The men’s NCAA tournament field has risen from 68 to four in less than three weeks, setting the stage for the two national semi-finals at the Final Four in Indianapolis.
Gonzaga continues his quest for an unbeaten season when he takes on UCLA on the west coast in the marquee on Saturday night. Before these sides meet, Baylor and Houston meet for a meeting of former enemies of the Southwest Conference. Winners will advance to the national championship game on Monday (9:00 p.m. ET, CBS).
Our experts make their predictions for Saturday’s showdowns, which will decide which teams will play again this season:
Baylor (26-2) versus Houston (28-3)
Nancy armor: If that game had happened a month ago, or if Houston had played the Baylor team a month ago, I would have a better sense of Houston’s chances. But the bears regained their mojo during this tournament and look like the team that was considered the best in the country earlier this season. As stingy as Houston’s defenses are, 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 cut through any defense. The best back space in the land helps the bears lead the nation three by one by keeping the defenses honest – pervading first – and then connecting from beyond the arch. DeJon Jarreau is a top defender, but coach Kelvin Sampson needs 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. The guard game will wear down the Cougars at some point, sending the Bears to the championship game for the first time since 1948. It’s worth asking if Houston’s road to the Final Four prepared the Cougars for this challenge. Baylor 67, Houston 54.
Erick Smith: The tournament revealed more about Baylor than anyone would have expected on the way to the Final Four. The bears have been pushed by Villanova and Arkansas, showing that under pressure they can win when their normally reliable three-point shooting is off. Houston must stop Davion Mitchell’s intrusion so his defense has a chance. As with UCLA, the question for the Cougars is where the rating is coming from. Quentin Grims can’t do everything himself. Baylor’s depth, especially with his offense from the bench, is vital in this game. Baylor 63, Houston 55.
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Eddie Timanus: We should acknowledge that the American Athletic Conference did indeed have a successful postseason. Houston is in the Final Four, of course, and Memphis has just made the NIT championship. Yeah, we know the NIT – but sometimes that leads to bigger things. I’m afraid the cougars have reached their end. We know Houston can defend, but the Bears have a lot more guns than any team the Cougars have seen. Baylor and Gonzaga have been on a collision course all year round. It’s about to happen. Baylor 81, Houston 64.
Then clouds: The Cougars will try to make this game ugly, hoping to be late and offensively finding their way into a late ball possession affair or two. But Baylor has enough physicality in the backyard that I don’t think they’ll be too shaken by Houston’s defensive pressure. The bears didn’t shoot the ball great from a distance in the tournament, but the good news for them is that they don’t necessarily need to do that to win. Baylor 61, Houston 55.
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Gonzaga (30-0) against UCLA (22-9)
Nancy armor: Entertaining like the run of UCLA and stronger than the Bruins, they won’t be up to Gonzaga. Nobody is. Gonzaga is just too talented; Stop any of its offensive threats and there will be two or three more waiting. Plus, Mark Few has been here before and there is something to be said to understand the increased pressure associated with being one of the last four teams. Gonzaga 73, UCLA 62.
Scott Gleeson: Coach Mick Cronin’s defense can slow Gonzaga a little, but coach Mark Few’s squad simply have too many weapons – one of the most talented offensive teams in the last decade. Johnny Juzang will need more help so the Bruins can fight. Look for NBA talent Jalen Suggs to help keep his game going. Gonzaga 67, UCLA 60.
Paul Myerberg: The brave underdog UCLA can hang up another Final Four banner and feel great making it to the semifinals. Beating Gonzaga is a big question. The Bulldogs are the best team in the nation and two wins if they secure a place in the immortality of college basketball, 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. This is how this game will be for UCLA. The Bruins can defend and stick with Gonzaga, especially if the Bulldogs are feeling nervous about the Final Four. But at some point there will be a Gonzaga run and the game will break up. UCLA simply lacks the offensive firepower to keep up, which will mean the end of a magical Bruins tournament. This won’t match Villanova’s record 44-point win over Oklahoma in the Final Four, but don’t expect it to close in the end. Gonzaga 80, UCLA 55.
Eddie Timanus: Much like their trainer Mick Cronin, the Bruins are lively, scratchy, and hardworking. And it won’t matter. If the big boys of Southern California couldn’t disrupt the Bulldogs free flowing offense, the Bruins wouldn’t have a shot, scratchy or not. UCLA’s only hope is to beat the Zags, and that won’t happen. Gonzaga 89, UCLA 69.
Then clouds: During their run to the Final Four, the Bruins were able to resolve some of the late game running problems that plagued them in some close losses during the regular season. A little luck helps too. But it’s hard to imagine that this will be a game close enough 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 in recent weeks, especially against the beginning of the severity of trying to win a title as a big favorite. One of the main advantages of the Zags over UCLA is that they don’t have to be great to win this game. Gonzaga 77, UCLA 63.