The Final Four starts with a first national semifinal on Saturday in which the competing teams have a shared history.
The Baylor Bears are in the Big 12 Conference, and the Houston Cougars are in the American Athletic Conference, but they both used to play in the Southwest Conference before it broke up in 1996.
While younger fans will see this as a Final Four game between teams not used to each other, older fans will see this as a long-delayed reunion. Either Baylor’s Scott Drew or Houston’s Kelvin Sampson will coach in the national championship game for the first time. Let’s look at how Baylor enters this matchup as well as the college basketball lines:
How They Got Here
The Bears began their NCAA Tournament journey by beating Hartford in the 1-versus-16 seed game. Baylor was viewed to be somewhat vulnerable in the second round against ninth-seeded Wisconsin. The Badgers won the Big Ten a year ago and have a reputation for creating March Madness upsets as a lower seed. Yet, Baylor functioned efficiently on offense and had all the answers for the Badgers’ defense in a comfortable win which was never truly in doubt.
Baylor got a stiff test in the Sweet 16 from fifth-seeded Villanova. The Bears trailed at halftime and played an atrocious offensive first half, but they came alive in the second half and played their best defense of the tournament to earn a very hard-fought 62-51 win which was a lot closer than the final score indicated.
Baylor got off to a big start against third-seeded Arkansas in the South Regional final, quickly grabbing a double-digit lead. However, Arkansas – under coach Eric Musselman – is built for comebacks. Arkansas won each of its first three NCAA Tournament games this March after being down by 10 or more points.
The Hogs rallied in the second half and were down by only four points heading into the final few minutes. Baylor could have gotten rattled, but this veteran team with lots of upperclassmen – which was unable to participate in the 2020 NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed – patiently waited for its opportunity.
The Bears controlled the final few minutes of regulation and won 81-72, sealing the program’s first Final Four since 1950. Baylor was in the top five of the rankings all season but for a school that has not been to the Final Four in a long time, the team had to deal with pressure and expectations throughout its journey. Now the Bears might be able to play with more relaxation.
The Bears are experienced, tough, and balanced. Jared Butler is a great player, but so is Davion Mitchell. Both men can get clutch baskets. Baylor has reliable wing shooters such as Macio Teague and low-post bruisers such as Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua. This is a powerful team that can play a fast-tempo game and executes in transition. Style of play is not a problem for Baylor, which can adjust to any opponent’s tactics due to its diversity of skills.
The Bears can dribble the ball a lot on offense and rely on their talent in one-on-one situations, instead of moving the ball and running a crisp set for a good shot. Baylor can become individualistic and impatient on offense. Given how well Houston plays defense, this is something the Bears need to be mindful of in Saturday’s game.
The Bears and Gonzaga have been the two best teams all season in college basketball. Everyone expects them to play next Monday for the national championship. That is indeed what will happen. Baylor should be able to shut down Houston’s offense and win in this upcoming national semifinal where they’re currently favored by 4.5 in the sportsbook.