Gonzaga and its three All-Americans are the story of the Final Four.
The one-time mid-major sweetheart that has grown up into the muscle-bound bully. Undefeated through 30 games, outscoring its four tournament opponents by 95 points. Only one team this year — West Virginia — has stayed within single digits of the Zags.
They may have four first-round picks, led by one-and-done phenom Jalen Suggs, and features an offense and defense ranked nationally in the top-five in efficiency.
USC, coming off blowouts victories over Kansas and Oregon, couldn’t stay with Mark Few’s powerhouse program in the West Region final. Drew Timme got the better of Evan Mobley, the potential top pick in July’s NBA draft. The overall top-seeded Zags are a whopping 14-point favorite over No. 11 UCLA, the highest spread ever in a Final Four game. Perhaps fellow No. 1 seed Baylor, which meets second-seeded Houston in the other national semifinal, can hang with Gonzaga. They have been the two best teams all year.
But the smart money is on the Zags completing the sport’s first perfect season since Indiana in 1975-76. They are just the fourth team since Indiana and Rutgers (also during that 1975-76 season) to reach the Final Four undefeated, following Indiana State in 1979, UNLV in 1991 and Kentucky in 2015.
They aren’t just winning, they are doing so effortlessly, without one challenge thus far in the tournament, treating teams like they are West Coast Conference also-rans. Few and his players are easy to like. They praise their opponents after stomping all over them, move the ball crisply and execute with precision.
So far, the NCAA Tournament has felt more like the Gonzaga Invitational.
Below are three other Final Four storylines to follow:
In recent years, the Final Four has been predicated on experience, quality college players that might not necessarily be elite pros. This year is different. There are at least three projected lottery picks among the teams.
Gonzaga’s 6-foot-4 Suggs is at the top, in position to at least challenge Mobley and Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham as the No. 1 pick. His teammate, 6-7 wing Corey Kispert, is also considered a potential lottery pick because of his one elite tool, long-range shooting. NBA teams are high on Baylor lead guard Davion Mitchell, the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and the South Region’s Most Outstanding Player.
There’s a lot of Donovan Mitchell in his game. The speedy and shifty Davion Mitchell’s jump shot has improved — he has gone from shooting 32.4 percent from deep to 45.0 this year — matching his advanced athleticism, handle and defensive prowess. Gonzaga’s Timme and Joel Ayayi, Baylor’s Jared Butler and Houston’s Quentin Grimes are also considered possibilities either late in the first round or early in the second.
Cinderella comes in different forms. There is the cuddly kind like Loyola Chicago and Sister Jean in 2018 and there is the blue-blood brand that is UCLA which wasn’t expected to get out of the first weekend, let alone reach the Final Four.
The Bruins were one of the last teams to get selected to the tournament. They lost four in a row to close the regular season, trailed Michigan State by 11 at halftime in the First Four and allowed Alabama to force overtime with a 25-foot buzzer-beater in the Sweet 16. It lost its best player, senior guard Chris Smith, to a torn ACL at the turn of the new year, and saw top recruit Daishen Nix choose the G-League over college.
And, yet, here is UCLA in coach Mick Cronin’s second season, one of the last four teams standing, after pulling stunning upsets over No. 2 Alabama and No. 1 Michigan. It is an enormous underdog Saturday night. Despite its history, its 11 national championships and having seven former top-100 recruits on its roster, UCLA is this tournament’s Cinderella. Former Kentucky wing Johnny Juzang has become a star, averaging 21.6 points in the tournament. The Bruins won’t be given much of a shot to take down Goliath. But David has used his slingshot with sharp accuracy for weeks now.
Whoever is crowned, the champion will be fresh. Whichever coach wins, it will be his first title. UCLA is the lone team who has won it all before, and that was most recently in 1995. Gonzaga has never claimed a national championship and is only in its second Final Four. Houston has never won it all either, losing in the title games in 1983 and 1984 in the days of Phi Slama Jama, the last time it was one of the final four teams left. Coach Kelvin Sampson has been to the Final Four himself, as the coach at Oklahoma in 2002. Baylor hasn’t played on this stage in 71 years.