INDIANAPOLIS — After a season that featured numerous pauses and cancelations, college basketball has made it to the finish line. We’re just days away from the Final Four, so it’s time to look at the key storylines before Saturday night’s matchups.
Gonzaga’s Shot at Perfection: Mark Few and the Zags are now two games away from becoming the first men’s team since the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers to go through an entire season without a loss.
Few’s program entered the season as the No. 1 team in the country, and the Bulldogs have lived up to the hype. They dominated Kansas, West Virginia, Iowa and Virginia in non-conference play, steamrolled teams in the WCC and have dominated in the NCAA Tournament — winning four games by an average of 24 points per matchup.
The Zags have a lottery-pick point guard in Jalen Suggs, one of the best shooters in the country in senior Corey Kispert and a dominant big man in sophomore Drew Timme. Who would have thought that Gonzaga would be Goliath in their national semifinal matchup against UCLA, but that’s how far the Zags have come in the last couple decades. Now they have a chance to win their first national title while also making history by running the table.
Kelvin’s Redemption: Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson was run out of college basketball back in 2008 after recruiting violations — primarily making impermissible phone calls. Sampson then spent six years as an NBA assistant coach and eventually took over a Houston program that hadn’t been nationally relevant since the days of Hakeem Olajuwon.
Now Sampson has the Cougars in the Final Four, and the cool part is that he’s done it with his son, Kellen, by his side as the program’s coach-in-waiting. Sampson, 65, went to the Final Four back in 2002 with Oklahoma, and gets another shot nearly two decades later. The question is whether the increase in competition will be a factor. The Cougars played in a mediocre AAC this season and have been fortunate to play a quartet of double-digit seeds thus far in the NCAA tourney (Cleveland State, Rutgers, Syracuse and Oregon State).
Now they get the Big 12 champion Baylor Bears, who can match their toughness and are also superior offensively.
UCLA’s First Four to Final Four Run: Just two years after the surprising hire of Mick Cronin, the UCLA Bruins — the most storied program in college basketball history with 11 national titles — have returned to the Final Four for the first time since 2008.
However, this time they arrive as the Cinderella story. UCLA barely got in the field, and has become the second team in NCAA history to go from the First Four to the Final Four, joining Shaka Smart’s VCU squad from 2011. But this was even more improbable, as Cronin lost his top signee, Daishen Nix, to the NBA G League Ignite, then senior Chris Smith suffered a torn ACL at the end of December.
Cronin was plucked from Cincinnati because several others turned down the job, but he’s quickly made the Bruins very competitive. Unlike how he did it at Cincinnati with defense, this Bruins group has put points on the board — except for the grind-it-out win over No. 1 Michigan to earn the Final Four bid. Most feel as though this is where the road will end for UCLA, but even if it does, it was one heck of a ride for Cronin & Co.
Baylor’s Ultimate Rebuild: When Scott Drew took over the program in 2003, no one wanted the job. Carlton Dotson had murdered teammate Patrick Dennehy, and coach Dave Bliss was fired after violating rules and trying to frame Dennehy as a drug dealer. Drew had seven scholarship players, won a lone league game in 2004-05 and wasn’t even allowed to play a non-conference schedule in 2005-06.
In his fifth season, Drew finally reached the NCAA tourney. Then in 2010 and 2012, the Bears went to the Elite Eight, losing to eventual national champion Duke and Kentucky, respectively. Now this program that was once considered one of the worst in college basketball has a chance to win a national title. Drew’s team is led by an All-American backcourt of Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell, and this is a group that returned just about everything from last year’s team that also had a chance to make a deep run.
Drew and Baylor have done the unthinkable in pushing this program to the Final Four. Now the question is whether they can cut down another set of nets here in Indianapolis and pull off one of the greatest stories in the history of the sport.