In March 2020, the Coronavirus landed in America, leading to the cancellation of the college basketball season in the midst of the conference tournaments. We were deprived of the Big Dance, and hundreds of seniors had their childhood dreams of being a part of March Madness ripped away from them right in front of their eyes.
Almost a year later, we are finally here, and the Final Four weekend is only hours away. It was nothing short of miraculous to get to where we are, overcoming the virus, social injustice and even gender equality issues, but we made it.
Because it was the craziest season in history, it was only right that this March was filled with just as much Madness. From a 15 seed winning back to back games to a first four team making it to the Final Four, so far, this Big Dance has been one for the ages, and the excitement is far from over. Let’s take a look at our four regional champions, who will fight to cut the nets down.
Final Four Matchups:
Houston vs. Baylor
UCLA vs. Gonzaga
West Region Champions: Gonzaga Bulldogs (30-0)
The Bulldogs are trying to be just the 8th team in history to complete an undefeated season along with winning a national championship. This has not been done since the Indiana Hoosiers did it back in 1979. However, based on how the Zags have been dominating any team in their path, it looks like they are on the road to victory.
In the Conference tournament, Gonzaga overcame a 12 point halftime deficit to BYU and ended up winning by 10. In the National tournament, it has been a breeze. The Zags have outscored their opponents by an average of 24 points, scoring over 80 in each of their four victories against Norfolk State, Oklahoma, Creighton and USC. Many thought that the size and experience of USC would trouble the Zags in their Elite Eight matchup, but Drew Timme’s 23 point performance led to an easy 85-66 victory.
When you look at the amount of talent on the Bulldog roster, it is no surprise that they have steamrolled past the teams they faced. Gonzaga has three players on the AP All American Teams. Senior sharpshooter Corey Kisper was named on the first team while Freshman guard Jalen Suggs and Sophomore center Timme headlined the second team.
Gonazaga has everything needed to be a championship team. They can score from anywhere on the court with four players averaging double digit points and their depth and athleticism makes them a very hard team to score on. The Zags are the clear favorite to win it all, and in my mind, it is going to take a miracle for someone to take this juggernaut down.
East Region Champions: UCLA Bruins (22-9)
UCLA is on a run to remember. Starting out as a first four team, needing to get past Michigan State just to get a spot in the tournament, it looked as if their season was over as they were down by 11 at the half. But the Bruins were able to claw their way back and set the tone for the rest of the tournament.
UCLA is the first play-in team to make it to the Final Four since VCU made a run of their own in 2011. The Bruins have been the underdog in four out of the five games in the tournament and that has only motivated them more. Knocking off BYU and Albeline Christine in the first and second rounds was the farthest anyone thought they could go. But Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez had different plans.
Taking on the SEC champion Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sweet Sixteen, the Bruins showed they were for real. Jaquez dropped 17 points and grabbed 8 boards in an overtime win to knock off the number 2 seeded Tide. In the Elite 8, it was Johnny Juzang’s turn to take over. The sophomore transfer from Kentucky dropped 18 in the first half and finished with 28 in a shocking upset over #1 seeded Michigan, 51-49.
The Bruins are going to need to rely on their star power as they have so far if they want to complete the unthinkable of taking down Gonzaga. Both Juzang and Jaquez are going to need to have the game of their lives if they want to even come close, but hey, it’s March, we are supposed to expect the unexpected.
South Region Champions: Baylor Bears (26-2)
After a surprise upset loss to Freshman phenom Cade Cunningham’s Oklahoma State in the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament, the Baylor Bears are back to their dominating ways in the Big Dance. The Bears have yet to be tested in this tournament, blowing by Hartford, Wisconsin, Villanova and Arkansas in their first four games.
Led by Big 12 player of the year Jared Butler and lightning fast guard Davion Mitchell, the Baylor Bears have reached their first Final Four in 71 years. The last few months have not been easy for the Bears however. With just three months left in the regular season, Baylor had a positive Covid test and were forced to shut down just before it was tournament time. When they were cleared to come back, the Bears played like they never stopped, winning three straight games and clinching the Big 12 regular season title in the process.
Baylor looks like they are really playing for something, and that causes trouble for other teams. Their ability to cause turnovers, stretch the floor in transition and hit shots is almost impossible to stop. Mitchell and Butler are a lethal duo in the backcourt, and there might not be a better pair in the country. MaCio Teague and Mathew Mayer have been instrumental in the Bears prolific offense and can score from anywhere on the floor. Teague led the Big 12 champs with 22 points in their Elite Eight victory over Arkansas. The guard trio of Butler (16.5 ppg), Teague (15.9 ppg) and Mitchell (14.0 ppg) have accounted for nearly 56% of Baylor’s total scoring this season, but it will mean nothing to them if they do not end this season with a trophy in their hands.
Midwest Champion: Houston (28-3)
Coming from the weaker American Conference, the Houston Cougars have heard all year how they are not a real contender, and all year, they have happily proved everyone wrong. The Cougars are back in the Final Four for the first time since 1984, and they’re there because of their defense. Houston has held teams to a mere 56 points per game this tournament, and it starts with their perimeter defense. Senior guard Dejon Jarreau was named the Conference Defensive player of the year and he has continued locking up opponents in the tournament. The Cougars feed off Jarreau’s competitive spirit and grit, and it shows on the floor as they are one of the toughest teams to score against in the country. Conference Player of the year Quentin Grimes has led the Cougars in scoring, averaging 18 points per game in the last four.
Houston had to battle to become the Midwest champs. After crushing Cleveland State, the Cougars overcame a 10 point deficit with 10 minutes left in a huge comeback win against Rutgers. In the Sweet 16, Houston went on to beat the deadly shooters of Syracuse, and then took down the scorching hot Oregon St. Beavers in the Elite Eight. Houston has an incredibly tough test in Baylor ahead of them, but if anyone can stop the Bears, it is the defensive dominance of the Houston Cougars.
I think I can safely say for all College Basketball fans around the world, March Madness, we love you so much, and please never leave us again.