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NCAA Tournament: Best Bets for the Final Four

by April 2, 2021

This year’s two Final Four matchups should be very entertaining, despite the unfamiliar territory we are in with a lack of East Coast representation. This is the first year that there are no Final Four teams located east of the Mississippi River. However, the familiar thing about this year’s matchups is the inclusion of a “Cinderella” or lower-seeded team. Amazingly, this is the 11th straight NCAA tournament that has had a No. 5 seed or lower reach the Final Four.

The Gonzaga Bulldogs and Baylor Bears have been the two best teams in college basketball all season. Are they on a collision course to meet in the national championship? Can Houston defend and rebound its way to an upset of Baylor? Will UCLA not only continue their unbeaten ATS streak in the tournament (5-0) but be the first blemish on Gonzaga’s record?

Here are our two best bets for Saturday’s Final Four action.

All odds via BettingPros consensus

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#2 Houston vs. #1 Baylor (-5): 5:14 PM ET

Baylor has looked dominant in the tournament to this point, winning their four NCAA tournament games by an average of 14.3 PPG. They are 3-0 ATS in their last three games and narrowly missed a fourth consecutive cover when they beat Hartford by 24 points as -25.5 point favorites.

The most impressive thing we have seen from Baylor to this point is their production from their bench. Baylor has had three different leading scorers in their four games. However, two of those leading scorers were Matthew Mayer and Adam Flagler, who have zero combined starts between them. And the leading scorer for the other two games was MaCio Teague, which means Baylor has dominated their opponents to this point without getting the best from their two AP All-Americans, Jared Butler, and Davion Mitchell.

Baylor has thrived on pressure defense and creating offense out of their defense. The Bears have forced 69 turnovers through the four tournament games, despite playing opponents like Wisconsin and Villanova, who are notorious for taking care of the basketball. Baylor’s defense has helped them overcome inconsistencies in three-point shooting, as they have gone 30-for-84 (35.7%) in the tournament.

The Houston Cougars are underdogs for just the second time this season. In their only other game as an underdog, they beat Texas Tech by 11 points as three-point underdogs back on November 29th. Coincidentally, that was also the only game Houston played against a ranked opponent this year, compared to 11 ranked teams Baylor has faced out of the rugged Big 12.

Though Houston ranks in the top ten nationally in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency and most rebounding metrics, one has to consider the level of opponents they face that help pad those statistics. Taking nothing away from what Houston has accomplished this year, but the fact that they have played just one ranked opponent (which Baylor also beat twice by an average of 11.5 PPG) means they are in for a bit of shell-shock when facing the talented Bears.

It cannot be understated how impressive Baylor has looked to this point without getting the best out of Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell for much of the tournament. Butler’s highest-scoring output through four tournament games is 16 points, which is a mark he had equaled or exceeded in eight of the nine games leading up to the tournament. Mitchell’s 13.5 PPG average is slightly under what he averaged in the regular season, but his 4-for-12 three-point shooting is the biggest surprise thus far. However, he has found other ways to contribute, like constantly locking down the opponents’ best player. His ability to limit Quentin Grimes’ scoring output will go a long way in determining the game’s outcome.

When Baylor has had four or more days off in between games this year, they are 7-2 ATS. Head coach Scott Drew has done a tremendous job getting the Baylor program to this point, and I trust his ability to devise a game plan that makes the most of their superior talent.

Pick: Baylor -5

#11 UCLA vs. #1 Gonzaga (-14): 8:34 PM ET

Since Indiana’s perfect season in 1976, three undefeated teams have made the Elite Eight. Only one of those three teams (1979 Indiana State) won their Final Four matchup before losing in the national championship game. The other two teams (1991 UNLV, 2015 Kentucky) lost in the Final Four. Can Gonzaga join Indiana State as just the second undefeated team in the last 42 years to reach the national championship?

Something has to give in this matchup, as Gonzaga and UCLA are a combined 9-0 ATS in their nine NCAA tournament games. With each game, the 2020-21 Gonzaga Bulldogs add to their resume of being labeled as one of the best college basketball teams of all time. Double-digits spreads are nothing to this team, as their 19-point win over USC in the Elite Eight was Gonzaga’s 27th consecutive win by double digits. They have won their four tournament games by an average of 24 PPG and have trailed for a total of 10:09. Their historical dominance is not limited to this season, as they are the first team in Division I history to win at least 30 games in five straight seasons.

The Bulldogs lead Division I in PPG, field goal percentage, and points in the paint. They lead the country in adjusted offensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage. USC had held its opponents to a Division I-best 41.5% two-point percentage entering their Elite Eight matchup. However, Gonzaga shot 26-for-45 (57.8%) from two-point range, and their 63.7% two-point shooting percentage for the season is also the best in the nation.

UCLA’s run to the Final Four is primarily a result of their defense. Michigan came into the Elite Eight averaging 81.3 PPG through their first three tournament games but scored just 49 against the Bruins. UCLA’s defense held up exceptionally well in the paint, holding Michigan to 17-for-40 (42.5%) from two-point range when they had entered the game shooting 59.2% on two-point shots in the tournament.

UCLA head coach Mick Cronin should be commended on the job he has done with the Bruins this year. UCLA lost the lone senior on their roster, Chris Smith, to a season-ending ACL injury back in late December. In addition, Jalen Hill chose to sit out the remainder of the season back in early February. Lastly, Daishen Nix, who Cronin signed to be his point guard back in August 2019, was poached by the NBA’s G League and never played a game for the Bruins. To accomplish what UCLA has without three projected starters is impressive, but it will also be why they cannot hang with Gonzaga.

Though UCLA has been solid defensively in the tournament thus far, this Gonzaga offense has proven it can beat the country’s best defenses. What should worry bettors backing the Bruins is how reliant UCLA has been on Johnny Juzang for offense. Juzang scored 28 of the team’s 51 points against Michigan, while the rest of the team went a combined 10-for-35 from the field. Juzang has now averaged 21.6 PPG in the tournament, but it will take a massive effort from UCLA’s supporting cast to hang with the high-powered ‘Zags.

It has been 406 days since Gonzaga last lost a game (2/22/20 at BYU). Mark Few’s team knows that this season is a failure and that all their accomplishments to this point will be lost in history if they do not win a national championship. Thus, a laser-focused Gonzaga team will dominate a UCLA team that may be content simply earning a Final Four berth.

Pick: Gonzaga -14

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Mike Spector is a featured writer at BettingPros. For more from Mike, check out his archive and follow him @MikeSpector01.

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