NCAA Men's Tournament 2021: Power Ranking the Final Four TeamsApril 2, 2021
NCAA Men's Tournament 2021: Power Ranking the Final Four Teams
In most years, ranking the teams remaining in the men's Final Four is an entertaining, debate-inducing exercise with at least one spot where the order of two teams could go either way.
No such luck this year.
While we certainly aren't guaranteed to get Gonzaga over Baylor in the national championship, there's no question the hierarchy of teams by current strength goes Gonzaga, Baylor, Houston and UCLA, in that order. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is just seeking attention.
Based on those rankings, the Final Four is fittingly No. 1 vs. No. 4 and No. 2 vs. No. 3.
But while the order is obvious, it's still fun and useful to look back on how each of these teams got here and try to figure out how this final weekend could play out.
Teams are listed in ascending order.
4. UCLA Bruins
The Road Behind: UCLA's journey to this point required one more step than the other three teams, since it had to win a First Four game before really getting into the bracket. In that game, the Bruins erased a 14-point first-half deficit en route to an overtime victory over Michigan State. Subsequent games against BYU and Abilene Christian were much less stressful, but the second-weekend victories over No. 2 seed Alabama and No. 1 seed Michigan were fraught with late theater.
The Road Ahead: It's one thing to beat Alabama on what was a poor shooting night for the Crimson Tide or knock off Isaiah Livers-less Michigan on what was easily one of the worst nights of Franz Wagner's college career. Beating undefeated Gonzaga is another story entirely. And even if the Bruins were to pull off that massive upset, they would still be a considerable underdog in the national championship against the Baylor-Houston winner.
Reason to Buy: UCLA's last four opponents have shot a combined 22.7 percent from three-point range and 55.6 percent from the free-throw line. Meanwhile, the Bruins committed just 6.3 turnovers in those games. If they can somehow get those numbers to persist for two more games against the two best teams in the country, they just might shock the world.
Reason to Sell: Things are going splendidly as of late, but there's a reason UCLA was a No. 11 seed. For most of the season, this defense was mediocre at best, and the Bruins had lost seven of their final 12 games. At some point, that preposterous luck on opponents' threes and free throws will run out, right?
Will Win It All If...: Johnny Juzang has even more heroics up his sleeve. With 108 total points, he is the tournament's leading scorer by a country mile, but 21.6 points per game won't be enough this coming weekend. He probably needs to put up more like 21.6 points per half. If he catches fire, though, UCLA will have a hope and a prayer.
3. Houston Cougars
The Road Behind: You can't control whom you face in the NCAA tournament, so we can't blame Houston for becoming the first team ever to face four consecutive double-digit seeds on the way to the Final Four. However, it surely bears mentioning that Houston's toughest opponent thus far was Rutgers, and yet the Cougars were pushed right to the brink of elimination twice already. They needed a dramatic, late comeback to beat Rutgers and then almost fell victim to a dramatic, late comeback from Oregon State.
The Road Ahead: After four straight double-digit seeds, Houston draws No. 1 seed Baylor for the right to likely face No. 1 seed Gonzaga. That's an abrupt change in the level of competition, but this Final Four clash should be a great one. It won't be pretty. It will be physical. And people are going to complain about it being a ratings nightmare. But real college basketball fans are going to adore watching Quentin Grimes and DeJon Jarreau square off with Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell.
Reason to Buy: Houston's defense is fantastic. The Cougars have actually had some bad luck in the three-point defense department (34.3 percent in the tournament compared to 27.5 percent before the tournament). However, they have powered through it with 7.5 steals, 4.5 blocks and minimum fouls, holding opponents to 55.8 points. The Cougars are also dominant on the offensive glass.
Reason to Sell: Has a Final Four team ever been this unproven? Hard to believe Houston is this close to winning a national championship with just one game played against a KenPom top-30 team—and that lone game against Texas Tech happened in November. More concerning than the schedule strength, though, is the 35.9 field-goal percentage over the past three games. Got to shoot much better than that to beat Baylor and Gonzaga.
Will Win It All If...: It gets hot from downtown. Houston loves to shoot threes, and it blows out opponents when those shots are falling. The Cougars shot at least 38 percent from distance on 12 occasions this season, winning each of those "contests" by at least 17 points. Hard to imagine they could blow out Baylor like that, let alone Gonzaga. But if the Cougars shoot better than 40 percent from distance in these last two games, they could win the whole shebang.
2. Baylor Bears
The Road Behind: Baylor had a pretty rough draw from a matchup perspective. On paper, both Wisconsin and Villanova looked like teams that could cause major problems for the Bears, given how good they were all season in terms of avoiding turnovers and cleaning the defensive glass. But Baylor had a plus-10 turnover margin against each of them, and neither game was all that close in the end. Against Arkansas, Baylor jumped out to an early 15-3 lead and kept the Razorbacks at bay from there.
The Road Ahead: One more hurdle remains before the Baylor-Gonzaga showdown we've been waiting for months to see, and Houston will be the toughest challenge the Bears have faced thus far in this tournament. The Cougars are physical and aggressive on defense, which—combined with Baylor's similar style of play—is going to feel like a 1980s clash between Georgetown and Pittsburgh. Here's hoping the refs let things go a bit, or this will be a nonstop whistle-fest.
Reason to Buy: While Houston and Baylor both thrive at forcing turnovers and crashing the offensive glass, the Bears should have an edge in the three-point department, seeing as how they lead the nation in three-point percentage. That could also be a major difference-maker in the projected national championship game against Gonzaga, given the Bulldogs' occasional issues with defending the perimeter.
Reason to Sell: As great as Baylor is at forcing turnovers, its overall defensive impact is well behind that of both Houston and Gonzaga. The Bears allow a lot of second-chance opportunities (almost certain to be a problem against Houston), and they rank well outside the top 100 in both two-point and three-point field-goal defense (almost certain to be a problem against Gonzaga).
Will Win It All If...: The three-point brigade does its thing. Baylor has five regulars who shoot at least 39.6 percent from three-point range, and that quintet has combined for 9.2 makes per game over the course of the season. The Bears have not yet had one of those "shoot the lights out" nights like they did against Texas Tech (15-of-24) in early March, but they would very likely win this thing if they can hit perimeter shots like that in these final two games.
1. Gonzaga Bulldogs
The Road Behind: Looking at Gonzaga's road to this point is like following a tornado that destroyed everything in its path. By Gonzaga standards, it didn't even play that well against Oklahoma or Creighton, but the undefeated Bulldogs have still won each of their tournament games by at least 16 points and haven't had a game decided by single digits since Dec. 2—their third game of the season.
The Road Ahead: Gonzaga-Michigan would have been a fantastic Final Four clash. Gonzaga-UCLA? Not so much. UCLA could win, but it's nowhere near as likely. The odds of Michigan beating Gonzaga would have been roughly the odds of you naming a suit and pulling it from a deck of cards. For UCLA, it's more like saying you're going to pick a black six and actually doing it. Which is great for Gonzaga, since the last two teams to make it this far with a zero in the loss column (UNLV in 1991, Kentucky in 2015) both lost in the Final Four. Gonzaga should get to the national championship and should win it.
Reason to Buy: This offense is unstoppable. Gonzaga has scored more than 80 points in 11 of its last 12 games, and the lone exception was a 78-55 win over Saint Mary's in which the Zags led 64-34 with 13 minutes left before deciding to conserve their energy from there. Drew Timme gets whatever he wants in the paint, and all six regulars shoot at least 58.8 percent on two-point attempts. If Corey Kispert is also having a good night from the perimeter (15-of-30 thus far in the tournament), prepare for a blowout.
Reason to Sell: If each round of the Final Four were a best-of-three series, Gonzaga's odds of winning it all would be so much more ridiculous than they already are. But we've seen all too many times before what can happen in this single-elimination extravaganza. The only semi-realistic reason to sell Gonzaga is that it has the occasional rough night of three-point defense, and that can knock anyone out of the dance.
Will Win It All If...: Things play to form. On KenPom, Gonzaga has the highest rating in the site's two-decade history, and the current gap in adjusted efficiency margin between No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 Baylor is only slightly narrower than the gap between No. 2 Baylor and No. 13 Wisconsin—a team Baylor beat by 13 points two weeks ago. If the Zags keep making their twos and playing with pace, they'll be the first undefeated champions since the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers.