In a flash, the men’s NCAA Tournament field has gone from 68 to four in less than three weeks, setting the stage for the two national semifinal matchups at the Final Four in Indianapolis.
Gonzaga continues its quest for an unbeaten season when it faces fellow West Coast power UCLA in the marquee matchup Saturday night. Before those sides clash, Baylor and Houston meet in a reunion of former Southwest Conference foes. The winners will advance to Monday’s national championship game (9 p.m. ET, CBS).
Our experts make their predictions for Saturday’s showdowns that will decide which teams play one more time this season:
Baylor (26-2) vs. Houston (28-3)
Nancy Armour: Had this game occurred a month ago, or rather, were Houston playing the Baylor team of a month ago, I’d feel better about Houston’s chances. But the Bears have regained their mojo during this tournament, looking like the team that was considered the best in the country earlier this season. Stingy as Houston’s defense is, Baylor’s guards have shown they can overcome pretty much anything. Baylor 63, Houston 58.
Scott Gleeson: While Houston’s defense is top-notch, Baylor’s guards (Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell, MaCio Teague) can carve through any defense. The best backcourt in the country helps the Bears lead the nation in threes by keeping defenses honest — penetrating first — and then connecting from beyond the arc. DeJon Jarreau is a top defender, but coach Kelvin Sampson will need three DeJon Jarreaus to slow the Bears’ backcourt attack. Baylor 70, Houston 63.
Paul Myerberg: Houston has the defense to keep Baylor under wraps but not for 40 minutes. Guard play will eventually wear down the Cougars and send the Bears to the championship game for the first time since 1948. It’s worth asking whether Houston’s road to the Final Four has prepared the Cougars for this challenge. Baylor 67, Houston 54.
Erick Smith: The tournament has revealed more about Baylor than one might have expected on the way to the Final Four. The Bears were pushed by Villanova and Arkansas and showed they can win under pressure when their usually reliable three-point shooting is off. Houston has to stop the penetration of Davion Mitchell for its defense to have a chance. Like UCLA, the question for the Cougars is where does the scoring come from? Quentin Grims can’t do it all himself. The depth of Baylor, especially with its offense off the bench, proves pivotal in this game. Baylor 63, Houston 55.
HOUSTON: Kelvin Sampson emotional about racist upbringing, father fighting KKK
BAYLOR: Dave Bliss wrecked the program 17 years ago, but still found coaching jobs
Eddie Timanus: We should acknowledge that the American Athletic Conference has actually had a successful postseason. Houston is in the Final Four, of course, and Memphis just rolled to the NIT championship. Yeah, we know, the NIT – but sometimes that leads to bigger things. As for the Cougars, I’m afraid their run has reached its end. We know Houston can defend, but the Bears have a lot more weapons than any team the Cougars have seen thus far. Baylor and Gonzaga have been on a collision course all year. It’s about to happen. Baylor 81, Houston 64.
Dan Wolken: The Cougars will try to ugly this game up and hope that they can scrap and offensive rebound their way into a one or two possession affair late. But Baylor’s got enough physicality in the backcourt that I don’t think they’ll be too rattled by Houston’s defensive pressure. The Bears have not shot the ball great from distance in the tournament, but the good news for them is they don’t necessarily need that to win. Baylor 61, Houston 55.
UCLA: Jaime Jáquez Jr. playing for Mexican and American heritages
TOP 10: Best players on men’s semifinalists
TV RATINGS: Mixed results for men’s, women’s NCAA tournaments
Gonzaga (30-0) vs. UCLA (22-9)
Nancy Armour: Entertaining as UCLA’s run has been and stronger as the Bruins have gotten throughout it, they’re going to be no match for Gonzaga. No one is. Gonzaga is simply too talented; stop one of its offensive threats and there’s another two or three waiting. Plus, Mark Few has been here before, and there’s something to be said for understanding the heightened pressures that come with being one of the last four teams playing. Gonzaga 73, UCLA 62.
Scott Gleeson: Coach Mick Cronin’s grind-it-out defense might be able to slow Gonzaga a tad, but there’s just too much weaponry on coach Mark Few’s squad — one of the most gifted offensive teams, collectively, in the last decade. Johnny Juzang will need more help for the Bruins to contend. Look for NBA talent Jalen Suggs to keep his strong play going. Gonzaga 67, UCLA 60.
Paul Myerberg: Plucky underdog UCLA can hang up another Final Four banner and feel great about getting all the way to the semifinals. Beating Gonzaga is a big ask. The Bulldogs are the nation’s best team and two wins from earning a place in college basketball immortality, and it’s hard to see how the Bruins prevent that from happening. Gonzaga 78, UCLA 60.
Erick Smith: Imagine the pressure in pipes that builds up before they burst. That’s kind of how this game will go for UCLA. The Bruins can defend and stick around with Gonzaga, especially if the Bulldogs are feeling any Final Four nervousness. But at some point a run by Gonzaga is going to happen and the game is going to break open. UCLA simply lacks the offensive firepower to keep pace, which will spell the end of a magical tournament run by the Bruins. This won’t reach the record 44-point win of Villanova against Oklahoma in the Final Four, but don’t expect it to be close at the end. Gonzaga 80, UCLA 55.
Eddie Timanus: Much like their coach Mick Cronin, the Bruins are feisty, scrappy and hard-working. And it won’t matter. If Southern California’s big guys couldn’t disrupt the Bulldogs’ free-flowing offense, the Bruins have no shot, scrappy or not. UCLA’s only hope is to outscore the Zags, and that is not going to happen. Gonzaga 89, UCLA 69.
Dan Wolken: During their run to the Final Four, the Bruins have been able to turn around some of the late-game execution issues that plagued them in some close losses in the regular season. Some luck helps, too. But it’s hard to imagine how this is going to be a close enough game for UCLA’s tournament magic to kick in. I don’t expect Gonzaga to be as sharp offensively against this team as it has been over the last couple weeks, especially as the gravity of trying to win a title as a huge favorite kicks in. But the advantage the Zags have over UCLA in particular is that they don’t need to be great to win this game. Gonzaga 77, UCLA 63.