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Houston, Baylor Pave Way for a New Kind of Underdog Men's Final Four

The men's Final Four may wind up chalky by seeding, but there's nothing typical about teams like Baylor and Houston competing for the title.

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The last time Baylor reached a men's Final Four in 1950, the tournament included just eight teams and was won by the City College of New York Beavers.

For Houston, it has been a mere 37 years since the Cougars last were on college basketball’s biggest stage. Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon were Houston stars the last time UH basketball was this big. It has been so long since that was the case that Drexler tried, and failed, to bring Houston back to prominence as its head coach … more than 20 years ago!

While there are still two more tickets to punch to this year’s Final Four, it’s obvious that this year’s last teams standing will have a unique flavor compared to past tournaments. Perhaps that’s not shocking in a year that saw Kentucky, Duke and Louisville miss the men's NCAA tournament altogether and Michigan State and UNC spend much of the season on the bubble. Simply based on 2020–21, there’s nothing surprising about Baylor and Houston dancing into the tournament’s third weekend. But based on each program’s past, it’s quite the story.

That trend will continue Tuesday no matter who wins the Gonzaga-USC and Michigan-UCLA matchups. While the Bruins and Wolverines are historically excellent programs with great tradition, neither has won it all in the last 25 years. Each has a second-year coach that many bet against: Mick Cronin for not winning enough in March at Cincinnati and Juwan Howard for not coaching at all in college before arriving in Ann Arbor. USC, a football school through and through, hasn’t been to a Final Four since 1954. And then there’s Gonzaga, once a plucky Cinderella that now looks an awful lot like a blueblood, just three wins away from the first undefeated men's national championship since Bob Knight’s 1975–76 Indiana Hoosiers—and what would be the program's first national title, period.

So while it’s still possible (perhaps even likely) that the Final Four will feature three No. 1 seeds and a No. 2, there’s nothing chalky about the teams still competing for the national title. In a tournament with as many NCAA-defined upsets (five or more seed lines apart) as the event has ever seen, there’s another underdog story to tell through the lens of these new-school favorites.

Just take the two teams that have already locked in their seats at the table. The Baylor program, one with no history of success, rose from the ashes of a national scandal and NCAA punishments to become respectable and now elite under Scott Drew. Houston gave Kelvin Sampson another shot at college coaching after he was run out of Bloomington due to NCAA violations. Sampson, in his seventh year, has brought UH to the Final Four after inheriting a program that had not won an NCAA tournament game since Phi Slama Jama.

These may not be underdogs by seed. But these programs certainly are. And in a sport that hadn’t seen three straight men's Final Fours without one of Duke, Kentucky or North Carolina since 1962, that’s a sign of progress in and of itself. 

Houston poses for a team photo with the Midwest Region trophy


Kelvin Sampson was supposed to be cutting down nets for Indiana. Instead, he's back in the Hoosier state leading Houston to the Final Four. (By Pat Forde)

In a thrilling Elite Eight game between UConn and Baylor, the most memorable—and controversial—sequence would not come until the final moments. (By Emma Baccellieri)

One year after it was supposed to end a seven-decade men's Final Four drought, Baylor's breakthrough is finally here. (By Jeremy Woo)

Aari McDonald's big night put Arizona into the first Final Four in women's program history. (By Michael Shapiro)

Do you agree with the no-foul call in the pivotal final sequence of UConn-Baylor's Elite Eight clash?

Best Thing We Saw

Scott Drew got soaked with a classic water bath after leading Baylor to its first men's Final Four since 1950...

...and then got revenge with...confetti?!

Pick 'Em: Elite Eight

SI's Molly Geary makes picks for Tuesday's men's and women's games:

(Women): No. 1 South Carolina over No. 6 Texas: The Longhorns were impressive in an upset of Maryland, but will they have enough left in the tank to take down the Gamecocks?

(Women): No. 1 Stanford over No. 2 Louisville: The Cardinal have yet to be truly tested in this tournament. Louisville will be tough, but the overall top seed will prevail. 

(Men): No. 1 Gonzaga over No. 6 USC: The Trojans present some unique challenges for Gonzaga, but the Bulldogs will find a way. 

(Men): No. 11 UCLA over No. 1 Michigan: We had to pick an upset somewhere, right? The Wolverines are looking formidable again, but the Bruins' March run has been full of surprises.

Crystal Ball

We're not exactly going out on a limb here, but after December's highly-anticipated Gonzaga-Baylor meeting was canceled by COVID-19, we will finally get it (and the answer to: who would win?) the night of April 5. —Molly Geary

At the Buzzer

After squeezing past Baylor, the UConn women have made THIRTEEN straight Final Fours. The last time they lost before the Final Four—back on March 26, 2007 in the Elite Eight vs. UCLA—the No. 1 song in America was "Glamorous" by Fergie, the No. 1 movie was Blades of Glory and MySpace was all the rage. —M.G.