Gonzaga, now 30-0 in pursuit of the sport’s first perfect season since 1976, has reached one previous Final Four, losing in the 2017 national title game. Houston made five Final Fours under Hall of Fame coach Guy V. Lewis between 1967 and 1984, losing most famously to North Carolina State in the 1983 championship game on Lorenzo Charles’s buzzer-beating dunk.
The other No. 1 seed still playing is Baylor, which reached the Final Four in both 1948 and 1950 — when this was an eight-team tournament. The Bears lost the final in 1948 to Kentucky.
So it will be Cinderella — No. 11 seed UCLA, which won the most recent of its titles in 1995 — against three high seeds, each seeking a first national championship.
Nothing happened this week to change the minds of those who have thought since December that Gonzaga and Baylor were meant to play for this championship. The two schools were supposed to play in Indianapolis on Dec. 5, but the game was called off a couple of hours before tip-off after positive tests involving two members of the Gonzaga traveling party.
Gonzaga Coach Mark Few and Baylor Coach Scott Drew insisted at the time that they would do everything they could to reschedule.
“We’ll find a way to play it at some point.” Few said then. “We’ll make it happen.”
They are now each one win away from doing so — but with a national championship at stake.
So far, they have handled the pressure of their undefeated record with poise and cool. After they easily handled Creighton in the round of 16, there was talk that Southern California’s Mobley brothers might be a serious test. Freshman Evan Mobley is 7 feet tall, and some think he will be the first pick in this year’s NBA draft. His older brother, sophomore Isaiah, is only 6-10 and not as talented. But the two of them make for a legitimate twin-towers duo.
Gonzaga handled them as if they were each a foot shorter and cruised to an 85-66 victory. The Bulldogs have won their four tournament games by an average of 24 points. Remember, this is the NCAA tournament, not the Maui Invitational.
Gonzaga has three legitimate all-Americans in point guard Jalen Suggs and forwards Corey Kispert and Drew Timme, who might be the most improved player in the country. They are also deep, and they play excellent defense — a fact often overlooked because their offense is such a sight to behold.
The Bulldogs’ opponent Saturday night will be UCLA, which trailed Michigan State by 11 at halftime of a play-in game. The Bruins scored 53 points in the second half and overtime to beat the Spartans, 86-80. UCLA survived another overtime game in the round of 16 against Alabama and then put on a remarkable defensive performance Tuesday night to beat top-seeded Michigan, 51-49. UCLA guard Johnny Juzang, who hurt his right ankle late in the Michigan State game but has played through the injury, scored 28 of his team’s 51 points.
The Wolverines’ loss was the climax of a miserable two weeks for the vaunted Big Ten, beginning with Michigan State’s loss to UCLA. The conference, touted by many as one of the great conferences of all time during the regular season, got nine bids — including two No. 1 seeds, Michigan and Illinois, and two No. 2 seeds, Iowa and Ohio State.
All of that led to an embarrassing 8-9 record in tournament games, with only Michigan even making the second weekend. So much for Big Ten hype.
The other often-hyped conference, the ACC, got seven bids but none higher than Florida State and Virginia, both No. 4 seeds. Duke didn’t even make the field — for the first time since 1995. North Carolina did make it but was hammered in the first round, 85-62, by Wisconsin.
The flip side was the Pac-12. None of the five teams from the conference were seeded higher than No. 5 Colorado. And yet the conference has one team in the Final Four and had two others — USC and Oregon State — in the Elite Eight. In all, the Pac-12 has gone 13-4 — and one of those losses was in an intra-conference matchup.
Houston, the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region, had the easiest path to the final weekend. The Cougars benefited when Loyola Chicago whipped No. 1 seed Illinois only to lose to No. 12 seed Oregon State. That meant Houston had to beat a No. 15 seed, a No. 10 (Rutgers, its toughest game), a No. 11 (Syracuse) and a No. 12. The Cougars blew a 17-point halftime lead against Oregon State but found their poise late to win by six and make the Final Four for the first time since Hakeem Olajuwon was their starting center.
There they will face their old Southwest Conference foe Baylor. The Bears have excellent guards, depth and quickness. They faced a real challenge in the round of 16 from Villanova but pulled away late and did the same thing against Arkansas in the Elite Eight. Almost every player on the Baylor roster is listed as a guard or a guard/forward, and they harass teams defensively for 40 minutes.
The best of those guards are Jared Butler and MaCio Teague, who hit three crucial threes down the stretch against Arkansas. They will be a tough out for Houston.
In the Final Four, though, as history proves, anything can happen. No one thought Duke had a chance to beat a 34-0 UNLV team in 1991. N.C. State wasn’t supposed to have any chance against Houston in 1983, and Villanova was supposed to be fodder for Georgetown two years later. In 1976, undefeated Indiana trailed Michigan at halftime in the championship game and came back to win by 18.
As Bob Knight walked out of the Spectrum in Philadelphia that night with Bob Hammel, the sports editor of the Bloomington newspaper, Hammel said: “You did it Bob! You did it!”
Knight shrugged and, thinking back to his 31-1 team a year earlier, said, “Should have been two.”
If Few can walk out of Lucas Oil Stadium on Monday night having matched the accomplishment of that Indiana team of 45 years ago, you can be sure he will be very happy to have one.