Elite Eight takeaways from men’s NCAA Tournament: Can Final Four-bound Gonzaga go undefeated?

The Final Four is now set. Two more teams solidified their place in the final weekend of men’s college basketball on Tuesday, joining Baylor and Houston – Monday’s Elite Eight winners. 

No. 1 Gonzaga steamrolled Southern California in the first game, flexing its muscle as the top overall seed in this tournament and getting back to the Final Four for the second time in program history after falling in the 2017 national championship game. 

No. 11 seed UCLA played giant killer again, upsetting No. 1 Michigan behind a tempo-controlling defense and Johnny Juzang’s 28 points. Coach Mike Cronin’s Bruins might be a blue blood at heart, but they’ve been the biggest surprise of this tournament going from the First Four to the Final Four. 

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Gonzaga and UCLA will meet on Saturday in the later game. But before then, let’s take a look at what we learned from two Elite Eight games.

Gonzaga could really go undefeated

Southern California was no challenge for the 30-0 Bulldogs, who won 85-66, showing a style that makes it difficult to imagine this team not cutting down the nets on April 5. That would mean that the ‘Zags would be the first undefeated team to win the national title since a Bobby Knight-coached Indiana team did it in 1976.

At this point, it’s likely that history will be made, with Mark Few showcasing one of his best teams he’s ever coached. Drew Timme is a big man who can take over, Corey Kispert is the best outside shooter in the Final Four and Jalen Suggs is coming into his own, nearly tallying a triple-double vs. USC – finishing with 18 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.  

Gonzaga Bulldogs celebrate after the game in the Elite Eight of the 2021 NCAA Tournament against the Southern California Trojans at Lucas Oil Stadium.

UCLA goes from First Four to Final Four 

We can’t call a school that has 11 national championship banners hanging in the rafters a Cinderella. But the Bruins have been the biggest bracket-buster of this NCAA Tournament, ending No. 2 Alabama’s season in the Sweet 16 and now No. 1 Michigan’s season in the Elite Eight. This came after the NCAA selection committee gave UCLA a No. 11 seed as a bubble team following four consecutive losses before March Madness began. Had the Bruins not stormed back from a 17-point deficit against Michigan State in the play-in First Four round, they wouldn’t even be here.

On Tuesday, Cronin’s group played with a swagger and a toughness that had a bulldozing effect in the first half. UCLA players forced turnovers, drew charges, and limited star Franz Wagner to 1-for-10 shooting – all ingredients that led to a slower pace that favored the Bruins. Johnny Juzang’s 28 points were the difference in a 51-49 game that lacked offense. 

The Big Ten is officially done

Michigan was the conference’s last hope. But the No. 1 seed’s loss to UCLA solidified a disastrous and underachieving NCAA Tournament for the best statistical league (per NET) in the nation. Of the nine teams that went dancing from the Big Ten, only one was left in the Sweet 16 – the Wolverines, who had redefined their identity without second-leading scorer Isaiah Livers. The Pac-12, which has gone 13-4 in this tourney, instead, will be sending a team in UCLA to the Final Four. Michigan fared better than the others, as No. 2 seed Ohio State was ousted in the first round by Oral Roberts and No. 1 seed Illinois got bounced by Loyola Chicago. 

A scary sight with referee going down

Longtime college basketball referee Bert Smith collapsed to the floor less than four minutes into the first game between Gonzaga and USC. Smith, in stable condition afterwards, was sitting up on the stretcher awake, aware and conversing with medical personnel. He was feeling “lightheaded on the court” and was ultimately not transported to the hospital after medical examination, releasing a statement thanking everyone for their concerns.  Smith fell backwards, hitting his head on the floor and laid on his back motionless. He was replaced by an alternate, Tony Henderson, who had been at the scorer’s table. Tony Chiazza, originally slated as the alternate for the nightcap between Michigan and UCLA, filled in for Henderson, according to the NCAA.

Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson

Contributing: Dan Wolken

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