The NCAA men’s basketball tournament started with an above-average rate of upsets, but the favorites have since settled down and taken care of business. No. 1 Gonzaga, No. 1 Baylor and No. 2 Houston all made the Final Four, with UCLA crashing the party as an 11-seed.
Gonzaga, the top overall team in the field, is chasing history. The Bulldogs have already set an NCAA record by securing their fifth straight 30-win season and they won 27 consecutive games by 10 points or more, the most by any team in the last 60 years. Now, at 30-0, they are attempting to become the eighth national champion to cut down the nets without experiencing a loss. UCLA has accomplished the feat four times (1964, 1967, 1972 and 1973) while San Francisco (1956), North Carolina (1957) and Indiana (1976) each did it once.
Will Gonzaga join them? Perhaps. In January we estimated they had an 11% chance to finish the regular season undefeated, the best chance of any team since 2014-15, and they have continued rolling in the NCAA tournament. Using the same method from a few months ago puts Gonzaga’s likelihood of a perfect season at 58% no matter who wins the other side of the Final Four bracket between Baylor and Houston.
That’s not the only number worth focusing on for this year’s Final Four. Here are a few more that are sure to factor into the chase for the national championship.
– No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 11 UCLA
64%: Gonzaga’s field goal rate on two-point attempts, the best all-time per Pomeroy’s calculations.
Joel Ayayi is scoring almost three-fourths of the time on drives to the basket. So is Anton Watson. Corey Kispert is successful on two-thirds of his put-backs off the offensive glass, averaging 1.4 points per possession. On plays around the basket the Bulldogs average 1.4 points per possession, the best in men’s college hoops. They are close to that production, 1.3 points per possession, in the low post. And if that’s not enough, they hit 40% of their jump shots within 16 feet of the basket. The Bulldogs are lethal when they get the ball inside.
USC, the best defense against two-point shots in 2020-21 (42% field goal rate against), allowed Gonzaga to score on 26 of 45 (58%) two-point attempts. UCLA’s defense is coming into this game allowing a success rate of nearly 50%.
18.9 seconds: Average offensive possession length for UCLA.
The Bruins like to take their time on offense, allowing the shot clock to wind down almost 19 seconds per offensive possession. The benefit is an efficient offense, one that scores 116.2 points per 100 possessions after adjusting for opponent (13th best per Pomeroy). However, it leaves them vulnerable against Gonzaga and its fast-paced offense (14 seconds per average offensive possession). How much of an impact could tempo have on this game?
If the tempo is closer to how the Bulldogs like it, 70 possessions or more, the Bruins could be looking at a deficit of 16 points or more. If UCLA can keep the tempo closer to its preferred terms, less than 70 possessions, the Bruins project to be outscored by 12 points, making an upset slightly more likely (but still improbable). The slower the tempo, the better chance UCLA has to pull out an unlikely win.
– No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 2 Houston
25%: Baylor’s turnover rate on defense
Baylor’s defense has been on full display all season. The Bears allow 92.2 points per 100 possessions after adjusting for strength of schedule (28th best in the nation per Pomeroy’s rankings) and when their shots weren’t falling against Villanova in the Sweet 16 they held an otherwise efficient Wildcats offense to a mere 51 points on 66 possessions.
The key to the victory was turnovers. Baylor forced Villanova to commit 16 (the Wildcats entered the game averaging 8.8 turnovers, the lowest mark in Division I men’s basketball) with five different Villanova players committing two or more in the game. Baylor then forced 15 turnovers against Arkansas in the Elite Eight, six on senior Jalen Tate alone, helping secure the school’s first Final Four berth since 1950.
Houston’s offense has been forced to commit turnovers on 20% or more of its possessions 13 times this season, losing just one of those contests. However, the best of those teams, Memphis, was ranked no higher than 31st in the country per Pomeroy’s rankings whereas Baylor ranks No. 2 heading into this matchup.
35%: Percentage of half-court possessions that produced points against Houston
The Cougars know how to limit an opponent’s offense. Coach Kelvin Sampson has his squad entering the Final Four with the sixth-best defense in the country, allowing just 88.4 points per 100 after adjusting for strength of schedule. They will need to be at the top of their game to contend with Baylor’s offense, the third-most efficient of 2020-21.
Houston’s biggest edge is in the half-court. The team doesn’t give quality shots to spot-up shooters (31 percent field goal rate against) nor does it allow the ballhandler on the pick-and-roll to get much space. Those two play types accounted for nearly 42 percent of Baylor’s possessions this year.
Guards Marcus Sasser and Dejon Jarreau combined to allow 95 points on 149 pick-and-roll possessions, a below-average rate for Division I basketball, and both will need to be active in neutralizing their opposites in Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell.