The men’s Final Four is set with three teams that many envisioned being able to make it this far and one surprise.
Gonzaga and Baylor were the two best teams in college basketball this season and they were expected to make deep tournament runs. Houston is a No. 2 seed and always had the possibility to reach the national semifinals, but the real shock has been the bracket-busting UCLA Bruins.
In one of the most volatile NCAA Tournaments in history, it’s quite fitting that a school seeded No. 11 and coming from the First Four would reach the Final Four. It’s a strong indicator of just how mad this year’s March Madness has really been.
Here are a few takeaways from the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight as we await Saturday’s Final Four contests.
The Zags are going to go undefeated
Coming into the tournament, Gonzaga was the heavy favourite to win it all, sporting the best offence in the country and enjoying an undefeated season.
So far, the Bulldogs have been just as advertised, winning all four of their tournament games by a median margin of victory of 24 points, including a 19-point rout of USC in the regional final, a particularly impressive result given how dominant the Trojans looked during their run.
It absolutely didn’t matter, however, as Gonzaga appears to be too talented and too deep for any team to really handle. As a result, it’s tough to see them doing anything but cutting the nets down come next Monday.
A team like Baylor can, theoretically, give Gonzaga problems because they’re also very talented, deep and are playing some of their best basketball right now, but there hasn’t been enough vulnerability in Gonzaga all season long to make you worry about them not surviving a run of any kind.
The Bulldogs will become the first team since Indiana did it in 1976 to finish a full NCAA Division I season undefeated.
This has been the Pac-12’s tournament
How’s this for a stat: all five Pac-12 teams that made the tournament advanced to at least the Round of 32, with Oregon State – a program that was picked to finish last in the conference in pre-season – reaching the Elite Eight and UCLA, of course, becoming just the second school ever to go from the First Four to the Final Four.
Meanwhile, the highly touted Big Ten, who had a tournament-high nine bids, largely disappointed. Only Michigan met expectations by reaching the regional final before bowing out to red-hot UCLA, as the Bruins were able to slow down the pace of the game versus the Wolverines and then allow Johnny Juzang to take over.
The Bruins’ Final Four matchup is against Gonzaga so their run is likely over, but then again we’ve been saying that about UCLA nearly every step of the way. First when they came back from down 17 to Michigan State in their First Four game, then during their Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games with Alabama and Michigan.
There’s undeniably a special kind of magic around Mick Cronin’s group right now, but whether it’s enough to unseat the juggernaut Zags is tough to see.
How legitimate is Houston as a Final Four team?
For as good defensively as the Cougars have been and as good as they’ve had to be to reach the Final Four, there’s a real question about how legitimate Houston is as contenders heading into Saturday.
If you look at their path to the Final Four, all you see is the Cougars beating high seeds starting with No. 15 Cleveland State, then No. 10 Rutgers, No. 11 Syracuse and, finally, No. 12 Oregon State.
Granted they can only play the teams in front of them but considering the problems they had against Rutgers and Oregon State, it’s hard to see Houston putting up much of a challenge against Baylor, a team that’s much more talented than those aforementioned schools and Houston itself.
There’s no such thing as fluking your way into the Final Four, but there’s no doubt Houston’s road has been easier than the others’.
One Canadian left in the tournament
When the NCAA Tournament started on March 18 there were 25 Canadian players spread across the 68-team field.
Now there’s just one.
Aurora, Ont., native Andrew Nembhard is a key player coming off the bench for the powerful Zags and is in prime position to become the first Canadian since Kyle Wiltjer in 2012 to win a national championship.
There have been Canadians on great Gonzaga teams in the past who have come close, such as Kevin Pangos, Kelly Olynyk, Brandon Clarke and Robert Sacre, but it feels like Nembhard and this particular Gonzaga team will get the job done.