Ness Notes: "And then there were Four!"

by Larry Ness

The 2021 NCAA Tournament got underway back on March 18 with 68 teams, eight of whom played in the "First Four" to cut the field of 64. The main question entering the tourney was "Could the 26-0 Gonzaga Bulldogs (the AP's No. 1 team since the preseason) win SIX straight games and match Bobby Knight's 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers and go 32-0 to finish an unbeaten season and win the national title?" Only four schools have won a national title while also going unbeaten. The list includes San Francisco (1956), North Carolina (1957), UCLA (1964, 1967, 1972, 1973) and Indiana (1976). Spoiler alert! The "little school from Spokane" has reached the Final Four for just the second time in school history and is now just TWO wins away from completing a "perfect season!" However, before looking a little closer at this season's Final Four, let me begin where I left off with my previous Ness Notes back on March 26.

The NCAA defines an upset as a team seeded five spots or lower than their opponent. The 2021 tourney set a record with 12 such "upsets" BEFORE a Sweet 16 game had been played. Double digit seeds set a record by winning 14 games in the 2016 tournament (no counting First Four contests) and after four days of 1st and 2nd round games, that figure has been matched at 14. Heading into the Sweet 16 and then the Elite 8, favorites were 31-20 (.608) and 22-29 ATS (43.1%) and that's only because favorites went 7-1 SU & ATS on the final day of the Round of 32.

Sweet 16 favorites went 6-2 SU and 5-3 ATS but two more double digit seeds won, No. 12 Oregon St over No. 8 Loyola-Chicago and No. 11 UCLA over No. 2 Alabama. That extended the all-time tourney record to 16 wins by double digit seeds in 2021 and UCLA's win added another "upset win" (now 13 and counting). The Elite 8 was composed of three No. 1 seeds (Gonzaga, Baylor and Michigan), a No. 2 seed (Houston), a No. 6 seed (USC) plus double digit seeds UCLA (11) and Oregon St (12). When all the "dust had settled," the favorites would go 3-1 but 2-2 ATS. No. 1s Gonzaga and Baylor won and covered but No. 1 Michigan was upset by UCLA 51-49, giving the 2021 tourney its 17th win by a double digit seed and its 14th "upset win." I didn't forget about the Houston/Oregon St game which was won by the Cougars, 67-61 (OSU covered). The Beavers' season ended in the Elite 8, as this year's team failed to make the school's third-ever Final 4 appearance (most recent came back in 1963). However, Oregon St (picked to finish last in the Pac-12 standings at the start of the season) sure quieted its critics (and made its bettors VERY happy) by going 14-1 ATS over its final 15 games. Speaking of pointspreads, here's how the 2021 tourney stands entering the Final 4. Favorites are 40-23 SU (.634) but 29-34 ATS (46.0%).

I guess it's somewhat ironic that the "longest shot" in the Final 4 field is UCLA (11-seed), which just happens to be the most-honored program in NCAA basketball history. This is UCLA's 50th tournament appearance and the Bruins are in their 19th Final Four. UCLA has won 11 national titles but as everyone knows, 10 of those came under the legendary John Wooden (from 1964-1975). UCLA's 11th title came in 1995. UCLA is just the FIFTH 11th seed to reach the Final 4, joining LSU in 1986, George Mason in 2006, VCU in 2011 (like UCLA, advancing with FIVE wins after playing in the First Four) and Loyola-Chicago in 2018. None of the previous 11-seeds have won their semifinal matchups and with UCLA's opponent being Gonzaga, 11-seeds are staring a 0-5 record right in the face. Then again, as noted above, this HAS been a tournament of upsets and NO conference has accomplished more than the Pac 12 in 2021.

UCLA scored the eighth Pac-12 upset in this year's tournament, setting a March Madness record since the tournament expanded to include 64 teams in 1985. The previous high-water mark for a conference was seven upsets, which the Big East and the SEC did in 1985 and 1986, respectively. The Big Ten may have placed NINE teams in this year's "Big Dance'' but only Michigan reached the Sweet 16, as the conference which placed FOUR teams in the AP's final top-8, went a collective 8-9 SU & ATS. Meanwhile. UCLA, Oregon St, USC and Oregon have gone 12-3 SU & 13-2 ATS. Maybe, the Bruins are not yet done.

Houston is hardly a 'longshot' but the Cougars join UCLA as one of two non-No. 1 seeds in the 2021 Final Four. However, Houston is the first team to ever reach the Final Four by getting to play four double-digit seeds in a single tournament. The Cougars beat No. 15 Cleveland State, No. 10 Rutgers, No. 11 Syracuse and No. 12 Oregon State. The win over the Beavers gives Houston a 6-0 all-time record in the Elite Eight, the most wins without a loss by any program since the round began in 1951. However, NONE of the previous five Houston Final Four teams emerged with a national title. If Houston's luck were to change in 2021, the Cougars would become just the THIRD non-power 5 conference school to win the title since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985  (Houston plays in the AAC). Louisville (playing in the now-defunct Metro Conference) beat Duke 72-69 to win the 1986 title and UNLV (playing the Big West) won in 1990 by routing Duke 103-73. I'm sure Kelvin Sampson wishes Duke could be his team's opponent in the title game on Monday if the Cougars were to get past Baylor in Saturday's semifinal matchup.

Speaking of Baylor, let's hear a shout out to Scott Drew. He took over a devastated Baylor program in the 2003-04 season and since 2007-08, has turned the Bears into one of the best programs in the country. Baylor won the NIT in 2013 and had made eight NCAA tourney appearances (26-4 last season would have made nine) entering this season.  Baylor won the first-ever Big 12 regular-season title this season, the first league championship since the Bears won the SWC regular season in 1950. This is Drew's ninth NCAA appearance with the Bears and Baylor reached the Sweet 16 for the FIFTH time in the last 12 years. The Elite 8 appearance was his third with Baylor and now it's his first Final Four appearance. Baylor opened the season No. 1 behind Baylor but COVID-19 nearly derailed Baylor's dream season, with the Bears being forced to pause for three weeks in February. A 17-0 record before the pause was quickly tarnished with a 13-point loss at Kansas in their second game back. Baylor then lost again in the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament, but here the Bears are in the Final Four for just the THIRD time in school history (1948 and 1950).

The last Final Four team left to discuss is Gonzaga, which enters 30-0, having won all but ONE game this season by more than double digits. Mark Few took over at Gonzaga for the 1999-2000 season and has led the Bulldogs to 21 NCAA tourneys in his 22 seasons (exception being last year, when March Madness was canceled). At 30-0, Gonzaga became the first Division I program to win 30-plus games for FIVE straight seasons. Gonzaga was 31-2 last year, 33-4 in 2019, 32-5 in 2018 and 37-2 in 2017, when Gonzaga made its only other Final appearance, losing in the championship game to North Carolina. Gonzaga was just 12-12-2 ATS entering the "Big Dance" but is 4-0 ATS so far. The Zags beat Norfolk St by 43 points (as a 33-point favorite) and then covered its next three games with an average winning margin of 17.7 points, while laying an average of just over 12 points.

Odds as of Wednesday night have Baylor favored by five points over Houston and Gonzaga favored by 14 points over UCLA (note: largest Final 4 favorite since 1985). Enjoy the final three games of this year's 'Dance!'

Good luck...Larry

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