament by 2008, into the Elite Eight by 2010 and now they're in the Final Four as one of the best teams in the country. Quite the 18-year journey, and it would be fun to see him finish the job.

    (Baylor's secondary storyline: Would a Baylor title lead to teams trying to replicate this approach of dominating with threes, offensive rebounds and steals, or is this a perfect storm of talent that cannot be reasonably duplicated?)


    Houston's Biggest Storyline: Transfer Town

    There has been a ton of talk about transfers over the past couple of weeks, as there are already well over 1,000 players in this year's transfer portal cycle.

    Houston is proof positive that you can build a title contender from that portal.

    Quentin Grimes started his college career at Kansas. Justin Gorham came from Towson. Reggie Chaney is a new addition from Arkansas. Cameron Tyson came from Idaho. Both DeJon Jarreau and Brison Gresham played one season at Massachusetts before landing at Houston.

    Those six guys each rank among Houston's eight leaders in total points scored this season. Freshman Tramon Mark and sophomore Marcus Sasser are the lone exceptions to that rule.

    Gonzaga making it to the 2017 national championship game with three former transfers in its starting lineup was something of a tipping point for transfers in college hoops. Houston winning it all with this many key transfers would push things even further in that direction.

    (Houston's secondary storyline: Kelvin Sampson's quest for redemption after the recruiting violations at Oklahoma and Indiana that led him to take jobs in the NBA for six years.)


    UCLA's Biggest Storyline: Mick Cronin from Goat to G.O.A.T.

    Less than three weeks ago, Cronin was the men's college basketball coach most commonly belittled for postseason failures.

    He went just 3-7 in the NCAA tournament in his final seven seasons with Cincinnati, including that one disastrous loss when the No. 2 seeded Bearcats blew a 22-point second-half lead in a loss to Nevada. It just seemed like the man was destined to never reach a Final Four.

    But in the UCLA portion of his coaching career, Cronin is now 5-0 in the NCAA tournament after becoming just the second coach to make the First Four-to-Final Four run, joining Shaka Smart during his time at VCU.

    The "can't win in March" label is gone for good, but if he leads UCLA to a win over Gonzaga on Saturday? Move over, 1983 Jim Valvano. That would be the greatest underdog story in NCAA tournament history.

    Just don't call it a Cinderella. You can't win 11 national championships as a program and be considered a Cinderella.

    (UCLA's secondary storyline: There's no way he'll reach Glen Rice's record of 184 points, but where will Johnny Juzang land on the all-time leaderboard for points in a single NCAA tournament? He's currently at 108, averaging 21.6 per game. If he can score 48 more points and get to 156, it would be the highest total since Rice's record-setting mark in 1989. The current "past three decades" leader is Juan Dixon's 155 points in 2002.)

Stars to Watch

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    Houston's DeJon Jarreau
    Houston's DeJon JarreauDarron Cummings/Associated Press

    Jared Butler, Baylor
    Tournament Stats: 13.0 PPG, 4.8 APG, 3.3 RPG, 2.0 SPG, 6-of-24 (25.0 percent) from three

    If you didn't watch Baylor during the regular season and tuned in expecting to be blown away by its first-team All-American, you've probably been disappointed. Butler shot it well against Wisconsin, but was limited by foul trouble. And then against both Villanova and Arkansas, he struggled to find his shooting stroke and didn't make anywhere near the type of impact he usually did for the past few months.

    He's still undeniably one of the Bears' biggest stars, though, and could quickly make everyone forget about this uneven start to the tournament. If he lights up Houston for 30 points and eight assists like he did in Baylor's first game against Kansas, he'll immediately become a top candidate for Most Outstanding Player.


    Quentin Grimes, Houston
    Tournament Stats: 18.0 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.8 SPG, 17-of-39 (43.6 percent) from three

    Over the past three rounds, Houston might as well have changed its name from the Cougars to the Bricklayers. They shot 65-of-181 (35.9 percent) from the field and 36-of-56 (64.3 percent) from the free-throw line.

    But at least Grimes has remained hot from three-point range. Over his last 13 games, the combo guard has gone 59-of-124 from downtown, averaging 4.5 made triples per contest. He has also been a key defender with at least two steals in each of Houston's last three games. Considering how close the games against Rutgers and Oregon State were, the Cougars have needed every ounce of his production on both ends of the floor.


    DeJon Jarreau, Houston
    Tournament Stats*: 12.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 6.0 APG, 4-of-13 (30.8 percent) from three
    *excludes opener vs. Cleveland State in which he played just one minute because of a hip injury 

    For a guy who wasn't even expected to play against Rutgers because of that hip injury, Jarreau has been sensational. He had 17 points against the Scarlet Knights, including the tide-shifting transition three-pointer late in the second half. And then this past weekend, he had at least nine points, eight rebounds and eight assists in each game. Hardly a surprise from a guy who had a triple-double against Tulane in Houston's first game of the AAC tournament. Houston is a perfect 14-0 this season when he has at least six assists or six rebounds.

    Much like Quentin Grimes, Jarreau is also an indispensable asset on the defensive end of the floor, averaging nearly 2.0 combined blocks and steals per game. He also does a great job of slowing/shutting down fast-break opportunities, which in turn allows Houston to be more aggressive on the offensive glass.


    Johnny Juzang, UCLA
    Tournament Stats: 21.6 PPG, 3.6 RPG

    Kentucky didn't even come close to making this year's NCAA tournament, but a former piece of Kentucky is shining ever so brightly for a different blue-blood program.

    Juzang has been great throughout UCLA's five-game run, but he was particularly lethal in the first half of Tuesday night's win over Michigan. That Wolverines defense in the paint was every bit as impenetrable as advertised. Juzang single-handedly carried the Bruins with jumpers, though. Michigan threatened to blow the game wide open early on, but Juzang scored 14 of UCLA's first 16 points, had 18 by halftime and finished with 28.

    The game was nowhere near as aesthetically pleasing as the 2019 Elite Eight classic between Virginia and Purdue, but Juzang's individual performance was on par with what Carsen Edwards did on that night two years ago.


    Davion Mitchell, Baylor
    Tournament Stats: 13.5 PPG, 4.8 APG, 2.0 SPG, 4-of-12 (33.3 percent) from three

    At a certain point in the Sweet 16 game against Villanova, Mitchell realized that the Wildcats were helpless to contain his slashing. It was a similar story in Monday night's game against Arkansas. On offense, he's usually a perimeter shooter or a distributor, but he has been unleashed as a nearly unguardable layup machine. (If and when he starts hitting three-pointers again, too, yikes.)

    But Mitchell's primary value comes on the defensive end of the court. He completely changed the trajectory of the Villanova game by terrorizing a roster devoid of an experienced point guard. And the game against Arkansas completely changed when he had to ride the pine with foul trouble and the Razorbacks suddenly had room to operate on offense. He isn't the guy with the highest NBA draft stock, but he's the most important player left in this tournament.


    Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga
    Tournament Stats: 12.3 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 4.8 APG, 1.5 SPG

    Gonzaga certainly hasn't shied away from the spotlight, but Suggs struggled in the first three rounds. He was 1-of-11 from three-point range with 11 assists and 14 turnovers.

    If you were worried that he hit the proverbial freshman wall, though, he erased those concerns with a monstrous performance against USC, crushing the Trojans with 18 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. (All three marks were his best of the tournament to date.) We'll see which version of Suggs shows up for the final weekend, but Gonzaga would cruise to a national championship if he has two more games like that one up his sleeve.


    Drew Timme, Gonzaga
    Tournament Stats: 21.3 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 4.3 APG

    The most unstoppable part of the runaway freight train known as Gonzaga is Timme. He has now gone for at least 22 points, five rebounds and four assists in three straight games.

    It's the assists that have made him impossible to guard. It's one thing to have great footwork, the ability to draw contact and the ability to finish through said contact, all of which Timme has. But his willingness to find the open teammate means you simply cannot afford to double him in the post. From there, he wins the one-on-one battle more often than not.

    One other great thing about Timme is the way he walls off the post while jockeying for position. He's lethal with the ball in his hands, but he also thrives at creating space even when he's not the one doing the passing or shooting. Every single Gonzaga player converts twos at a high rate because Timme makes his teammates' shots easier.

Underrated Players to Watch

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    UCLA's Tyger Campbell and David Singleton
    UCLA's Tyger Campbell and David SingletonMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    Tyger Campbell, UCLA
    Tournament Stats: 8.8 PPG, 4.0 APG, 1.0 SPG

    It's a little ridiculous to call UCLA's starting point guard an "underrated" player, but Campbell really does fly under the radar compared to the rest of the Bruins starters.

    He's not flashy and he rarely fills up the box score, but it feels like he makes at least two critical plays in every game. The biggest one on Tuesday night came right after Michigan took its first lead in roughly an hour of real time. Campbell came down, orchestrated a switch to get matched up with the bigger (and woefully struggling on that night) Franz Wagner. He blew right by him for a nifty layup, putting the Bruins back ahead by a point and more or less squashing Michigan's comeback.

    Campbell also importantly does not fill up the box score with turnovers. He has just six thus far in this tournament and has had either a positive or even assist-to-turnover ratio in every game this season. His unflappability at point guard has been paramount to UCLA's success.


    David Singleton, UCLA
    Tournament Stats: 5.0 PPG, 5-of-9 from three

    Singleton is so underrated that his team appeared to forget about him against Michigan. UCLA's most accurate three-point shooter (47.0 percent on the year) was huge in the Sweet 16 win over Alabama, matching his career high with 15 points. Against the Wolverines, though, he only played five minutes and didn't attempt a three-pointer.

    I thought for certain he would be a key part of the Bruins game plan for dealing with Michigan's outstanding interior defense, but perhaps Mick Cronin is just saving his wild card for the Gonzaga game.  


    Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, Baylor
    Tournament Stats: 4.0 PPG, 3.3 RPG

    JTT, or "Every Day Jon," isn't a stat-sheet stuffer. The last time he either scored more than eight points or grabbed more than six rebounds in a game was on Jan. 2. He used to make more of a box score impact earlier in the year, but he has settled into much more of a glue-guy role for the Bears. Same goes for Flo Thamba, with whom Tchamwa Tchatchoua splits the center duties.

    While the other six regulars handle most of the scoring, JTT and Thamba are out there for their size on defense and their tenacity on the offensive glass. Tchamwa Tchatchoua will make at least one huge play in every game.


    Anton Watson, Gonzaga
    Tournament Stats: 7.0 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.0 APG, 2.0 SPG

    Andrew Nembhard replaced Watson in the starting lineup in early February, but the big man's role hasn't changed. He's still the oft-overlooked fifth Zag on the court who plays great defense, grabs rebounds and rarely misses a shot.

    Against USC, Watson played 17 minutes and only took one shot. (He did miss it, dropping his two-point percentage down to 72.0.) He was a key glue guy in that game, though, with four rebounds, two steals and one block in what was a great defensive game for Gonzaga as a whole.


    Fabian White Jr., Houston
    Tournament Stats: 7.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG

    White missed the first 19 games of Houston's season while recovering from a torn ACL, but it didn't take long for him to become a pivotal part of the rotation again.

    Justin Gorham is still Houston's primary big man and one of the best offensive rebounders in the country, but White's return gave the Cougars a stout four-man frontcourt. He has played exactly 19 minutes in each of Houston's first four tournament games, pulling down nine offensive rebounds during that time on the floor. Such a great perk to add that type of an impact player in mid-February.

Houston's Blueprint to a Title

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    Houston's DeJon Jarreau (3) and Justin Gorham (4)
    Houston's DeJon Jarreau (3) and Justin Gorham (4)Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    If all goes according to plan, these three things will happen, and Houston will win its first national championship in program history.


    1. De-Fense (clap clap). De-Fense (clap clap). De-Fense.

    Houston leads the nation in effective field-goal percentage on defense, and it also ranks 13th in steal percentage. That means there's a better than one-in-five chance the Cougars are going to force a turnover and only about a three-in-eight chance the opponent's shot will go in even when it doesn't commit a turnover. They've held 22 of 31 opponents to 60 points or fewer and have only twice allowed more than 68. And we always say defense wins championships.


    2. Crash the Offensive Glass.

    In the come-from-behind win over Rutgers, Houston had 14 second-chance points off 16 offensive rebounds, including Tramon Mark's lead-changing and-1 putback in the final 30 seconds. Against Oregon State, it was 15 second-chance points from 19 offensive rebounds. Five of those points came on back-to-back possessions right after the Beavers came all the way back to tie the game. Houston excels at cleaning up its own misses, ranking second in offensive rebound percentage.


    3. Make Some Dang Shots.

    Houston is so good at so many things, except for that ever-so-minor detail of putting the ball through the hoop. The Cougars have shot just 35.9 percent from the field over their past three games, averaging a meager 64.0 points. It's a good thing they have consistently won the turnover battle (by a narrow margin) and the rebounding battle (by a ridiculous margin) or they wouldn't be here. But to beat Baylor and ultimately win a national championship, 35.9 percent shooting isn't going to cut it.

Baylor's Blueprint to a Title

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    Baylor's Jared Butler
    Baylor's Jared ButlerMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    If all goes according to plan, these three things will happen, and Baylor will win its first national championship in program history.


    1. Keep Houston off the Offensive Glass.

    Baylor's defense has been excellent, but its defensive rebounding—already the team's biggest concern prior to the tournament—is getting worse by the round. The Bears held Hartford to 19.4 percent offensive rebounding, but then Wisconsin got 23.3, Villanova got 33.3 and Arkansas got 37.9. Led by Justin Gorham, Reggie Chaney and Fabian White Jr., Houston is more than dominant enough on the offensive glass to keep that trend going in the wrong direction for Baylor. If the Bears can limit the Cougars to something more in the 28 percent range as opposed to 45, they should at least get to the championship game.


    2. Continue Dominating the Turnover Battle.

    Thus far in the tournament, Baylor has committed 29 turnovers while forcing 69. Save your #nice responses, because that's just a ridiculous margin. Davion Mitchell has 19 assists and eight steals against seven turnovers. And those steals don't even begin to reflect his overall impact on defense because he has caused way more turnovers than that. No team left in the field is particularly turnover-prone, but if Baylor could go plus-10 against both Wisconsin and Villanova, it can do it to anyone.


    3. Make It Rain.

    Baylor couldn't buy a three-pointer in the win over Villanova, but that is usually what this team does best, leading the nation with a 41.1 percent success rate. The Bears shot 8-of-17 against Wisconsin and 8-of-15 against Arkansas, and they have made at least 10 triples in 50 percent of their games played. When they shoot like that, they are beyond reproach.

Gonzaga's Blueprint to a Title

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    Gonzaga's Drew Timme
    Gonzaga's Drew TimmeDarron Cummings/Associated Press

    If all goes according to plan, these three things will happen, and Gonzaga will win its first national championship in program history.


    1. The Key Guys Stay Healthy.

    Aside from the WCC championship in which BYU was liquid hot magma from the field in the first half, the only time Gonzaga has been legitimately challenged this season was the early December game against West Virginia in which Jalen Suggs temporarily left the game with a lower-leg injury. The Mountaineers immediately went on a 14-6 run after that, but the Zags won the second half by 10 points with Suggs back on the court. Avoiding injury (and, more importantly, COVID-19) for one more week will keep Gonzaga as the clear favorite.


    2. Avoid a Defensive Meltdown.

    The efficiency metrics adore this Gonzaga defense, but how good is it really? Gonzaga faced seven KenPom Top 50 opponents prior to the NCAA tournament and allowed 79.0 points per game and 1.03 points per possession in those contests. It also allowed 71 points on 69 possessions against Oklahoma in the second round, and the Sooners weren't a great offense this season and were playing without one of their best scorers (De'Vion Harmon). It's clear at this point that no one is going to beat Gonzaga by holding it to 70 points, but Baylor could win a 92-90 type of game if Gonzaga's D struggles.


    3. Keep Pounding the Paint.

    Gonzaga shot 75.8 percent from inside the arc against Creighton and then went for 57.8 percent (26-of-45) against a USC defense that was previously leading the nation with a 41.5 percent two-point defense. There's really no hope of slowing down this interior attack, especially when the Zags are able to score in transition, which they do quite regularly. As long as they don't inexplicably forget to rely on what they're best at, they should win out.

UCLA's Blueprint to a Title

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    UCLA's Jaime Jaquez Jr.
    UCLA's Jaime Jaquez Jr.Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    If all goes according to plan, these three things will happen, and UCLA will win its 12th national championship in program history (first since 1995).


    1. The JJ & JJJ Brigade Catches Fire.

    That's Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr., just to be clear. UCLA's dynamic duo combined for 50 points in the opening win over Michigan State and has a combined average of 35.8 points in this tournament. To beat Gonzaga, though, Juzang and Jaquez likely need to channel their inner Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor for something more in the 55-60 range. Jaquez was a ghost in the Elite Eight game against Michigan, but he can set the nets ablaze on occasion.


    2. Remain Clamped Down on Defense.

    Holding Alabama to 65 points in regulation and then completely stagnating Michigan's offense to the tune of just 49 points was sensational work by UCLA's defense. The Bruins typically did not thrive on that end of the court this season, but they picked the perfect time to figure it out. If they can continue forcing missed three-pointers (opponents are 23-of-93) and comfortably winning the turnover battle, they could beat anyone.


    3. Keep Fouling the Right Guys.

    Alabama and Michigan shot a combined 17-of-36 (47.2 percent) from the free-throw line against UCLA, which was just preposterously good luck for the Bruins in a pair of games that came right down to the wire. Four of Gonzaga's five starters shoot better than 76 percent from the free-throw line, and the lone exception to that rule (Drew Timme) is shooting 84.0 percent thus far in the tournament. Finding the right guys to foul on that roster seems impossible, but then again, so does UCLA's journey to this point.


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    Gonzaga's Corey Kispert
    Gonzaga's Corey KispertMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 2 Houston

    Saturday at 5:14 p.m. ET (CBS)

    Everybody break out your Spider-Man vs. Spider-Man memes.

    Each of these Texas-based former members of the Southwest Conference wants to beat you with three-pointers, offensive rebounds and physical, momentum-shifting defense.

    Houston is better at blocking shots and has the much better defensive field-goal percentage, but be sure to consider the grain of salt that the Cougars faced a much less formidable schedule. Houston relies more heavily on three-pointers while Baylor makes them much more frequently. (In a similar situation in the Sweet 16, the more-efficient, less-dependent UCLA ended up with three more triples than Alabama.)

    Our assumption is that neither team will be able to create a significant advantage in rebounds or turnovers and that it will simply boil down to which squad does a better job of making buckets. If that's the case, Baylor should win somewhat convincingly, albeit in a rather low-scoring affair.

    Prediction: Baylor 69-62

    No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 11 UCLA

    Saturday at 8:34 p.m. ET (CBS)

    Had this game been on the calendar three weeks ago, everyone under the sun would've been picking Gonzaga to win by 15 points, if not more. But after five consecutive wins, one almost cannot help but get that twinge of "Well, maybe..." with the Bruins.

    However, history has not been kind to No. 11 seeds in the Final Four.

    UCLA joins 1986 LSU, 2006 George Mason, 2011 VCU and 2018 Loyola-Chicago on the list of 11s to get this far. All four of those teams lost, and the only one that didn't lose by double digits was VCU. Those Rams lost by eight to No. 8 seed Butler. And I don't think we're breaking any news here by letting you know this year's Gonzaga's team is better than that Butler team was.

    Mad respect to UCLA for getting this far. In my bracket, I had the Bruins beating Abilene Christian (genius!) before losing to Connecticut in the Sweet 16 (whoops!). Even once we got to the Sweet 16, I never thought the Bruins could get through both Alabama and Michigan this past week.

    This is going to be the end of the line, though. Gonzaga is simply too dominant on offense to lose to a team that has yet to reach 80 points in regulation in this tournament.

    Prediction: Gonzaga 89-73


    No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 1 Baylor

    Monday at 9 p.m. ET (CBS)

    Just one more round until we finally get the game we've been waiting to see for months. Nothing is guaranteed in this tournament, of course. So while we would strongly advise both Baylor and Gonzaga to not start looking ahead to this game, we're going to take a little sneak peek.

    Baylor is not going to win this game with defense. The Bears will get some steals because Gonzaga does occasionally get a bit sloppy while trying to push the tempo. However, the Gonzaga possessions that don't end in turnovers will very frequently result in buckets. Baylor simply doesn't have a great interior defense, in part because its starting power forward (Mark Vital) is 6'5".

    But Baylor could win this game with offense. As previously noted, the Bears lead the nation in three-point percentage while the Zags lead the nation in two-point percentage. Last time I checked, threes are worth more than twos.

    It's going to take a bare minimum of a dozen triples to make things interesting, but Baylor can do that. In fact, it had four games this season with at least 15 three-pointers. Get into one of those grooves and anything's possible.

    With the way Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell have been shooting (not great) thus far in the tournament, though, I have to go with the Zags to finish off the first undefeated season in men's college hoops since the U.S. bicentennial.

    Prediction: Gonzaga 86-79


    Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.