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Mike Lopresti | | March 30, 2021

The 2021 Elite Eight, that almost no one saw coming, previewed

Here are the top moments from Sunday's Sweet 16

Eight teams left. The Final Four door is right there in front of them and all have reasons to desperately yearn to go further. The NCAA tournament has become a most unusual land of opportunity.

Look at the eight coaches. Six have never been to a Final Four in their lives. Only Gonzaga’s Mark Few and Houston’s Kelvin Sampson know what it’s like, Sampson getting there with Oklahoma.

Look at how long it has been for most of the programs since their last Final Four. Baylor in 1950, USC in 1954, Oregon State in 1963, Houston in 1984, Arkansas in 1995. Only Michigan, UCLA and Gonzaga have been there within the past 25 years, and none of them won. The teams responsible for the past 24 national championships are all gone. Not a national champion of the 21st century is standing.

Look at the seedings. Oregon State has the chance to be the first No. 12 ever to go to the Final Four. UCLA has the chance to be only the fifth No. 11. George Mason, VCU and Loyola Chicago are some of the names on that Cinderella roster. UCLA a Cinderella story. It’s come to that in 2021.

Look at the teams now knocking at the door.

Gonzaga wants to be let in. This season has turned into an historical mission, given the chance to finish it with the most exclusive phrase in college basketball — unbeaten national champion. That is not their quest, the Zags keep saying, but rather the title itself, to validate once and for all the stature of their remarkably consistent program, and seemingly unstoppable team. The trophy is the goal, history can just be dessert.

"At this point, every team has to go undefeated now to win the tournament," guard Andrew Nembhard was saying. "So there’s not really pressure to keep that streak. It just is what it is."

Here is what we should know about Gonzaga before its Tuesday game with USC. The offense continues to hum like the finest tuned machine you ever saw. The Bulldogs are shooting 55 percent in the tournament, with 62 of their 96 field goals coming off assists. Six different players have scored at least 15 points in a game.

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Creighton coach Greg McDermott called Gonzaga one of the best passing teams he has ever seen. The Bluejays’ Marcus Zegarowski tried to describe what it’s like facing the Zags: "There’s like, no lapse. You just can’t take not even a play, you can’t take a second off versus them or else they’re going to make you pay."

One other thing. It has now been 26 victories and 117 days since Gonzaga won a game by single digits.

Baylor wants to be let in. The Bears have been lurking all season, considered by many to be the most likely team to stop Gonzaga, if anyone can. Drew has done wonders with that program, but there are ghosts of tournaments past, too: Yale knocked out Baylor in 2016, Georgia State in 2015. "If you’re in the tournament, you’re going to have great moments and you’re going to have bad moments," Drew said. "That’s why it’s the tournament."

The Bears badly want to be recognized as the national power they have long sought to be. Well, there’s one good spot to go for that.

Here is the 2021 NCAA tournament bracket

Here is what we should know about Baylor before its Monday game with Arkansas. The Bears can play defense on well as anyone, and when they flip on the intensity it can be ferocious. That’s what happened to Villanova when Baylor turned a seven-point halftime deficit into an 11-point win. The Wildcats were leading the nation in fewest turnovers and had only 12 their first two tournament games combined. Baylor turned them over nine times in the second half, and won the points-off-turnover category that half 13-0.

“When you’re down seven at halftime, when’s there this much pressure, win or go home, sometimes pressure bursts the pipes,” Drew said. “And obviously it didn’t burst ours.”

Michigan wants to be let in. The Wolverines carry the Big Ten torch and have for a while, and besides they have lost four national championship games in a row. The only way to end that streak is to get back and win it. What would it say about Juwan Howard that in two years he went from having not a day of college coaching experience to the Final Four? Already, his success might have played a part in another Big Ten school calling a former player home to coach, despite no college experience; Indiana and Mike Woodson.

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Here’s what we should know about the Wolverines before Tuesday game against UCLA. Their offense has been rolling along, too. In fact, they have a higher assist-to-field goal ratio than Gonzaga. They also have a lot of seniors who have thirsted for this chance. Consider point guard Mike Smith, who drives the offense. He’s 5-11, and an Ivy Leaguer from Columbia. Think this ride might be a bit of a fantasy for him? "He’s been counted out his whole life so this is nothing new to him," teammate Franz Wagner said. "I think he’s showed that chip on his shoulder is always there."

Oregon State wants to be let in. Oh, how the Beavers have enjoyed doing things nobody expected them to do, starting with the moment they were picked to finish last in the Pac-12. To go from there to the Final Four would be one of the great nose-thumbings of all time, but it may be that already. The thing about fairy tales, the longer they go, the more the people living them hunger for a happy ending. “They just want to keep riding that wave,” coach Wayne Tinkle said of his players.

Here’s what we should know about Oregon State before its Monday game with Houston. One minute the Beavers might be playing man-to-man, the next a 1-3-1 zone, and they are not making offense fun for the other team. Their three tournament opponents have shot 33.3, 27.7 and 33.3 percent against them. “Just being able to have the discipline to go from man to zone to another zone, back to man, even in the same possession,” Ethan Thompson said, “it’s always something that we have up our sleeve.”

And when a team can win six consecutive elimination games against NCAA tournament-level competition the way the Beavers have, they believe anything is possible. Because so far, it has been.

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Houston wants be let in. The Cougars were a national power in the 1980s with three consecutive Final Four trips and two title game appearances, and then entered the dark ages. Now it has been since 1984 when they played Georgetown for the national championship. “Thirty-seven years ago is irrelevant to our team,” Sampson said. “Our team is now.”

Houston is the only No. 2 seed left, but there’s never been a lot of buzz about the Cougars. “We’re not much of a storyline, “Sampson said. “We’re Houston.” One more win and they’ll have a very, very public storyline, or several of them.

Here is what we should know about the Cougars before their Monday game with Oregon State. They know just who to target on defense. The three leading scorers of the teams they’ve beaten in the tournament have been a combined 8-for-32 shooting.

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Arkansas wants to be let in. The Razorbacks were once renowned for their 40 Minutes of Hell and it led to a national championship and three Final Four trips in the 1990s. But that was a long time ago. Now it does what all SEC teams must; fight for attention in the shadow of Kentucky. The Final Four would be a pretty powerful argument for that. Eric Musselman has wanted to be a coach all his life, just like his father Bill, and there is one place all college coaches want to go.

“For Halloween I wanted to be a coach,” he said. “After school when I was in grade school, my mom would drop me off at my dad’s practices and I’d stay until 10 or 11 at night until he’d finish breaking down film or having staff meetings. I just wanted to walk in his footsteps.”

Here’s what we should know about Arkansas before its Monday game against Baylor. The Razorbacks have been a stubborn bunch in this tournament and refuse to go away. They’ve trailed by 14, 10 and 12 points in their first three games.

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UCLA wants to be let in. From 2010-19 was the first time in 60 years the Bruins went an entire decade without a Final Four trip. That’s one trend they badly want to reverse and it’s one reason Mick Cronin was brought in, to maybe raise the bar on toughness. Playing for a Final Four berth, isn’t that where UCLA’s supposed to be? Even as an 11th seed.

“You do this to have a chance, and you never know when this chance is going to come along again,” Cronin said. “I’m well-aware of how fragile this tournament is, and an opportunity doesn’t always knock at your door.”

Here’s what we should know about UCLA before it’s Tuesday game with Michigan. The Bruins believe, no matter what comes. There have been five overtime games in this tournament and UCLA has won two of them. And once the Bruins get going, they’re hard to stop. They wiped out an 11-point halftime deficit against Michigan State, and scored only 25 points in the second half against Alabama Sunday – then 23 in the five-minute overtime.

USC wants to be let in. How is it possible, the Trojans athletic department could produce dozens and dozens of national championships in everything from water polo to volleyball, but go 67 years without a Final Four men’s basketball team? Matter of fact, this is only their second Elite Eight in all that time, and the other was 20 years ago. “I know it’s been a minute since the USC program has gotten to the Elite Eight,” said Isaiah White, after 22 points against Oregon Sunday. Several minutes, in fact.

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USC started this season without its top five scorers from last year, and yet here the Trojans are. “This team is built with transfers, graduate transfers, freshman and some returnees, and they meshed together,” coach Andy Enfield said.

Here’s what we should know about the Trojans before they face Gonzaga Tuesday. They have put on a defensive tour de force in Indianapolis. Their three opponents have shot 32.1 percent and one of every 15 shots have been blocked. USC’s lineup has extreme length, and when the Trojans play zone, it seems to stretch from county line to county line. USC has trailed only 10 of 120 minutes in the tournament, and its biggest deficit has been five. “We’re defense first,” Enfield said. “Our players understand that.”

The venue-hopping is now done. It’s an all-Lucas Oil Stadium event now, though both courts will be used. And the tournament could use a few more close finishes. Since the beginning of the second round, 14 of the 24 games have been decided by 13 points or more, and only eight by single digits or overtime. There has not been a buzzer-beating victory in the tournament yet, though Alabama had one to force overtime against UCLA.

Defense should be all the rage Monday night, when it’s Houston against Oregon State, and Baylor vs. Arkansas. Tuesday we will find out what that long-armed USC defense can do against the Gonzaga passing onslaught – or the other way around – and if UCLA can stop Michigan and become only the second team to ever make the rocky journey from First Four to Final Four, joining VCU of 2011.

“We know we’re making history,” Houston’s DeJon Jarreau said after the Cougars held Syracuse to 46 points. But aren’t they all in the Elite Eight? This is the year for it.

(Editor's note: This story has been corrected. An earlier version stated that no teams playing Monday had won the national championship. Arkansas was the 1994 NCAA champion. We regret the error.)

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