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Final Four Preview

April 1, 2021
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The NCAA has done an admirable job of putting on an NCAA tournament while navigating through the coronavirus pandemic. Only one game, a first-round matchup between Oregon and VCU, was affected by the virus. With the Final Four upon us, that game is a distant memory.

Now, the focus is on one of four different stories. Which two will prevail in the national semifinals and which one will live on forever?

Houston-Baylor (BAY -5, 135)
Kelvin Sampson has rebuilt the Houston basketball program into the premier one in the American Athletic Conference. The Cougars went 26-3 this season thanks, in large part, to a smothering, suffocating defense that just grinds opponents into the ground.

That defense is responsible for getting Houston to within a game of the national championship, somewhere the Cougars haven’t been since the days of Phi Slamma Jamma back in the 1980s.

In four games so far in the NCAA tournament, Houston has given up 56, 60, 46, and 61 points. Three of those four games went Under the posted game total. The first-round game against Cleveland State went Over thanks to a Houston offense that scored an uncharacteristic 87 points.

The Cougars were favored in each game but only covered in two. Now, Houston is a 5-point underdog to No. 1 seed Baylor. The Cougars have been an underdog just one time all season and that was back in November of last year when they faced Texas Tech. Houston won that game 64-53.

Sampson and company will face a Baylor squad that is one of the best offenses in the country. Jared Butler (16.6 ppg) is an NBA point guard and leads an offense that scores 83 points per game. If not for Gonzaga, it would be Baylor that would be the nation’s best on offense.

What many don’t realize about the Bears is that they are also an elite defense. Baylor ranks 47th in points allowed per game (65.5) and 22nd in defensive efficiency. Head coach Scott Drew’s team also ranks sixth in the nation in turnovers forced averaging 17.3 per game.

Baylor’s defense has gotten even better during the tournament. Baylor has allowed just 60.3 points per game through their first four March Madness games. This all points in one direction for bettors – the total.

With two elite defenses slugging it out, the Under looks like a great play. This is a game where the score should be in the low 60s.

UCLA-Gonzaga (GON -14, 145.5)
UCLA holds the distinction of owning the most NCAA basketball championships. Most of those titles can be traced back to the 1960s and ‘70s under legendary coach John Wooden. These days, it’s second-year coach Mick Cronin who has the Bruins on the brink of a great Cinderella Story.

The Bruins are just the second team to go from the First Four to the Final Four. VCU did it back in 2011. UCLA has done it with defense. They beat both the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in their region after coming from behind to win their play-in game and upsetting No. 5 BYU.

The problem for the Bruins is that they will face not just the best team in the nation in 2021, but one of the best teams ever put on the floor in college basketball history. Gonzaga is No. 1 in scoring offense, No. 1 in offensive efficiency and first in two-point field goal percentage. In fact, the Bulldogs two-point field goal percentage of 63.7 is the best ever recorded in college basketball history.

Now, Gonzaga is favored by 14 points at every major online sportsbook. It is unusual to see a double-digit spread in a Final Four game. In fact, there hasn’t been such a spread since the 1990s. Kentucky was favored over Syracuse in the 1996 national final. The Wildcats did win, but they did not cover.

While UCLA is certainly good, they are simply outmatched in this Final Four matchup. Corey Kispert and Drew Timme both average around 19 points per game. Point guard Jalen Suggs (14.7 ppg) may be the best prospect in school history.

The Bulldogs beat USC to get to the Final Four. The Trojans had the second-best two-point opponent field goal percentage in the nation. Gonzaga was favored by 8.5 to win. The Bulldogs won by 19. Despite the large spread on Saturday night, bettors should take a long look at Gonzaga to win and cover.