The 2021 Men’s Basketball Final Four will be dominated by heavyweights and historic programs. Even in the NCAA Tournament, where the Cinderellas take center stage, the penultimate and final round features two teams that have been talked about all season: the Gonzaga Bulldogs and Baylor Bears, and the Houston Cougars and UCLA Bruins, who have had basketball greatness in their DNA for decades.
Leading up to Saturday’s Final Four, ESPN.com’s Myron Medcalfe, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi discuss the seemingly inevitable clash between Gonzaga and Baylor; the biggest hurdles facing two of the top programs in the 2020-21 campaign; which Final Four coach has done best this season; and the oddities of an event set against the reality of a coronavirus pandemic. Follow this link to find out when Saturday’s Final Four takes place, and visit this page to check your console or March Madness bracket, which you can use at a later date.
With all due respect to Houston and UCLA, we seem to be leaning towards the Gonzaga-Baylor National Championship game in November and possibly earlier. Looking at the Final Four, what is the biggest threat to Monday night’s game between the Zags and the Denears?
Medcalf: I think history is the biggest threat to Gonzaga. Since the NCAA expanded the field of participants to six team and national championship games in 1985, no team has entered and won the competition with a perfect record. Indiana’s perfect season in 1975-76 came just one year after the field expanded to 32 teams. That was 45 years ago. Larry Bird then met Magic Johnson in 1979. UNLV’s 1990-91 team destroyed ranked teams that season before losing to Duke. The fleeing rebels seemed invincible. Wichita State moved on and Kentucky awaited them in the second round in 2014. But the 2015 Kentucky team was a heavyweight. They all lost.
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Gonzaga’s performance on Tuesday suggests there could be a gap between the Bulldogs and the rest of the team, even Baylor, although the Bears have offered plenty of evidence that they could win this game if that happens. Houston continues to neutralize its opponents. What about UCLA’s Elite Eight run, culminating in a win over Michigan? Wild. The other three teams could be dangerous. But in 45 years, others, like Gonzaga, have reached that stage. And it didn’t happen. Gonzaga may be different. But the Bulldogs are struggling with the past – and teams are in their way.
Borzello: I would say Houston’s offensive rebounds. The Cougars are the second best offensive team in the country and completely decimated Oregon State on the glass in the Elite Eight, getting second chance after second chance against the Beavers’ zone defense. Baylor doesn’t have many weaknesses, but one of them is the Bears’ defensive problem. They rank eighth in the Big 12 in defensive rebounds and are in the bottom 100 in the country in that category. I don’t think Houston will be intimidated by Baylor on Saturday night; the Cougars are physical and tough, and they’re not expecting a big win. If they can dominate the glass, they have a chance to ruin the Gonzaga-Baylor match.
Mark Vitale cleans up misses with a reverse flush and Baylor reaches the Final Four for the first time in 71 years.
Gasaway: The biggest threat to the Gonzaga-Baylor game, in my opinion, is a Bears opponent that doesn’t commit turnovers. With only one possible BU opponent between Scott Drew’s team and the winner on the other side of the bracket, that burden rests on Houston. Baylor has had many hits with Wisconsin, Villanova and Arkansas. That’s impressive, as all three of these teams took care of the ball during the regular season. But if an opponent were to close that valve just once, it would make a noticeable difference for the Bears. On actual (non-defensive) tournament owners, Baylor leads his opponents by a much smaller margin.
Lunardi: Ten years after VCU took its First Four to the Final Four, UCLA has repeated the feat and will be the last to challenge the juggernaut Gonzaga. The Bruins have absolutely no chance of beating the Zags and avoiding the Bulldogs-Baylor championship game, but we’d sooner say that than one of UCLA’s five incredible wins in the tournament.
Mark Few, Scott Drew, Kelvin Sampson and Mick Cronin are your Final Four coaches. Debating who has the best team may be too simplistic. So which of these four gentlemen has done best in 2020-21?
Borzello: It’s hard to be against Mick Cronin right now when it comes to performance in March. The Bruins lost their best player, Chris Smith, to a torn ACL. Jaylen Hill has left us for personal reasons. The Bruins seemed to lose their way in the final weeks of the season, losing four in a row leading up to the NCAA Tournament. And then they were disappointed after a 13-point first half at Michigan State in the first four games. The Bruins haven’t lost since, and they’ve controlled most of the last 165 minutes of basketball.
Cronin had questions when he took the job at UCLA: How would he, a boy from the Midwest, fit in Los Angeles? How will his style of basketball – grueling, physical half-court basketball – fit in with a fan base that expects fireworks and five-star performances? He answered these questions. Less than two years after his appointment, Cronin is in the Final Four with the Bruins.
Lunardi: Bobby Knight was voted Coach of the Year in 1976 when Indiana finished its final national championship season undefeated. With or without this award, Gonzaga will dominate the sport in 2021 like no other team has since UNLV in 1990-91. Mark Few built these Bulldogs up and made them play at an incredibly high level. That screaming did the best with me in every sense of the word.
Drew Timme Gonzaga does a two-handed jam and taps his mustache in celebration.
Medcalf: Mark Few reached his first Elite Eight in only his 16th race. Season as head coach. Kelvin Sampson did it in his 15th. Scott Drew completed his seventh season as head coach of a Division I team. It took Mick Cronin 18 seasons and three schools to accomplish this. So Cronin led UCLA back to the Final Four. This race was nothing short of magical. If anyone doubted the start of this series, the value of the wins over Alabama and Michigan, two teams that entered the NCAA Tournament with legitimate Final Four aspirations, cannot be denied. It doesn’t matter what happens next. Cronin is easily the most impressive coach in the world right now. It is one of the most remarkable revolutions in the history of college basketball.
Gasaway: I thought Juwan Howard was the 2020-21 college basketball coach of the year, and I’ve been on his team since day one. I’m stepping in now, not just because Michigan isn’t there, but because I’m not sure we fully understand Gonzaga’s level of play.
As my colleague Borzello so aptly put it in the regional final, USC couldn’t even run the gauntlet for the Bulldogs. And we’re talking about a Trojan team that beat Kansas by 816 points, right? It’s wild, and when a team almost does something we haven’t seen in 45 years, we run the risk of future archaeologists thinking we’re incompetent if we don’t give Mark Malo some credit. He also made the program what it is today. (Yes, Dan Monson, Mike Roth, and Dan Fitzgerald also had a hand in this miracle). Not many people have my vote.
Except for basketball… that was pretty good! — This was an undeniably unusual tournament, played under the most unique circumstances in the history of the sport. What will you remember most about the Pandemic Tournament?
Medcalf: I remember the small crowds at Lucas Oil Stadium, Bankers Life Fieldhouse and Hinkle Fieldhouse who shouted for two hours to cheer on their teams. No, it’s not like the typical NCAA tournament crowd. But the atmosphere was still there. And college basketball lacks that atmosphere, at least for the past year. After Calvin Sampson led Houston to the Final Four on Monday, he saw some of his friends in the stands and raised his hands in appreciation. It was a cool moment in a tournament that has had some weird moments. While we will certainly focus on more traditional arrangements in the coming years, 2021 was a very real event for all involved. Yeah, it’s different. But it’s still real. I don’t know if we could have imagined this a year ago.
Gasaway: I will remember that there was no complaint about where the team played because all the teams played on the same field: Indiana and Indianapolis in general. It was beautiful and peaceful to see an entire vein of controversy disappear. On the contrary, I didn’t like never knowing what day it was. The fact that the Round of 16 didn’t start on Thursday at noon ET and that the Round of 16 didn’t start on Saturday baffled me in a way that goes beyond basketball. I would like to see us go back to the old normal schedule, hopefully in 2022.
Max Abmas brings the ball up the field for Oral Roberts to score for a 3-0 lead against Arkansas.
Borzello: Go from one side of Lucas Oil Stadium to the other and watch two different games, separated by a curtain in the middle of the stadium. That’s weird, man. The unique logistics of this entire tournament, from the unique location to the changes in the match schedule and individual Sweet 16 matches, has been the most memorable aspect of the past three weeks. Sure, there’s Max Abmas performance, Alex Reese’s shooting, and Gonzaga’s overall dominance, but it’s the uniqueness of it all that stands out for me.
Lunardi: Gonzaga’s historical excellence and the fact that there were no major complaints about qualifying Sunday. Maybe we were so happy with the return of the tournament that we didn’t choose to use a 68-team field. Maybe a season changed by the pandemic gave everyone the perspective they needed. Or maybe the basketball committee did a good job under unimaginable circumstances. The committee, along with Dan Gavitt and the NCAA staff, should be remembered for a job well done, both in believing the tournament was possible and in making it happen.
frequently asked questions
Who are the final four in the madness of March 2021?
Gonzaga, UCLA, Baylor and Houston are in the final four.
Is Michigan in the Final Four?
UCLA eliminates Michigan from the list of safe Final Four contenders.
Is Baylor in the final four?
The Bearcats’ journey to the Final Four began in 2020. Baylor was one of the favorites for the national title and had secured first place before the NCAA Tournament was cancelled due to COWID-19. … Coach Scott Drew finally got his ticket to the Final Four after leading Baylor to five Sweet 16s and three Elite Eights.
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