Winners and Losers of the 2021 Men's Final Four

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistApril 4, 2021

Winners and Losers of the 2021 Men's Final Four

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    The matchup for the 2021 NCAA men's basketball championship game is officially set following Saturday's Final Four action from Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana.

    Baylor was unfazed by a vaunted Houston defense in the first game of the day, building a 25-point halftime lead en route to a lopsided 78-59 victory. The Bears reached the Final Four in 2010 and 2012 but fell to the eventual champion both times. They will be playing for the school's first ever national championship.

    That was followed by the game of the tournament.

    Gonzaga entered the game as overwhelming favorites against No. 11 seed UCLA, but it was a back-and-forth battle throughout that went to overtime and ended in dramatic fashion when Jalen Suggs banked home a three-pointer at the buzzer for a 93-90 victory.

    Let's take a quick run through the biggest winners and losers of the day, beyond just what the scoreboard showed after the final buzzer sounded.

Winner: A Dominant First-Half Performance from the Baylor Offense

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    Jared Butler
    Jared ButlerMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    If there was a mercy rule in college basketball, Saturday would have been the time to enact it.

    The Baylor Bears shot a blistering 57.1 percent from the floor while knocking down eight of 15 three-point attempts during the first half, and the game was essentially out of reach before the halftime buzzer even sounded.

    With a 45-20 margin on the scoreboard at the break, Houston was buried.

    First-team All-American Jared Butler nearly outscored the Cougars on his own with 17 points on 4-of-5 shooting from beyond the arc in the first half, and the Bears tallied assists on 12 of their 16 made field goals in a total team effort.

    The Cougars defense was the catalyst for their run to the Final Four, but Baylor picked it apart with ease en route to an easy win.

Loser: A Dud from the Vaunted Houston Defense

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    The Houston Cougars entered play on Saturday with one of the stingiest defenses in the country, allowing just 57.6 points per game.

    They held opponents under 60 points on 19 separate occasions this year, and only twice did they surrender more than 70 points in a game.

    None of that mattered against Baylor.

    The Bears shot them out of the gym, connecting on 52.7 percent from the floor and 45.8 percent from beyond the arc en route to a 78-point onslaught.

    The only team to score more points against the Cougars this year was East Carolina in a head-scratching 82-73 loss, and no opponent had shot better than 49.1 percent from the floor.

    It was an off night for a team that leans heavily on its defense to shoulder the load, but credit the Baylor offense for finding another gear.

Winner: The Return of a Bona Fide Title Threat

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Baylor began the season 17-0 before a COVID-19 outbreak shut things down for three weeks at the beginning of February.

    Upon returning, the Bears struggled with Iowa State before suffering their first loss to Kansas, and they fell to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 tournament.

    Despite convincing wins over Wisconsin (76-63), Villanova (62-51) and Arkansas (81-72) to reach the Final Four, they had never looked quite like the bona fide title contender they did prior to the COVID shutdown.

    Until Saturday.

    The Bears played terrific defense, shot the three-point ball with deadly accuracy (11-of-24), and were led by the standout guard trio of Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague on both ends of the floor.

    It was all clicking against Houston, and for the first time in months, this team looks like a true threat to be the last team standing in March Madness.

Winner: The Best No. 11 Seed in NCAA Tournament History

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    Johnny Juzang
    Johnny JuzangDarron Cummings/Associated Press

    The UCLA Bruins were the fifth No. 11 seed in NCAA tournament history to reach the Final Four.

    Here's how those teams fared:

    • 1986 LSU: lost 87-77 vs. No. 2 Louisville
    • 2006 George Mason: lost 73-58 vs. No. 3 Florida
    • 2011 VCU: lost 70-62 vs. No. 8 Butler
    • 2018 Loyola-Chicago: lost 69-57 to No. 3 Michigan

    None of those teams hold a candle to what this year's UCLA squad accomplished.

    The 2011 VCU team also played its way into the field with a First Four victory, but none of those teams mentioned above faced a juggernaut like Gonzaga. In fact, none of them even faced a No. 1 seed in the Final Four, though LSU, George Mason and VCU all went through a No. 1 seed to get there.

    In a season that had seen Gonzaga win by double figures in all but one game, UCLA took the Bulldogs to the brink, matching them blow for blow all night.

    This Bruins team is headed home, but it will forever be remembered as the best No. 11 seed of all time.

Loser: No One...It Was One of the Greatest Games in College Basketball History

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    How do you call anyone a loser in what was undoubtedly the most entertaining, evenly matched college basketball game of the year?

    There were 19 lead changes and 15 ties.

    The Bulldogs' largest lead was seven points.

    The Bruins' largest lead was six points.

    From the time UCLA point guard Tyger Campbell hit a three-pointer with 10:31 remaining in the second half to make it a 66-62 game, no one led by more than five points the rest of the way through the end of regulation and overtime.

    The Bruins were sent packing on a buzzer-beater, but they can hold their heads high knowing they gave the consensus No. 1 overall team in the tournament everything it could handle in a year when the Bulldogs have steamrolled everyone in their path.

    This one is going to be talked about for a long time.

Winner: Gonzaga Surviving Its Toughest Test of the Year

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    The 2020-21 basketball season has by and large been a cake walk for the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

    They entered Saturday's game with an average margin of victory of 23.1 points per game, and they had outscored their first four opponents in the NCAA tournament by a combined 96 points.

    Outside of a five-point victory over West Virginia back on Dec. 2, they really haven't been tested.

    In a back-and-forth thriller, they proved time and again they are capable of taking a punch and responding, and that's going to be important against a Baylor team that was firing on all cylinders in a blowout win.

    The Jalen Suggs buzzer-beater is what will be remembered, but it was a total team effort.

    Drew Timme came on strong in overtime after navigating foul trouble, Joel Ayayi scored a career-high 22 points, and the defense came up with a few big stops when it mattered.

    Arguably the biggest question surrounding Gonzaga was how it would handle any semblance of adversity after rolling for much of the year, and while they bent to the limit on Saturday night, they didn't break.

    The best two teams in the country are left standing, and that should make for a fantastic game on Monday night.