For all the mayhem this March has given us, from the truly shocking (Oral Roberts, really?) to the mystifying (you can’t lose to Abilene Christian, Longhorns) to the upset that didn’t really seem like much of an upset (we’re looking at you, Loyola Chicago over Illinois), the 2020-21 men’s college basketball season is going to end in the most logical place possible.
Two No. 1 seeds, a No. 2 seed and one magical entrant in the Final Four. Gonzaga vs. the field. Perfection on the line.
Not too bad, eh?
We can characterize the historic measurement of NCAA tournaments in a lot of different ways. The number of upsets, the buzzer-beaters, the stars who carried their teams into America’s hearts.
But when you look at this event through the years, there are really two different categories of tournaments: Those that mirror what happened during the season and those that reflect the craziness of a one-and-done format to determine a national champion.
As we head into this Final Four, we can accurately say that few, if any, NCAA tournaments in the modern history of college basketball have been more representative of what we saw for the previous 4 1/2 months: Gonzaga running away from the field with Baylor in hot pursuit, tough-as-nails Houston just plugging away at excellence and just enough chaos for everyone else to duke it out for the scraps.
This was one of those years where, outside of a few teams, anyone could beat anyone on a given night. And the outcome was a tournament with a lot of upsets and amazing storylines that, in the end, proved the best teams really were the best teams.
“These steps get harder and harder, and the next one will be really hard,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of his team’s Final Four matchup against UCLA. “Then you’ve got Baylor, who looks amazing, and (Houston) is so darn tough and dialed in and resilient. It’s going to make for an amazing Final Four.”
At least on paper, you can’t ask for much more.
You’ve got Gonzaga, reaching 30-0 with its 85-66 win over USC in the Elite Eight, now just two wins shy of matching the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers as the last team to win an unbeaten national championship.
You’ve got UCLA, which despite its blueblood pedigree, had to scrape into the tournament as one of the last four at-large teams. After falling behind by 14 points to Michigan State in the First Four before staying alive in overtime, the Bruins have taken down BYU, Abilene Christian, Alabama and Michigan in succession to represent the “anything’s possible” portion of this season.
You’ve got Baylor, which looked for a stretch in January like it might be the best team in the country as it reached 17-0 before a three-week COVID-19 pause.
And then you’ve got Houston, a power in the 1980s that went into a quarter-century of irrelevance before being resurrected by Kelvin Sampson, which enters the Final Four at 28-3.
Up and down this lineup, you’ve got nothing but college basketball excellence and tradition. Even in a year of bizarre circumstances from beginning to end and an NCAA Tournament with the most opening weekend upsets in history, the two best teams played like the two best teams, and everything that followed made perfect sense.
That’s the kind of tournament you want to see. No matter what happens this weekend, these are the four teams that capture the story of the season. We will have a worthy national champion.
We don’t get that every season. Final Fours often have interlopers and imposters, teams that got here with luck and irrational belief as the favorites crash out early. But this looks more like a collision course that is completely representative of how the two teams who were at the top from beginning to end separated from the mushy middle.
We may ultimately find out that Gonzaga was in a tier of its own. The Zags have won their four tournament games by 19, 18, 16 and 33 points and could make their case as one of college basketball’s all-time teams if they finish this off with a perfect season.
But to do it, they’ll have to beat a UCLA team playing with tremendous toughness and belief, then in the final face either a Baylor team with an offense nearly as good their own, or a Houston team whose defense and rebounding ability would be elite in any year.
Gonzaga may well prove to be the best of the best, but this will be the most legitimate test possible and by far the most difficult collection of opponents it has had to play. The Zags will have to earn their place in history.
For a season set up for unpredictability and a tournament rife with upsets, we end where we began — with the shadow of Gonzaga’s excellence hanging over the field, Baylor looming as a real threat and a Final Four that looks exactly like this season. The greatness of the NCAA Tournament delivered again.