The 2021 Final Four has a matchup of West Coast teams and this Texas-sized tilt between the Houston Cougars and Baylor Bears. These two schools last met in 2002 in the final game of the Space City Classic as Terrance Thomas hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Bears a 62-60 victory. The Lone Star State programs are set to renew acquaintances on Saturday night in Lucas Oil Stadium, and the stakes couldn't be much higher.
Houston's path to the Final Four was a pretty easy one considering the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region has yet to face a team seeded higher than 10. The Cougars picked up an easy win over No. 14 Cleveland State before needing a late comeback to overcome No. 10 Rutgers. Houston righted the ship in a win over No. 11 Syracuse before holding off No. 12 Oregon State in the second half to punch their ticket to the Final Four. None of the Cougars' opponents managed to score more than 62 points either.
Baylor's path was much tougher, although the top seed in the South Region made it look really easy with double-digit victories over No. 16 Hartford, No. 9 Wisconsin, and No. 5 Villanova before beating No. 3 Arkansas 81-72 on Monday night. The Bears have flashed some defense during March as well, so points could be hard to come by in the first Final Four matchup.
Final Four: No. 2 Houston (28-3) vs. No. 1 Baylor (26-2)
Time: Saturday, April 3 at 5:14 p.m. ET
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis)
Spread: Baylor -5.0
Keys for Houston
Houston's biggest strength is quite literally their strength inside, especially on offense. The Cougars rebound 39.8 percent of their misses offensively, which is second in the nation behind North Carolina. Houston has recorded 62 offensive rebounds in its four NCAA Tournament games, and it was a main key to the Elite Eight victory over Oregon State. And being active on the offensive glass is necessary considering the poor shooting at times, including 32.3 percent against the Beavers. Baylor is actually 273rd nationally at preventing offensive rebounds, so the advantage is there for the taking.
The other key is obviously the Cougars' defense, which ranks in the top 10 for both 2- and 3-pointers. East Carolina and Memphis are the only two opponents to crack the 70-point mark against them. This will arguably be the toughest game for Houston since matching up against Texas Tech on a neutral court back on Nov. 29. Houston won that game 64-53, holding the Red Raiders to 39.1 percent shooting overall (22.2 percent from 3-point range) and forcing 18 turnovers. We'll see if the Cougars can maintain their defensive prowess against Baylor.
Keys for Baylor
I discussed offensive rebounds above with Houston, and Baylor is ranked seventh in offensive rebound percentage. The Bears have collected 45 of them during this NCAA Tournament. They do it despite only one player in their rotation as tall as 6-foot-10 (Flo Thamba). If they can rebound their misses and extend possessions against Houston, the Bears will be able to find something open eventually.
The other thing I've noticed with Baylor is that their swagger is back. Scott Drew's team really hadn't played with much of it before the NCAA Tournament as their defense struggled to find its pre-COVID form. Now the group has gotten a lot better, and that confidence will help against the Cougars, who impose their will on their opponents. You could tell at times that Oregon State and Syracuse were really frustrated going up against that defense.
This is your classic matchup between a good offense and a really good defense. We saw something close to this when Gonzaga took on USC, and the better offense won out. I think we see something similar here. I'm just not impressed with Houston's shot selection and if the Cougars aren't getting their misses then they will struggle. Baylor has more creators on offense than Houston, and that'll be the difference. I don't know if either team gets to 70 points, but that won't matter for the Bears, who get the win.
Prediction: Baylor 69, Houston 62
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.