5:14 PM EST, CBS – Line: Baylor- 5 Over/Under: 134.5
The 2021 Final Four kicks off with an exclusively Lone Star State affair, as the second-seeded Houston Cougars take on the top-seed out of the South Region, Baylor Bears, in the first of two National Semifinals from Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana. Of the four teams to have advanced to this point, Houston (28-3, 14-3 in American Athletic Conference) is arguably the most surprising, for the simple fact that the other three sides have carried a certain level of expectations or pedigree with them along the way to this Final Four. No longer an overachieving Mid-Major, (1) Gonzaga is a perennial powerhouse looking to become the first unbeaten to win a National Championship since 1976, while (1) Baylor, fresh off of back-to-back Big XII titles, has been knocking on the door for years now, and (11) UCLA, well… who has more history in the NCAA Tournament than the Bruins? For the Cougars, it’s been quite a while since the program was THIS good; since losing back-to-back National Finals (1983 and 1984) at the end of the successful Guy Lewis Era, this is a school that would spend the following thirty-three years without advancing past the First Round of the Tournament. Furthermore, this is a program that had participated in the Big Dance just once in the two decades preceding the hire of (Head Coach) Kelvin Sampson, who has done a tremendous job rebuilding them into one of the country’s stronger sides. Of course, Sampson’s story is a unique one. Rising to prominence at Oklahoma where he would lead the Sooners to eleven NCAA Tournaments in a 12-year period, including a Final Four in 2002, Sampson would leave Norman for Bloomington where he was tabbed to lead Indiana into a bold new era. Unfortunately, his tenure would last just two seasons before being fired due to a recruiting scandal, turning him into something of a pariah in the college game, forcing him to look to the professional level for employment. Sampson would spend the next six years as an Assistant Coach for the Milwaukee Bucks and later the Houston Rockets, before finally returning to the collegiate level in Southern Texas. Now in his seventh season at Houston, the 65-year old has this program humming, amassing a sterling 111-23 record (.828) over the past four years, in which his charges compiled a pair of American Athletic Conference Championships, an AAC Conference Tournament Title, and three trips to the Big Dance, including their first Final Four in thirty-seven years. So how has he done it, you ask? Well, by building his side into the staunchest defensive unit in the country. If you believe in the train of thought that defense indeed wins championships, then you’ll love these Cougars, who have relinquished the second-fewest points in the country (57.6) along with leading the nation in field goal percentage defense (37.3%). In fact, if they do end up advancing to Monday Night’s Final and cut down the nets, they will become just the fourth team in history to win the National Championship leading the nation in that particular statistic, joining Kentucky (2012), Connecticut (2004), and Georgetown (1984) as the only schools to achieve that feat. Only five opponents have managed to shoot over 44.0% against them this season, with their showing in the Tournament thus far providing further proof of their prowess on this particular end of the court, yielding just 55.8 points per game on 39.3% shooting from the field, including 34.3% from beyond the arc. The exclamation point though was undoubtedly their performance against (11) Syracuse in the Sweet Sixteen; with the Orange’s vaunted 2-3 Zone vexing their first three opponents, they were thoroughly outdone by Sampson’s outfit, relegating the representatives from the ACC to a miserable 14-of-50 shooting overall (28.0%), including 5-of-23 from downtown (21.7%). Though they’re far from the largest team in tournament field, this roster is loaded with athleticism and length, with an ability to switch defensively that makes them much harder to to advantage of mismatches. (Guards) Quentin Grimes (18.0 PTS, 40.8% FG, 41.3% 3FG, 5.8 REB, 2.0 AST, 1.4 STL, 23.8 PER) and (AAC Defensive Player of the Year) Dejon Jarreau (10.8 PTS, 43.7% FG, 35.2% 3FG, 5.5 REB, 4.4 AST, 1.3 STL, 20.8 PER) are absolute dogs on defense, while (Sophomore Point Guard) Marcus Sasser (13.5 PTS, 37.5% FG, 32.6% 3FG, 2.6 REB, 2.3 AST, 1.4 STL, 16.7 PER) hounds opposing Guards on the perimeter, with these three serving as the tip of the proverbial spear for a unit that features five different players averaging at least one steal per game.
”I always thought we could… but we had to climb the ladder. This is one of the greatest accomplishments I’ve been around… and I have this group of players and this staff… to thank for it. I’m glad they let me go along on the ride with them. It’s been a fun ride with this group.”Kelvin Sampson Houston’s 67-61 victory over (12) Oregon State in last Monday’s Elite Eight, with the Cougars advancing to their first Final Four since 1984.
When we last saw Houston, they managed to fend off the upstart (12) Oregon State Beavers in a tightly-contested 67-61 affair in the Midwest Regional Final last Monday Night, advancing to their first Final Four since 1984. This one was as one-sided as you could imagine early one, with the Cougars dominating the First Half of the affair, outscoring the representatives from the Pac-12 34-17 and limiting them to a dismal 35.0% shooting from the field. However, this matchup would tighten up considerably after Halftime, with Oregon State managing to tie the game at 55-55 with 3:21 left in the game, though the aforementioned Grimes buried a crucial three-pointer from the top of the arc to regain a lead that they would not relinquish. Sampson’s charges would go on to hold their opponent scoreless for period of 3:30 down the stretch in which they were able to widen the gap with late free-throws. In the end, it was far from a clean performance from Houston, who only shot 32.3% from the field (29.0% in the Second Half), though they did hold a number of advantages that proved to be the difference; the AAC Tournament Champions may have struggled inside the arc (9-of-30), but outscored their northwestern counterparts by fifteen points beyond it (11-of-32), while also besting them from the free-throw line (Plus-5) and on the glass (Plus-11), which including eighteen of the offensive variety, leading to fifteen more field goal attempts which compensated for their own poor shooting. Defensively, Houston wasn’t their finest as Oregon State did shoot a solid 46.8% overall, including 16-of-31 from within the arc (51.6%), but they clamped down when they needed to do so, with Jarreau leading the charge with eight rebounds, a pair of steals, and a block to go along with his ten points and eight assists en route to earning Most Outstanding Player of the Midwest Region. The Senior was instrumental in shutting down the Beavers’ Ethan Thompson, who was held well below his average of 20.3 points in this tournament, limiting the Senior Guard to just eleven points on 3-of-12 shooting (25.0%). Sasser scored a team-high twenty points, with all of his field goals coming from the perimeter (5-of-13), while Grimes added another eighteen points on 4-of-10 shooting from long-range (40.0%), with the two Guards accounting for nine of their team’s eleven triples. With this victory, Houston became the first team to defeat four straight double-digit seeds en route to a Final Four, and they’ll be looking at a significant step-up in class against Baylor, with the two schools rekindling relations as former members of the Southwest Conference.
Meanwhile, there is another team out of the Lone Star State that has been making noise, for Baylor (26-2, 13-1 in BIG XII) appears to have really rounded back into form after getting hit hard by COVID-19 down the stretch of their schedule, with a number of players sidelined due to the virus as six out of seven games were either canceled or postponed in February. It was the second pause of the program due to COVID-19, as the team went three weeks without plying or practicing, which created a perception that they were all-too vulnerable heading into March. With that said, the Bears still managed to lock down their first BIG XII Championship in school history, as Scott Drew’s charges recollected themselves en route to winning three straight to close out the Regular Season, before bowing out in the BIG XII Semifinals following an 83-74 defeat to Oklahoma State. Again, as we touched upon earlier these elite teams don’t necessarily approach their respective conference tournaments with the greatest sense of urgency, particularly when their guarding against health/injury concerns, and this was precisely the case for Baylor, who would enter the 2021 NCAA Tournament as one of the favorites, enjoying a No. One Seed for the first time in school history. It’s a testament to the job that Drew has done in his eighteen years with a program that was in absolute shambles when he arrived back in 2003; the Bears were ineligible to even compete in the Tournament upon his arrival in Waco, but have since advanced to nine NCAAs in the last fourteen years en route to ascending to the realms of the elite with a 52-6 record (.896) over the last two seasons. Indeed, the only thing missing on the 50-year old’s resume is a National Championship; Drew has guided the Bears to three Sweet Sixteens and Elite Eights apiece, with this serving as their first Final Four, though the consensus is that he absolutely has the talent on hand to cut down the nets on Monday Night. One of the most prolific offensive teams in the country, Baylor averaged 83.0 points per game (6th Overall) on 48.6% shooting from the field (18th Overall), including 53.4% from within the arc (61st Overall) and a nation-leading 41.1% beyond it (1st Overall), while dishing out a healthy 16.6 assists (15th Overall) and putting in that work on the offensive glass with 12.5 rebounds (27th Overall). The triumvirate of Jared Butler (16.5 PTS, 46.7% FG, 40.4% 3FG, 3.3 REB, 4.8 AST, 2.0 STL, 24.4 PER), MaCio Tague (15.9 PTS, 47.7% FG, 39.6% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.8 STL, 21.9 PER), and Davion Mitchell (14.1 PTS, 52.3% FG, 45.0% 3FG, 2.6 REB, 5.3 AST, 2.0 STL, 22.1 PER) have been nothing short of spectacular this season, with the upperclassmen combining for 46.5 points and 11.7 assists, with all three nailing over fifty three-pointers thus far. Of the three, Mitchell has been the most consistent performer in the Tournament thus far, averaging 13.5 points on an efficient 57.1% shooting, with 2.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and a team-best 2.0 steals over the past four contests, routinely pressuring opposing Guards and disrupting passing lanes. And speaking of disruption, as good as the Bears have been offensively this season, it’s been their prowess on the defensive end of late that propelled them to this point; Drew’s troops have averaged a staggering 9.5 steals through the tourney, highlighted by a season-high FIFTEEN in their opening round romp over (16) Hartford (79-55), all the while factoring into a very healthy turnover differential of Plus-10.0. This team has no issues in putting the ball through the net, and giving them extra possessions is a recipe for disaster for any opponent, as their latest opponent, (3) Arkansas, learned firsthand.
”Just pure joy, excitement… It was an emotional game, but seeing our guys have a chance to cut down the nets, it doesn’t get much better than that. It just showed how focused and ready to play we were… We got good looks and the guys made them.”Scott Drew on Baylor’s return to the Final Four for the first time in seventy-one years following their 81-72 victory over (3) Arkansas last Monday Night.
When we last saw Baylor, they managed to advance to their first Final Four in seventy-one years as they topped (3) Arkansas in an 81-72 affair in the South Regional Final last Monday Night. In a game in which both teams shot the ball well, the difference as we touched upon earlier was turnovers, with the Bears affording themselves extra possessions on the heels of their opponent’s mistakes. The Big XII Champions committed just eight turnovers and forced fifteen (parlaying directly into twenty-one points for the top seed), which parlayed into eight more field goal attempts than the Razorbacks, and in a game in which both sides shot over 48.0% from the field proved to be the x-factor. The money ball was another large component of success for Drew’s charges, who netted a scintillating 8-of-15 attempts from beyond the arc (53.3%), outscoring the representatives from the SEC by fifteen points in that regard, with the aforementioned Teague and Butler accounting for all but three of their team’s triples, shooting a combined 5-of-10 from downtown (50.0%). Speaking of Teague, the Senior really bounced back after being relegated to single-digits in the previous two outings against (9) Wisconsin and (5) Villanova, dropping a game-high twenty-two points on 8-of-18 shooting (44.4%) with five rebounds and a pair of blocks to his credit. Arkansas was able to cut the lead to six on a 10-of-11 shooting stretch when the aforementioned Mitchell picked up his third personal foul, but once he returned to the hardwood it was pretty much curtains; the Razorbacks missed their next twelve shots after his return, with Butler hitting a pair of clutch three-pointers to push the affair out of reach and the Bears into the Final Four. Butler finished the night with twelve points on 4-of-11 shooting (36.4%) and dished out five assists, while Mitchell totaled a dozen points and six assists, moving the rock with ease in the Second Half. (Redshirt Sophomore) Adam Flagler (9.0 PTS, 45.1% FG, 42.0% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.9 STL, 18.2 PER) added ten points off the bench along with three assists, four steals and a block, while both of his field goals came from long-range. Baylor dished out seventeen assists on the night, with six different players logging a dime. Now it’s former Southwest Conference denizen, Houston, standing in their way of advancing to Monday Night’s Final, with both teams looking to take advantage of the mistakes of their opponent. Look for the team that takes better care of the rock to move on…