#1 Gonzaga vs #11 UCLA
Tip: Saturday, 8:34 on CBS | Spread: Gonzaga -14.5 | Total: 146
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First, I want to commend Coach Cronin and all the success he has brought to a program with such a rich college basketball tradition. UCLA is in rare air, being only the fifth team in NCAA Tournament history to reach the Final Four as an #11 seed. No #11 seed has reached the NCAA Tournament Championship Game, and I have a hard time believing this year will be any different. UCLA has been winning large in part to some solid defense. In their five NCAA Tournament games, the Bruins are holding opponents to 63.2 points per game, with two of those teams (Abilene Christian and Michigan) being held to less than 50 points. For a team that really was not credited for being an outstanding defensive unit prior to the NCAA Tournament, you have to credit Coach Cronin for the vast improvements in the last few weeks. There must be something in the Indiana water. I mean, the legend John Wooden, who coached UCLA to 10 NCAA Championships, was born in Indiana… so perhaps there might be some connection with the NCAA Tournament being played entirely in the Hoosier State? Maybe, maybe not. What we do know for certain is Johnny Juzang has been playing on another level on the biggest stage. The win over Michigan made it five straight games that Juzang has scored in double-figures. Juzang averaged a mere 2.9 points as a freshman at Kentucky, but he has found his groove in Los Angeles, averaging 15.5 points per game for UCLA. For a team that lost a five-star recruit, Daishen Nix, and last year’s Pac-12 Most Improved Player, Chris Smith, the Bruins have exceeded all expectations for what was in store for this season. From losing four games in a row, being in the First Four and now in the Final Four… Simply remarkable.
Two more games. That is all that stands in the way for the quest to perfection for the Gonzaga Bulldogs. No team has completed a perfect season since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. Once again, the NCAA Tournament is being held entirely in the state of Indiana… Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not. The Bulldogs are a freight train though right now, plowing to the side any opponent that comes in their path. The Bulldogs have scored a staggering 88.3 points per game in the NCAA Tournament. They have yet to be held under 82 points by any opponent. USC, what many perceived to be an elite defensive unit that could cause the Gonzaga big men problems in the post, allowed a whopping 85 points to the West Coast Conference opponent. As strong as their offense has been in the NCAA Tournament, the defense has been pretty darn solid under Coach Few as well. The Bulldogs are holding opposing teams to 64.3 points per game in the NCAA Tournament. Drew Timme has been simply dominant in the NCAA Tournament for Gonzaga this year. Timme only played 22 minutes in their First Round game against Norfolk State, so the numbers are slightly skewed, but he is still averaging 21.3 points per game 7.5 rebounds per game and 4.3 assists per game. The presumed 2021 NBA Draft lottery pick, Jalen Suggs, is averaging 12.3 points per game, 5.5 rebounds per game and 4.8 assists per game. The lone senior in the starting lineup, Corey Kispert, is averaging 17.3 points per game and 5.8 rebounds per game.
This one feels like it will be played at a pace that favors Gonzaga. In order for UCLA to keep up, they will have to play at a more up-tempo pace type of game, similar to what they did with Alabama. The Bruins put up 40 in the first half against Alabama and then exploded for 23 against the Crimson Tide in overtime. This high energy offense needs to happen against Gonzaga Saturday as well. I foresee Gonzaga probing the defense that UCLA sets up against them, and this will be another game Gonzaga hits and/or exceeds the 80-point plateau. I see this one being in the 150’s for a total score, so I am going to take the O146 points as my best bet.
The Pick: Over 146
-Jack O’Keefe (@jpokeefe1s)
#1 Baylor vs #2 Houston
Tip: Saturday, 5:15 on CBS | Spread: Baylor – 5 | Total: 135.5
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Welcome to the Final 4! After one of the most devastating cancellations in the sport’s history losing the NCAA tournament last year, we have finally navigated through one of the most bizarre years in the history of the sport, numerous postponements, some cancellations, sporadically playing without some players due to positive COVID tests, to finally make it to the National Semifinals. Semifinal matchup #1 should be the more competitive of the 2 games in the battle for Texas between #1 seed Baylor Bears and #2 seed Houston Cougars.
Let’s start our preview with Baylor. Baylor would have most likely been the #1 overall seed in last year’s tournament and would have very likely made it to this game last year had it been played, but Scott Drew and Co. have buckled down and gone nearly wire to wire as a top 3 team in the country and make it to the Final 4 for the first time since 1950. The Bears journey to the Final 4 began with a comfortable 24 point win over Hartford. Then they defeated Wisconsin by 13 points in the 2nd round, and followed that one up with back to back 11 and 9 point victories over Villanova and Arkansas in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 respectively. Baylor is led by the best guard trio in the country with Jared Butler, Macio Teague, and Davion Mitchell who spearhead the #3 offense in the country. The Bears are also the best 3point shooting team in the country converting at an impressive 41.06%.
Now let’s flip to the Midwest Regional Champion Houston Cougars. This is Houston’s 3rd straight NCAA tournament appearance under Kelvin Sampson. The first year of this run was spoiled in the 2nd round on an all time buzzer beater by Jordan Poole and Michigan on their way to the National Championship game. The last tournament in 2019 was spoiled for the Cougars by a last minute clutch three by Tyler Herro and Kentucky. This year they banished those heartbreakers of years past by finally returning to the Final for the first time since 1984 and the days of Phi Slama Jama. This team might be the polar opposite of that high flying team led by Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon from the early 80s. This iteration of Houston is about as hard nose-blue collar suffocating lock down defense. These Cougars are 8th in the country defensive efficiency, 6th in rebounding, 35th in the country in steals per game. In fact, the 4 games of this tournament, no team has scored more than 61 points against the Cougars. Houston has made history by becoming the first team to reach the Final 4 without playing a single single digit team, they beat #15 Cleveland State, #10 Rutgers, #11 Syracuse, and #12 Oregon State, but make no mistake, the Cougars are the real deal and deserve to be in this game after being one of the best teams all year and ranking top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
First of all, let’s go on record by saying that Baylor will win this game. While Houston has had a terrific season, Baylor (along with Gonzaga) has been the class of college basketball this season, losing only twice all season in one of the best conferences in the country while battling a lot of Covid issues. The Bears have gone 18-10 ATS this year, including 3-0 ATS in their last 3 tournament games. Also impressive considering the Bears have been favored in all 28 games they have played this year, as well as this game. For how good Baylor’s offense is, their defense is one of the best in the country. I think the Bears offense will be able to knock down shots from the outside to stretch out the Cougar defense opening up lanes for the guards later on. Baylor’s superior offense will carry the day over the excellent Cougars defense. Baylor is the better, more battle tested team and they will win this game. My best bet is a teaser with Baylor teased down to pick em and the under teased up to 140.5, but if I had to take a side, I would go with Baylor -5.
The Pick: Baylor -5 (Tease Baylor PK & Under 140.5)
-Matthew Vale (@matthewvale15)
Best Bet on the Total
Matt touched on it, people don’t really talk about Baylor’s exceptional defense since they’re usually focused on how dominant their 3-points shooting and offense in general is. Houston is no slouch on defense either. Where the Bears rank 28th (92.2) in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to Ken Pom, Houston actually ranks 8th overall (88.4). The Cougs have been putting a stranglehold on their opponents so far this tournament, allowing an average of 55.75 points per game. And perhaps the most important statistic, one that you can share over beverages with the gang tonight to sound smart, is that Houston will neutralize Baylor’s 3-points shooting by way of their 11th ranked 3-point defense (29.2%). Take the under tonight. I’ll leave it there since Matthew covered most of the details and happy #WinnersOnlySaturday!
The Pick: Under 135.5
-Trent Pruitt (@trentbets)