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A Bizarre COVID-19 Season Ends With a Fitting Men's Final Four

Gonzaga, Baylor and Houston aren't a surprise to be here, but No. 11 UCLA sure is.

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INDIANAPOLIS — For all the hubbub of madness, for all the upsets, for all the underdog winners and superdog stunners, the 2021 men's NCAA tournament will end with a lot of chalk: two No. 1 seeds, a No. 2 seed and the black sheep of the group, No. 11 seed UCLA.

Indicative of this bizarre COVID-19 year, this tournament has produced a Final Four with three of the top-eight seeds in the event while also featuring a record-tying number of upsets (13 wins by teams seeded five spots worse than their opponent). Top seeds Gonzaga and Baylor are joined by No. 2 seed Houston and, as mentioned, the upstart Bruins, who barely squeaked into this event, even having to win a game in the First Four.

UCLA’s win over Michigan kept alive a streak. It will be the eighth consecutive men's Final Four with a No. 5 or lower seed. The cumulative seeding total of 15, while on the high end of Final Fours historically, is about average for the last decade (14.8). In fact, five Final Fours since 2011 have totaled a bigger number.

The Bruins made this the third time in five years that a double-digit seed advanced to the regional semifinals. They're just the fifth No. 11 seed to advance to this point, joining 1986 LSU, 2006 George Mason, 2011 VCU and 2018 Loyola Chicago.

But what’s so baffling is that three lofty seeds made their way to this point after one of the most chaotic opening weekends of any tournament. UCLA’s win over No. 2 seed Alabama on Sunday night gave the event its 13th upset, as defined by the NCAA. That tied the 2014 and 1985 tournaments at the top of the record books.

How wild had the dance been? For only the third time in men's tournament history, two double-digit seeds advanced to the Elite Eight and for just the second time ever, a No. 15 seed (Oral Roberts) made it to the second weekend. Oregon State, meanwhile, became just the second No. 12 seed to advance to the Elite Eight. Because of the opening weekend’s upsets, the second weekend featured some unique matchups. An 8 vs. 12 seed (Loyola Chicago and Oregon State) and a 3 vs. 15 seed (Arkansas and Oral Roberts) met for each just the second time in its history.

And yet, here we are heading into the Final Four with two top seeds and a No. 2. How?! Maybe the answer lies in the aforementioned matchups. For example, Houston became the first team to beat four double-digit seeds to reach the Final Four. Its path to this weekend included teams seeded 15th, 10th, 11th and 12th. Gonzaga hasn’t faced any team with a seed better than No. 5 (not that it would matter—see our Crystal Ball below).

At any rate, the Final Four will produce a long-awaited national champion. Of the quartet, UCLA is the only one with a men's national title, the last of which came in 1995. Baylor and Gonzaga have each lost once in the men's national title game (1948 to Kentucky and 2017 to North Carolina, respectively), and Houston has lost twice, coming in consecutive years (1984 to Georgetown and 1983 to NC State).

UCLA celebrates after beating Michigan to reach the Final Four


SI's Tuesday Daily Cover: A secretive Sunday tradition started by John Stockton bonds Gonzaga's past with its present. (By Greg Bishop)

South Carolina made quite the statement on Tuesday, shutting down a strong Texas team in a display of defensive force. (By Emma Baccellieri)

Behind a brilliant effort by Johnny Juzang and deft play-calling by Mick Cronin, UCLA has gone all the way from First Four to Final Four. (By Pat Forde)

Drew Timme (and his celebrations) sparked Gonzaga from the start against USC in another beautiful show by the Zags' offense. (By Jeremy Woo)

Tara VanDerveer's Stanford is Final Four-bound after rallying to beat Louisville. (By Madison Coleman)

UCLA edged Michigan in a gritty, defensive-minded affair to complete its run from First Four to Final Four. (By Kevin Sweeney)

Best Thing We Saw

If you’re a Texas fan, this probably isn’t the best thing you saw. For everyone else, it is at least the most stunning thing we saw on Tuesday. At the women’s NCAA tournament in San Antonio, South Carolina did not allow a single point to Texas in the fourth quarter of its 62–34 Elite Eight win. That’s right—the Longhorns scored zero points in the final quarter. Here’s the box score, which is jarring.

Crystal Ball

The Gonzaga men will win it all. O.K, so we’re not really going out on a shaky limb or anything here, but the Zags have shown in the tournament what we’ve seen all year—a dominant and efficient team on both ends of the floor that is just crushing all competition. It's won its four games by a combined 96 points (24 per game), with the closest victory by 16 points.

At the Buzzer

An official calling the Gonzaga-USC game collapsed during the first half in a scary moment. Bert Smith hit the court hard after he fell backward with no one around him. Play was stopped, and he was removed from the court by a stretcher. He was awake and even smiling as officials wheeled him into an area off-court. Smith had been feeling lightheaded during the game. He was listed in stable condition as of Tuesday evening and would not need hospitalization.