(CBS Local)- Two weekends of games and we’ve narrowed the field from 68 down to four. Three we likely could have pointed out as Final Four contenders before the first ball was tipped. The fourth? A more surprising entrant this year but one with a decorated history.
On one side of the bracket, we have the top overall seed, Gonzaga, taking on 11-seed UCLA who has become just the second team ever to make the run from the First Four to the Final Four, following in the footsteps of 2011 VCU. On the other side, it’s a 1 vs. 2 all-Texas matchup with Baylor taking on Houston.
With the national semifinals set to tip off on CBS this Saturday, April 3, let’s dive into each matchup, how the teams got here, and key stats that could decide things.
2 Houston vs. 1 Baylor, 5:14 p.m. CBS
The Cougars had, by seed at least, the easiest road to this point. In order they took down 15-seed Cleveland State, 10-seed Rutgers, 11-seed Syracuse and 12-seed Oregon State. While it may not seem an overly impressive track record, what has stood out has been the defense. The most points they’ve allowed is 61, to Oregon State in their Elite 8 outing. That’s no fluke either considering they rate 8th in Ken Pomeroy’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency ratings.
As the tournament has progressed, they’ve tightened their perimeter defense allowing Syracuse and Oregon State to combine for just 11-of-39 shooting compared to 13-31 from deep against CSU and Rutgers. They’ll face another stiff test on the perimeter from the Bears whose trio of guards, MaCio Teague, Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell, all shoot better than 39 percent from beyond the arc with a pair of 40 percent or better shooters off the bench in Matthew Mayer and Adam Flagler.
The Bears finally broke through to the Final Four, their first since 1950, before the tournament expanded to its current format. That trio of guards is a big reason why. They’ve combined to average 41 points, 10.5 assists, 9.2 rebounds and 4.5 steals per game in the tournament. They’ve proven more than capable of grinding out possessions (against Villanova) and thriving in a higher paced game (against Arkansas). Wisconsin, Villanova and Arkansas did have some success getting to the offensive glass, we’ll see if Houston can do the same.
In the end, the Grimes, Jarreau and Sassers vs. Teague, Butler and Mitchell matchup will be the one to watch in this one.
11 UCLA vs. 1 Gonzaga, 8:34 p.m. CBS
The Bruins are hard to call an underdog or Cinderella story considering the 11 national championships in their trophy case. But, relatively, this team’s run has been one of the better ones we’ve seen in recent years. After losing star guard Chris Smith just eight games into the season, they had an up-and-down conference season that ended with four straight losses entering the tournament.
An 11-seed in the play in game against fellow 11-seed Michigan State, they came back from down 11 at halftime of the First Four matchup and went on to win in overtime. They then dispatched BYU and Abilene Christian with ease before an overtime win over Alabama and a two point squeaker against Michigan. The Bruins have settled into a very Mick Cronin style of play, slowing the pace and executing in the half court while forcing their opponents to do the same.
After allowing their opponents to 33.7% of their threes in during the season, they’ve allowed just 24.7% shooting from beyond the arc in the tournament. It hasn’t been much better for opponents inside either with no team eclipsing 50 percent shooting from the floor and each of the last three shooting under 43.5% as a whole. They were effective against Michigan freshman big man Hunter Dickinson, holding him to just 11 points. But another test will come with Gonzaga sophomore forward Drew Timme.
Timme has averaged 21.2 points per game thus far and if you take out the Norfolk State game in which he played just 22 minutes as the Bulldogs ran away from the Spartans, he’s averaging 25 per game in his last three. Cody Riley will have his hands full inside against Timme’s array of post moves. But, he’s far from the only threat. Point guard Jalen Suggs along with senior forward Corey Kispert were both midseason Naismith Player of the Year watch list members. Suggs orchestrates the offense to the tune of 4.5 assists per game while Kispert can light up from beyond the arc, a 45% shooter this season.
The biggest question for the Bulldogs is what happens if a few of the starters get in foul trouble and the bench players have to play big minutes. All five starters average over 27 minutes per game and the first two guys off the bench Anton Watson and Aaron Cook are at 19 and 13 minutes per game respectively.
That all said, the first mission for Cronin’s team will be to limit Timme’s effect inside. The sophomore has been on a roll in the last three games. Second, they’re going to need to find a way to keep the Bulldogs under 80 points, a tall task considering that’s happened just three times this season. The Bruins have crossed that 80 point threshold twice in the tournament but both games needed overtime to do so. If this game is up and down, high-scoring, that plays right into the Bulldogs hands.