Final Four Roundtable: Biggest storylines, important players, predictions

The Heat Check CBB staff discusses the Final Four and predicts Saturday’s matchups.

Welcome to the Final Four. We have a battle of West Coast powers and a Lone Star State showdown highlighting this year’s national semifinals.

The Heat Check CBB staff is back to discuss all the major topics from the Final Four, including predictions for Saturday’s matchups and the biggest storylines and players to watch.

—Coaching candidates: UNC | Texas Tech
PODCAST: Hope & Rauf’s Final Four preview
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Q: What’s your biggest storyline of the tournament so far?

Eli Boettger: There needs to be a bigger conversation about administrators who chose to stick with their head coaches after challenging initial years and are now at the top of the mountain. Scott Drew embraced an absolute disaster at Baylor and it took him five years to reach the tournament. Kelvin Sampson needed four years before Houston made March Madness. Mick Cronin wasn’t even UCLA’s first, second or third option when the Bruins had their coaching vacancy. This year’s field has been dominated by coaches who took their time in building programs and are now reaping the benefits. With the 2021 coaching carousel spinning out of control, let’s not forget that many of these coaches aren’t overnight sensations and needed time just to get to this point.

Connor Hope: I mean, each team has a pretty big storyline following them into the Final Four. Baylor has returned to their pre-COVID performance, UCLA is only the second First Four to Final Four team ever, and Houston had the first all-double-digit-seed route to the Final Four. However, we still have to discuss the Zags continuing their undefeated season in dominant fashion. They have not once looked vulnerable, and heading into Monday, the discussion may center around their vulnerabilities.

Brian Rauf: Going in, it has to be Gonzaga’s pursuit of an undefeated season. It hasn’t been done since 1976 and they’re on pace to be the most efficient team in college basketball history. The fact they’ve won all but one game this season by double digits would be a record, too. 

Andy Dieckhoff: West Coast, Best Coast! OK, maybe things are not exactly that black-and-white, but the fact that the Final Four contains *zero* teams from east of the Mississippi River is extremely encouraging as a denizen of the Western states. Throw in four Pac-12 teams in Elite Eight (plus Gonzaga!) and this has to be one of the best seasons the West has ever had. Even when you look at the more memorable “Cinderella” runs in the tourney — think Oral Roberts and Oregon State — the Eastern Time zone was outplayed in this one. Heck, even the women’s tourney is feeling this, with Stanford and Arizona set to tee off in the title game on that side!

Q: Who is the most important player in the Final Four?

EB: This feels like an appropriate time to mention UCLA big man Kenneth Nwuba. If the Bruins want to have any chance whatsoever at beating Gonzaga, Nwuba will need to provide quality minutes like he did against Michigan. Nwuba had a career-high 21 minutes and his presence was felt despite failing to score. We all know how dominant Gonzaga’s 2-point attack has been this season, and Nwuba could be the key ingredient in preventing easy makes around the basket.

CH: DeJon Jarreau is pretty clearly the most important player in the Final Four. Let’s be honest, the UCLA Bruins have a pretty slim shot at even having a close game, Gonzaga doesn’t really have a “most important player,” and Baylor has shown it can succeed even if their best players struggle. For Houston, however, its chances of beating the Bears relies heavily on the ability to deal with a swarming perimeter defense. As the Cougars point guard, Jarreau will need to have an almost flawless offensive game to give his team a shot. If he does that, and can limit Davion Mitchell’s impact on offense, Houston can win this game.

BR: I’ll go with another Houston player in Quentin Grimes. Jarreau is awesome but he doesn’t have the ability to completely take over a game offensively like Grimes. The former five-star prospect has the ability to match Baylor’s backcourt and even outplay the likes of Mitchell and Jared Butler. If he’s the best guard on the court rather than one of Baylor’s guards, Houston will have a good chance to pull the upset.

AD: I’m going to go with Drew Timme. I think he will be a very important factor in Gonzaga beating UCLA on Saturday, as I don’t really see a player like Cody Riley being able to slow down The Stache. Assuming both semifinal matchups go chalk, it would set up a very interesting frontcourt date between Timme and Baylor bigs Mark Vital, Flo Thamba, and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua. If the Bears’ perimeter defense slows down Gonzaga’s deep attack, Timme will need to be the interior safety valve he’s been all year for Mark Few’s club. The sophomore has been one of the most efficient players in the country to date, but Baylor may be more well-suited than anyone in the country to deal with that threat. In the end, I do think that Timme’s offensive skill will prevail, and it will be one of the major reasons Gonzaga hoists its first championship trophy.

Q: Give us your Houston vs. Baylor prediction.

  • Time: 5:14 p.m. ET
  • Channel: CBS
  • Line: Baylor -5

EB: When was the last time we actually had a national championship between the nation’s top two teams? Somehow, I have to imagine this unfolds in a way that we didn’t first expect. Houston is one of the few teams in the country that won’t be rattled by Baylor’s scoring attack and its physicality could be the story of this game. Baylor’s 273rd-ranked defensive rebounding rate vs. Houston’s 2nd-ranked offensive rebounding rate (per KenPom) is troublesome for the Bears. I think the Cougars maximize their second-chance opportunities and come away with the narrow win.

CH: I think Baylor wins this game, but Houston will keep it close for 35 minutes. We will see a solid defensive battle, with both backcourts going stretches without getting good looks. At the end of the day, however, Baylor just takes better shots, makes them at a higher rate, and will likely use a late run to put away their opponent.

BR: I agree with Connor. Baylor wins but this will be back and forth up until the final five minutes of the game when the Bears start to pull away. Houston might end up with a backdoor cover but Baylor wins without sweating too much.

AD: Don’t be surprised to see this one turn into a “rock fight” — a phrase I’m noticing is getting used all the time these days. I’m willing to concede that it applies here, though. These teams are both tough, hard-nosed clubs that defend with intensity and don’t give up anything easy to opponents. The rebounding battles will be donnybrooks. We’ve got two of the country’s best defensive guards in this game, between Davion Mitchell and Deeky Jarreau, but you also have players like Jared Butler, Quentin Grimes, MaCio Teague, and Marcus Sasser around for some instant offense. I’m really looking forward to this one, but I do think Baylor eventually prevails on the back of their guard play.

Q: Give us your UCLA vs. Gonzaga prediction.

  • Time: 8:34 p.m. ET
  • Channel: CBS
  • Line: Gonzaga -14

EB: UCLA leads at the under-12 timeout of the first half, everyone panics, and then Gonzaga winds up covering the spread. 

CH: Gonzaga will win. Gonzaga will cover. And nobody will blink an eye.

BR: Zags cover in the first half and don’t look back. I fully expect this to be anti-climatic.

AD: I won’t be surprised to see UCLA come out hot on offense and active on defense, which might lead to an early lead or the Bruins. That said, Gonzaga should eventually run away with this one. But Michigan State was supposed to beat UCLA, too. And so was Alabama. And so was Michigan. Mick Cronin certainly has some magic going on right now — and we just saw a scrappy defensive-minded Arizona team unseat the offensive juggernaut of UConn on the women’s side — so anything’s possible. I just think Gonzaga has too many options for UCLA to stop them all for a full forty minutes. Give me Gonzaga-Baylor. We’ve come too far and gotten too close not to have that final now.